Monday, August 4, 2014

The Amazing Revival (Spoiler: It's Crap)

Yesterday, before the first episode of The Amazing Race: Australia vs. New Zealand aired in the former country (the latter is getting the episode tonight), I tweeted that the spectacular failure of this twist is almost as predictable as Channel Seven's catastrophic revival of The Mole last year. The implication at the time was that I wasn't going to be writing up another post like this, but after some genuine curiosity and support I've changed my mind. (I know. You're shocked. Also, the last paragraph has task and location spoilers for upcoming episodes; skip it if you don't want to read that sort of thing.)

The Amazing Race has always been one of the great 'positive' reality shows, where your fate is entirely in your hands rather than at the behest of other players trying to fuck you over, overpaid hasbeen talent show judges, or the general public. But without the strategy or the audience influence, how do you make people want to watch? The obvious answer, and the one most seasons so far have used, is "make the show as good as possible and hope people have discerning taste". It's paid off - despite being a show about travel and having its first season air in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, the original version has won all but one Emmy in the 'best reality show' category since it was introduced shortly after the boom of reality television, the show has been franchised in over a dozen countries and is Baywatch-in-Germany big in several, and the previous season of this very franchise we're discussing won an International Emmy for its excellence. So, naturally, with the respect the show has internationally, Channel Seven have decided that they know better than the rest of the world and have instead decided to produce this third season in-house rather than use the experienced producers prior seasons had.

This is a massive double-edged sword. On the one hand, new producers make it far less likely we're going to have to sit through leg upon leg of tasks recycled from other Amazing Race franchises with the excuse that nobody could possibly have used this newfangled interweb thing to research or watch said other versions or could possibly have watched it while actually visiting another country, which is a massive plus. On the other, the pedigree of the previous season means there is going to be less than zero tolerance for inadequacy this time around, and by giving the season its "Australia vs. New Zealand" theme, it's as good as sunk before it even leaves the harbour.

Put simply, The Amazing Race as a show is all about combating xenophobia. The whole point of the show is for people to see and experience a world they would never otherwise be exposed to, and learning to appreciate it. That's the very reason why countries like China and India turn up in so many seasons, and why we rarely if ever get tasks referencing the negative aspects of countries - the only time I can remember the show coming unreasonably close to the Line was an episode in Dhaka, Bangladesh involving picking dead rats off the streets, and even then the focus was definitely on the efforts to make Dhaka cleaner rather than being all "Ewwww, RATS!" So to entrench xenophobia - even in the context of the alleged playful rivalry of the sort Australia and New Zealand have - as the entire theme of the season frankly just proves these particular producers are idiots who have no business being anywhere near this show. There really is no better way to put it. It's like they watched the second season and decided, "This is okayyyy, but you know what have would make it really good? More Kym and Donna!", when everyone else had already forgotten them two weeks after they quit.

But television is also a business, and to maximise your profits, you must also maximise the audience. That isn't going to happen either. The cross-section of society that likes this show tends to overlap with the same sort of person who hates this kind of shit, so you're going to lose a decent portion of those viewers. The cross-section of society that would be intrigued by the twist would be turned off by the actual concept of the show. Where you could have sold another Australian-only season to a variety of obscure cable channels around the world and made a decent profit for your investment, much the same way as many of the major American reality shows are sold internationally, the idea of having to explain a rivalry that doesn't even really exist beyond My Sheep Joke Is Funnier Than Your Kangaroo Joke is going to turn away potential buyers. Even if you play along and assume the show could possibly overcome all of these obvious disadvantages, the show has been delayed for so long that it's now airing directly after the Commonwealth Games, which in Australia at least aired on a different network and means that basically nobody who could possibly be sold on the idea is even aware the show has started yet because they were all too busy watching actual Australia vs. New Zealand competition and are probably by now thoroughly sick and tired of it.

All this, of course, assumes the show itself is as good as it always has been. (Your mileage may vary on how good it has been, between the obnoxiously terrible elimination order of season one and all the missing tasks of season two, but let's say it's been adequate at the very least.) Unfortunately, having now seen the first episode, it's fair to say it's not going to be. In the interests of fairness, the show has decided to cut the number of teams from eleven to ten - five per country - and yet, even with a two-hour premiere, fewer teams, and fewer and simpler tasks than the two previous season premieres, it still didn't feel like we had any chance to react positively to anybody. It's not the worst premiere an Amazing Race season has ever had (that title will perpetually belong to The Amazing Race 15's premiere, with a start-line elimination and several gratuitously-outdated Japanese stereotypes including a sadistic '80s-style game show), but it's probably pretty close to the bottom of the list. And when the last US season premiere felt fresher despite featuring a cast of returning contestants so poorly chosen the general audience reaction was disbelief that anybody could possibly have got it so wrong combined with bad recycled tasks in a country that's been done to death AND the twelfth Los Angeles-area start in thirteen seasons, there's not much more that can be said.

