Sunday, March 1, 2015

Race in the Hole

There are very few competitive reality shows that have demonstrated the longevity of The Amazing Race - indeed, to the best of my knowledge the only ones to have matched the show's twenty-six seasons are the creatively-titled The Real World spinoff The Challenge (also airing its 26th season at the time of writing), CBS stablemate Survivor (which just began its 30th), and the British version of Big Brother (33, with the caveat that over half are shortened celebrity seasons and other similar spinoffs). But where the problems with those shows are fairly easy to point out succinctly - The Challenge's recurring cast being so familiar and awful even the contempt is breeding contempt, the Big Brother UK producers valuing style over substance, and Jeff Probst - The Amazing Race has experienced a rougher fall from grace than any of them, seemingly almost out of nowhere. So the question must be asked... why has this show declined so much so suddenly?

To analyse the situation, we must first look back about halfway through the show's lifetime to the fourteenth season, one that is incredibly divisive in fandom but which the show's producers seem to inexplicably love. There were two big changes this season that affected how the show developed: firstly, the producers thought the cast was too friendly towards each other and started turning the usual "eat, sleep, and mingle" rest between racing legs into a sequestration period with food to make the contestants crankier and more antagonistic towards each other, then on a more superficial level it was the first time the show's graphics got a major overhaul. The results of these were underwhelming to say the least - the casts for this season and the next two went down as three of the most unpopular sets in the show's history, and most of the lesser graphical changes were retooled very quickly even if the most troublesome of all (the subtext behind the new logo being akin to the show calling itself bigger than Jesus) remained - but by and large what's most important here is that this also happened to be right at the point the show rather paradoxically lost its confidence and started with a whole lot of self-affirming bluster about how capital-letters-and-fingerquotes "AMAZING" it was. On top of all of this, it's the first season to actively avoid new countries (Romania gets its first visit and Switzerland gets a second, both for single episodes with extended travel sequences that mean they really don't get started until about twenty minutes in, while everywhere else is appearing for at least the third time) and the entire back half of the route is a stale copy of the very first race, plus there are huge challenge design problems with many tasks favouring cheap comedy over being classy towards local cultures, so it's fair to say it's not one of the better ones. Sure, there were certainly attempts to remedy both the casting errors and the task design in later seasons, but it seemed as if the show seemed to think the opposite of "negative" was "not negative" and thus we got several middling seasons that kind of did nothing for anybody.

Which brings us a bit closer to the present day. You see, after a particularly controversial slip in The Amazing Race 22 that managed to offend people on both sides of the Vietnam War (the show routinely uses an alternate set of race flags in Vietnam as the usual design is similar to the flag of the former South Vietnam, yet in this instance the usual race flags turned up at a downed US jet left as a monument to North Vietnam's victory in the war, although of COURSE the conservative media only took offense at the side where Real I Was Born Here Americans got angry), there was a concerted effort to revitalise the show again. And the following season was legitimately quite good, especially if you can ignore the premiere and the finale, which have been such a sticking point for so long that it would have been more shocking if they weren't. Unfortunately, those are the episodes that tend to stick in the minds of viewers, and with the second episode of the season being the next least impressive (which I'm sure has absolutely nothing to do with Chile being one of a handful of countries that keeps turning up despite it never hosting a great leg in any franchise), the season was doomed from the start even though that middle run of episodes (from Leg 3 to Leg 8, certainly, and you could make a case for including Leg 9) is genuinely the best run of episodes the show had produced since at least the opening half of season ten, if not earlier.

So how, then, do you react to viewers not getting invested in the season? Well, if you're this particular set of producers, it's only too logical to put the problems with premiere design in the too-hard basket like so many "find a clue buried on a beach" premiere tasks of yore and instead decide to make season 24 an All-Stars season featuring memorable players from prior seasons. With the previous such season steadfastly refusing to cast from the early seasons under the belief that nobody would remember them (not that the show was available on DVD or anything, or that giving people a reason to buy them would make the show more profitable), the problem should be apparent: the teams that weren't milquetoast were almost universally teams who, frankly, were assholes who made for terrible viewing. So the cast was probably never going to be perfect, but out of all of the possible combinations you could have come up with from the six seasons considered, there's basically only one or two ways the season could have had a worse cast. And we very nearly got it. The basic problem, really, was that the cast included seven teams who filled the same Big Character archetype that appeals only to a vocal Twitter minority (including three who were making their third appearance and had all well and truly worn out their welcomes by the end of their first appearances), two teams who got in because of the unusual ways in which they were booted early in their first season rather than because they were entertaining (both of whom proved to be utter funsucks), a filler team seemingly only cast because it's not an Amazing Race without a team of generic blonde women who vow to use sex appeal to get ahead, and a team who was generally received well but was still a lesser imitation of better past teams. So your odds were basically one in eleven that the season was going to turn out well, but then one half of the good team was forced out of the game before starting due to a medical emergency, forcing the show to either scrap the team entirely or give the healthy partner a new teammate with a tenuous connection to him. They did the latter, and wound up being one of the most uncomfortable teams to watch in years before they were mercifully eliminated in Leg 2. (This will be important in a moment.)

