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TV Quickshots #12

The Amazing Race – Seasons 1 & 21 (CBS; 2001, 2012)

Viewing the most recent and the least recent installments of the veteran CBS reality competition program in succession has proven to be a revealing look into the structural development of a television juggernaut. The season that just concluded, won in a surprise result by upstate New York same-sex goat farming couple Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge after several near-eliminations and zero leg victories before the final and deciding one, represented 20 iterations’ worth of tweaks, adjustments, and refinements to a seemingly endlessly-repeatable formula.

Watching the first worldwide race unfold after extensive experience of fresher editions is a study in contrasts. Host and narrator Phil Keoghan (who looks every one of the ten intervening years younger in Season 1, complete with boyish haircut) simultaneously lays out the rules and developments with what feels like unnecessary detail and also appears much more seldom. He is supplemented considerably less by the informative subtitles adopted in later installments, which constantly update viewers on the current standing of the two-person teams respective to each other, give flight ETAs as they are set, and repeatedly remind us of the competitors’ names and relationship hooks. These changes smooth out informational wrinkles in the show’s fabric in a manner that both trusts audiences to process more important information more quickly and does not trust them to process the proceedings without making them painfully clear. The early legs of Season 1 unfold almost casually, the challenges more vaguely-defined but also a touch more difficult. The most recent season, in comparison, is a well-oiled machine delivered with an almost cold precision that is saturated with intrusive corporate sponsor product-placement (they won a Ford; we get it).

The Amazing Race‘s formula has also been refined in the casting of competitors. The team templates themselves have remained fairly regular: minorities (of the race, physical disability and sexual orientation categories) are well-represented, there’s nearly always male and female friends, parent and child, husband and wife, and requisite older contestants. Even as the personalities have largely retained their compelling qualities, the competition that once thrust relatively ordinary Americans into a whirlwind tour of the culturally-diverse globe has gradually sent out more photogenic pretty people and minor celebrities (especially CBS reality franchise crossovers) on that televised quest. Even as the televised product has generally become quicker, tenser, funnier, more efficient, and more self-aware, the profusion of contestants with public images to protect and to foster has reduced the feeling of panicked spontaneity and interpersonal conflict that the show originally encouraged.

This transformation can be seen most clearly when Season 1’s dwindling number of teams arrives in the chaotic, poverty-stricken social vivacity of India. Accustomed as I had become to the more recent Amazing Race standards of preening aspiring model-actors spewing paternalistic neo-imperialist platitudes about the plight of the poor in the developing world putting their own socioeconomic good fortune into perspective, this initial season’s clear-eyed approach of showing the setting in all of its complex nuances was striking. As the teams found themselves logistically and emotionally unable to navigate this unfamiliar locale without tremendous difficulty, The Amazing Race seemed, briefly, to be more than a hyper-touristic game show with occasionally tiffs thrown in for added tittilation. It felt, if only for fleeting minutes, like it was about the limits of American cultural saturation and about Americans who take that saturation for granted being confronted very directly (even painfully) with said limits. This is a far more challenging Roadblock than any that has been hidden in a yellow envelope, and the show has lost sight of that to its own long-term detriment.

Categories: Reviews, Television
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