Archives » May 13th, 2003

May 13, 2003

From the “It’s About Time” Department

CBS finally announced last week that the next installment of The Amazing Race would start airing at the end of the month. The Amazing Race has got to be my all-time favorite reality show, because it’s a few steps above the rest in terms of quality and entertainment. There’s no backstabbing or plotting or alliances or voting people off or any of that garbage on this show. You get ahead because of your skills, your knowledge, your ability to keep a cool head in a tough situation, and a little bit of luck. You live or die by your own merits, and not because of popularity. And that right there makes it a rare gem in the reality show genre.

For those of you who haven’t seen the show, the concept is simple: Twelve teams of two people race around the world. They start in America, and the first ones to cross the finish line, also in America, win a million dolars. Each week the show consists of one leg of the race. The racers have to follow clues they are given by the production staff, and go from location to location on a pre-set race course. When they get to each location, they get their next clue. Sometimes just finding the location is a challenge in itself, like locating one stall out of thousands in an Indian marketplace. Sometimes the goal is easy to find (the Eiffel Tower), but the task you have to perform (find a yellow-and-white flag, planted by the production staff, on one of the rooftops in Paris) is what’s difficult. The racers have to follow all the clues until they get to the finish line for that leg. The last one across the finish line goes home that week. After twelve hours of rest, everyone else is off again with a new clue.

The Amazing Race has never had the huge ratings that Survivor has, and I’ve never figured out why. It’s Wednesday night time slot, opposite The West Wing and The Bachelor, has been blamed for its low ratings in the past. But if you look at Survivor, it is scheduled on Thursdays opposite one of the powerhouses of modern television, Friends. So how can Survivor’s popularity be explained? I missed the first four runs of Survivor, and have only caught the last two seasons. A bunch of people sit around in the jungle, bitch and moan to each other, and then get together to decide who’s the least popular. It’s like high school with wild animals. Sure I’m hooked on it now, but that’s only because it’s still better than most of the scripted shows on TV.

The Amazing Race is a different beast all together. You’re not judged by your opponents, you’re only judged by yourself and your abilities. You’re judged on physical ability, because sometimes it does come down to a foot race to the finish line. You’re judged on mental ability, because if you can figure out the clues and the puzzles first, you can beat everyone else by a mile. And you’re judged on people skills, because a lot of the clues require help from the locals to figure out. And people in other coutries are usually disinclined to help a bunch of rude, smelly Americans, even if they do have a TV crew with them. So you have to be able to maintain a good attutide while fumbling through your phrase book and asking everyone you see if they speak English.

But most importantly, you have to know how to travel. A lot of the time, the game is won and lost in the airports and the taxis. It’s one thing to read a clue, open up a guide book and know where you’re going. It’s another thing to be able to get there. Many people have been eliminated from the game because they missed a connection or couldn’t get a good flight. And, in all three seasons so far, the winners were usually the ones who had the best taxi drivers. The show also acts as sort of a “Travel Channel for Dummies”. Most of the places they go to aren’t the big tourist attractions, but smaller, out-of-the-way locations. They show plenty of establishing shots of the area, and the host will come on to give a few words about the location and its history. There’s not a lot of in-depth reporting, but they have a lot of ground to cover in an hour.

This time around they waited to show The Amazing Race until Survivor had finished its season. Usually they run concurrently in the spring and fall. And, this time they’re putting it on Thursday nights instead of Wednesday. It could be that they’re trying to give it Survivor’s time slot for the summer in hopes of boosting its ratings, and hopefully it works. There are a lot of reality shows out there right now, and most of them are just derivative crap, one network copying another copying another. The Amazing Race has risen to the top of the heap and set a new standard of quality, and the ratings need to reflect that. Not that I’ll be surprised if they don’t; the history of TV is filled with crappy shows rising to the top of the ratings. So I want everyone out there lined up like good little boys and girls in front of your televisions on May 29th. If you haven’t seen the show before, you’ll get hooked. And if you have seen it, well, you’re probably just as excited as I am to see it again.