So the self-congratulatory season 24 was a bust, mostly because the recent seasons were dull and it was more of the same featuring the teams you didn't like the first time around. Naturally, the cure was... to make season 25 even more self-congratulatory? I kid, a little, but that's definitely one of the numerous big problems with the season, which succeeded in spite of its changes rather than because of them. The anniversary theme itself is a tough one because while I have no objections to doing it in theory, the way it was handled was kind of a failure. Put simply, the show also decided to finally do the island-locations theme that had been mooted by fans since at least season four (every single place visited except Morocco and the final city of Los Angeles was an island, and even the LA leg included a shipping task and a lighthouse), and having the anniversary theme on top of that meant neither shined the way they were meant to because the show spent a significant portion of the season ticking off memorable past tasks to recycle instead of capitalising on filming in places they'd probably never use otherwise, with the end result obviously being that precisely none of these recycled tasks lived up to the originals while the new tasks felt particularly uninspired, almost as if they'd been taken from a 1960s version of Wikipedia. (On behalf of the viewership, I thank the show for not referring to Berber nomads as "noble savages", but on the other hand they really should have avoided spelling Marrakech "Marrakesh" in the final task.)

There was also two other stylistic additions that didn't work and has inexplicably survived into the current season. One of them we'll save for later because Oh Yes There Will Be Ranting, but the other was having host Phil Keoghan make cameos on the course, introducing tasks while teams are running past. Sure, it was cute the first time it happened, but even as early as its second appearance it felt like a running joke that had run its course. And breaking the fourth wall and taking viewers out of the show just for a sight gag - not to mention giving some teams an advantage in knowing their positions because Phil mentions it - just isn't worth it.

In terms of the actual race itself though, there were three new twists. First is the Save, a shameless and extremely flawed attempt to seemingly answer an executive note from CBS asking why the show doesn't have something like Survivor's Hidden Immunity Idol or Big Brother's Power of Veto. And there are two incredibly obvious answers: (1) Non-elimination legs, and (2) Why don't Survivor and Big Brother have ten Emmy awards? But of course, the problem doesn't end there. The way it was handled, it could be used at any elimination up to and including Leg 9 to spare its holder. Except the problem is it couldn't be used in what was already a predetermined non-elimination leg (as we saw when the team tried to save themselves in Leg 4), meaning that for them to actually be eliminated they needed to finish last in an elimination leg, forfeit the Save, and then finish last again in another elimination leg. Not seeing why that's an issue yet? You soon will.

The second of these was the mid-race twist of having teams faced with two tasks at what the show calls a Detour and forcing them to pick a task knowing only their arbitrary titles. This one here undeniably had the most chance of succeeding out of the three twists, but even then the execution was abysmal. Pairing the twist with the two most lopsided Detours of the season, and giving those Detours lame and unhelpful titles on top of that, was an awful decision that turned what could have been an interesting study in decision-making into "don't pick whichever one of 'This' and 'That' is an hour away". I love that there was an attempt to create a mid-season twist in an era where reality shows have all but given up on the concept, and in another situation - say, season 22's choice between Tasty Puddin' and Whisky Rollin', in which the tasks (making haggis or rolling whisky barrels up cobblestone streets, because SCOTLAND) were fairly balanced and were right next to each other meaning your only decision is in whether to take the task that suggests a food-eating task - it'd work well, but here? No.