But why exactly was this premiere so stale and uninviting? It's not exactly as if there have been so many trips to the central Australia or South Island wells that they couldn't have sustained one more. There are quite a few reasons. Insisting on building up "Team Australia" and "Team New Zealand" meant brushing through the teams rather than introducing them properly, which led to the situation where viewers were practically compelled to support their own country in the opening tug-of-war task even though, as noted above, nobody watching this show was likely to give a shit. Using a tug-of-war as an opening task sapped all the excitement out of the race's start when instead of running for their first clues, players basically stood still and pulled a rope for a few minutes, with half of the teams being given an immediate time penalty for losing the contest. But hey, it's not as if we're trying to sell this as some kind of a race or anything. Having the teams head directly to the airport after the tug-of-war meant that they were basically split into the two available flights by country, all but eliminating any possible drama the twist could have possibly had beyond building resentment and making the season bitchy and unpleasant to watch. The tasks themselves - the lame and counterproductive tug-of-war, an overnight wait in Christchurch, then the most boring footage of whitewater rafting ever and a Road Block literally involving tractors and sheep, because nothing says excitement and high stakes quite like FARMING - left a lot to be desired and meant that without a Detour whoever sat out of the Road Block spent the entire leg just helping nine other people in a tug-of-war and not particularly paddling a raft very hard in terms of tasks. Even with two hours of airtime, none of the ten teams proved themselves to be particularly supportable regardless of which country you're from, the ethnically varied casting of the previous two seasons seems to have been replaced with White Pride and Two Token Maoris, and host Grant Bowler was faking his middling enthusiasm even more clearly than he was last season, complete with an explanation for the tug-of-war that was clearly written by whoever had made poor Shura Taft sound like a condescending nitwit on The Mole last year. Oh, goody.

And that's just in last night's episode. Now I know somebody will probably surmise - as at least one person has with one of my past posts - that I'm a failed auditionee who was so disillusioned by failing to make the cut that I'm taking my anger out on the show. Nothing could be further from the truth. I've never auditioned and I don't particularly have any burning desire to. And to be fair, as most of the tasks last night were explained they did feel promising. The twist of the start line not being the start line was genuinely surprising and undercut only by the way it was completely mishandled. Christchurch as the first location was a refreshing change from the tropical Asian islands of the first two seasons, except then it turned out that instead of a decent city leg with an air of earthquake-related defiance, we were going to be stuck in some generic rolling hills. Whitewater rafting is by far one of the better extreme sports activities that turn up every so often on the race, and then it was a complete and utter funsuck. The Road Block sounded genuinely brilliant - driving wacky vehicles around an obstacle course and dealing with unruly animals are recipes for success, and we had both in a single task - but on paper the first half was completely uninvolving and the second seemed dangerously close to animal cruelty the way the sheep were being handled. And then the big Lord of the Rings knockoff they were pushing throughout the episode - where you had to collect two halves of a matching ring to reveal the final clue - was a bust as the clue formed by the matching ring was so vague teams clearly got some additional information to help them narrow down "go west" to find the actual Pit Stop location.

But that's now all in the past, so what of the future? Most of the countries visited this season have already been spoiled, as have a few of the tasks, and while there are some good unexpected countries coming up, it doesn't seem as though the season will actually get any better. In fact, it's probably going to get worse. The preview for next week broke one of the fundamental rules of reality television and fixated on a local delicacy challenge, and while I admit "tarantulas in Cambodia" is nowhere near the level of Fear Factor's "horse rectum for the hell of it", showing that kind of challenge in a preview tends to actively drive away an audience. I get why the challenge is there, but even then local delicacy challenges make for mediocre television at the best of times, and expecting your audience to be excited for it is an unparalleled level of genre blindness. There are other major problems too, though. With The Amazing Race 22 having recently finished airing at the time this season was being planned and having generally been considered anywhere from underwhelming to shockingly atrocious, it should have been fresh in producers' minds how poorly it and its tasks were received, but two of the very worst - an opening needle-in-a-haystack task involving sandcastles and a Survivor-esque firemaking task inspired by bushmen - have been confirmed as appearing later this season, with the firemaking task taking place in a different country (but Africa is like totes all one homogenous wasteland, so it's not in the least bit offensive or something) and the luck challenge being recycled in the season finale. Yes. They're recycling a challenge so terrible three teams quit during a season premiere when they weren't all fatigued and hadn't really done anything yet as one of the last challenges of the entire season, at a point when players tend to be struggling to even stand up straight. Slow clap, show. Add to this schlepping all the way to Portugal for a task involving counting beach umbrellas, because Portugal doesn't have a rich and varied culture or history you could exploit, and doubling down on continuing to refuse to cast non-heterosexual contestants (for the third season in a row, with excuses given in the past that are about as homophobic as you can get without actually having a smackdown with equal rights lobbyists) by celebrating with a trip to exotic Russia, and there's really nothing so far that suggests it won't be the Worst Season Ever. Let's hope they manage to polish a turd, otherwise this show's chances of survival are in deep shit.

(Addendum: The show got just 588,000 viewers last night. Blog favourite The Mole was dumped in a late-night timeslot last year with 555,000.)

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