The last twist, and by far the most actually stupid because there is at least a way to justify coming up with the concept of the Save, was the decision to get rid of the elimination in the penultimate leg and have four teams in the final leg instead of the final three. A pre-finale non-elimination is perfectly fine in theory, and indeed most of the "classic seasons" had them, but this was catastrophic. Not only was the previous leg before this also a non-elimination, meaning that a season that didn't have all too much suspense to begin with gave up on limping home to a conclusion and called a taxi (no doubt earning a time penalty for not walking as specified in the clue), but the final four was cut down to the standard final three with a mid-leg elimination anyway, defeating the entire purpose. So in essence you have a Save that all but guarantees its winner a place in the final leg given the unlikely odds of finishing last twice in a specific subset of six legs, combined with removing the lid from the metaphorical pressure cooker, combined with a twist that amounted to letting a team get all the way to the finale without getting to finish the race? Beyond awful. Put simply, it's the least thought-out twist in the show's history (and I'm including the early-years non-elimination penalty that amounted to begging for money in havens of wealth such as Senegal), but it still pales in comparison to the show's attempt to embrace social media.

The show's existing social media strategy was actually quite good - one hashtag for the show, then Phil hosting a Q&A during broadcasts when he wasn't busy filming. But due to what I can only assume was more CBS meddling, the usual team relationship chyrons that appear onscreen were replaced for season 25 (and now for 26) with team hashtags ranging from the cutesy reminders of Treasure Hunters and Expedition Impossible and the other knockoffs I'm probably forgetting (#SoulSurfers) to the inane (any of the #TheSharedOccupation hashtags) to the pointless and spoilery (is there any way they would have kept #TheDatingCouple as a hashtag if the team had lasted more than two legs?). Here's the thing: It doesn't work. In fact, speaking in my official capacity as manager of Australia's national Twitter account, it actively hinders the show. Within the context of this pre-recorded show, the only way hashtags are valuable is by making the show trend, and splitting the number of tweets about the show over twelve hashtags - especially when it's just been moved from a high-rating Sunday slot to the Friday Night Death Slot and the timeslot move wasn't advertised particularly well - is a disastrous decision. And that's even before you consider the hashtags themselves don't seem to have been created with either an understanding that economy is key on Twitter - you only have 140 characters to work with, so nobody will ever use hashtags with fifteen to twenty characters on a regular basis - or that Twitter is an interactive medium. With the creators of this show also heavily involved with The Quest and its brilliant embrace of social media, it's inconceivable to think that a show like The Amazing Race that's usually pretty good at whatever it does (even if the risks don't always pan out quite as intended) is failing so spectacularly at this.

Which is, finally, how we get to the current season. Throughout the entire run of The Amazing Race, there has been only two constants: that Phil will be delightful (though even that is waning now he's turning into Kiwi Probst), and that the least entertaining, most forgettable team of the season will be a young dating couple. So, naturally, the season is made up exclusively of dating couples, five of whom are actually solo applicants the show has paired up for "the most extreme blind dates ever". Because heaven knows what we've wanted all these years is more footage of people who've barely met being unpleasant. And which teams did they use to showcase the concept of "dating couple" in a season-opening montage? A whole bunch of the most awful couples of recent years, several of whom have broken up since, plus the aforementioned #TheDatingCouple, plus a random dating couple from a decade ago that nobody could identify in a line-up. Not, say, any of the dating couples who were received positively over the years, or either of the two lesbian couples from the show's history (which is especially noteworthy in this, the first season ever without an all-female team, even moreso because a female team won last season). And if this gimmick wasn't enough to doom the show - and even the producers themselves appear to think it is, given they have openly made "at least it's not the Family Edition, right?" comparisons to the most-hated season of the show in multiple preseason interviews - giving the teams phones to take selfies of their journey certainly is. Because you know what I want to watch in the middle of a race for a million dollars? People taking selfies. (Indeed, in Episode 2, people pausing to do so led to an anticlimactic elimination when they missed their train.)

Frankly, the combination of the selfies, plus the season theme, plus the hashtag debacle makes me think all of these changes are being forced upon the show by a clueless CBS executive who wants to make the show cool for a younger market yet still thinks MTV is a music channel. Like, I'm pretty sure the "most extreme blind dates" spiel was pitched in a memo that spelled it "X-Treme" and may have also included the non-word "kewl". If the show gets another season (and it could go either way at this point), it really needs to be a back-to-basics season with no new changes or gimmicks, and most if not all of the existing ones removed. Of course change over time is inevitable, and the show is going to be completely different now than it was back when the first season was airing after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. But not only is it not that show, it's not the show it was when the forgettable dating couple from the montage was racing. It's not the show that took baby steps to recover from the season fourteen mess. It's not the show that took a hit with the Vietnam incident but had enough goodwill to survive it. It's not the show that had a renaissance just eighteen months ago. It's not even the show that I found myself falling back in love with when I was writing the challenge guide late last year. All of those shows are far better than this.