Sunday, September 25, 2011

Reality Reviewed: The Amazing Race

It's tough to be a fan of The Amazing Race.

Actually, it's tough being a fan of anything, really. For example, while I would consider myself a Mets fan, I have to add "lapsed" to that. I haven't been to Citi Field since 2009, and I don't really follow the team anymore. A lot of it has to do with the chaos in the front office, what with Fred Wilpon losing gobs of money in a Ponzi scheme. He could've had Shea Stadium renovated, but he had a major hard-on for a new version of Ebbets Field. Today, the Mets don't have the near-infinite funds the Yankees do, and they look to be stuck out of contention for years to come. Add that to lots of injuries, traditional wonky luck (especially fifty years without a pitcher earning a no-hitter) and looking like chumps compared to the Yankees, it's tough to support the Mets. Yet I can't see myself being a Yankees fan. For one thing, most of them are bandwagon-hopping jerks. Seeing people donning Yankees t-shirts with the number and name on the back is annoying to me, since the team doesn't put names on the backs of their jerseys. Besides, I don't want to be a sports bigamist.

I can cite other examples, but I want to talk about The Amazing Race. To me, it's the CBS reality show whose fans never get respect. Take the 8 p.m. time slot on Sundays, for instance. TAR got moved around a lot in the early days. After the painful ending of the third season in fall 2002 (where freakin' Flo Pesenti quit, like, a million times, and she wound up winning  $1,000,000 with her too-good-for-her partner Zach Behr), fans needed relief. Instead, we had to wait five months until the new season in late May 2003. It happened again after the debacle of TAR: All-Stars . . . the show wasn't put on CBS's fall schedule for 2006. The network decided to wait until a time slot opened up. Meanwhile, they invested tons into Viva Laughlin, an American version of Viva Blackpool from the UK. Everybody and their mother knew the show was going to suck except for CBS. It lasted a grand total of two episodes. I don't understand why the network even bothered. Tax reasons, maybe? Anyway, the TAR faithful had to wait until November for the start of the twelfth season . . . and once that edition ended, eight months until the thirteenth season aired in fall 2007.

As for the slot itself . . . it kinda sucks, to be honest, especially in the fall months. It follows 60 Minutes, the venerable mainstay of CBS's Sunday nights. The problem is that it's too important. When NFL games run past 7 p.m. on Fox, the 7-8 p.m. slot is kept open. When the same thing happens on CBS, 60 Minutes doesn't get preempted. Instead, it gets bumped back until the games are over. And when I say "games," that means that you could be watching one game game, then get told that due to FCC regulations, CBS has to switch over to another game. And it doesn't matter if these are two 4-12 AFC teams you couldn't care less about. If that game goes into overtime, there's not a damn thing you can do about it. Meanwhile, CBS placed Survivor in a cushy slot on Thursday nights at 8 p.m., moving it to Wednesdays last fall, and Big Brother gets times that don't get mixed up that often. There's also the matter of what kind of self-hating viewer would watch a show that never respects its viewers, but that's a matter for Big Brother fans with their own blogs.

And then there was this past May, where CBS found a new way to screw the show's loyalest fans. Since the first season, folks who post on Television Without Pity have gone to New York for TARCon, a finale party where Racers past and present drop by. This time, CBS and Snapple teamed up to hold a party for all Racers in Miami Beach to commemorate the show's ten years on the air.. On the day before the season finale. You know how many Racers came to TARCon? Two . .  . gay couple Tom Rock and Terry Cosentino from the tenth season. That was it. Nobody from Unfinished Business dropped by, because they were (presumably) sleeping it off in Florida. CBS could have held the party in September, ten years after the show first aired. But they cut into one of the coolest traditions I know, and I was pissed off . . . especially since I didn't get to meet Zev Glassenberg again. I first met him and buddy Justin Kanew at TARCon 15. While I don't have Asperger's Syndrome like Zev, I do feel that I got enough loose wiring in my head to emphasize with him. After the duo wound up getting eliminated on account of Zev losing his passport (dropping them from first place), I told them that I hoped they would come back to the show one day. Well, they did, winning four legs before their elimination on Unfinished Business. Even though Zev wasn't the one doing the heavier lifting, I wanted to congratulate him for coming so far, as well as surviving a Detour where the duo ate too much cheese fondue. Justin threw up, while Zev made a face that indicated he was going to die in seconds. But I didn't get to see them again, thanks to CBS..

There's other stuff to bitch about . . . like how the show's eight Emmys in nine years have been devalued by Jeff Probst's four wins as Best Host, giving weight to the theory that the voters would rather be locked in a room where Cop Rock is played 24/7 than even think about reality television. There's the lack of DVDs, . . . with CBS pouring the salt in the wounds by offering the second season on Amazon with no extras whatsoever. Then there's the lack of media attention . . . Rosie O'Donnell and Bonnie Franklin invited Racers on their talk shows, but the most we can get these days is a winning team getting interviewed by Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, neither of whom can be bothered to actually watch the damn show. The last interview they gave to a pair of winners could have been done from a moving car. Beyond all that, I can see that The Amazing Race has problems without CBS hurting it.

Imagine a square, with sides of equal sizes. Now, imagine that at the center of the square, there's a hole that starts getting deeper and deeper. As the hole grows in depth, it also grows outwards, consuming more of the square's area. This is how I see reality television these days. The hole gets deeper thanks to crap like Jersey Shore, Mob Wives, Toddlers & Tiaras, etc. When the hole grows, shows that were once credible start sinking . . . including TAR, sad to say.

It's hard to say when the show started letting people down. In its prime, it was the greatest show on Earth, Ringling Brothers be damned.The rushed format was an adrenaline rush for viewers, making the endless  machinations of Survivor look slow by comparison. We got to see far-flung locations that most of us would never get to see in our lifetimes. And we had a great host in Phil Keoghan, whose raised eyebrow Jeff Probst could never lift. So what went wrong? What factors have soured fans on TAR, as well as cause Andy Dehnart of Reality Blurred to endlessly whinge about how much the show blows in comparison to its past?

The Downgrading Of The Fast Forward: The Fast Forward was once a task offered to all teams. If a team were to go off the race course and complete it, they could go to the Pit Stop without telling with all of the routh Route Markers. Teams could only do it once, and only one team per leg could complete it, so they would have to figure out when it was most advantageous to go for it. After the fifth season, the Fast Forward was downgraded to popping up twice. With a limited number, only the lead teams go for it these days, making the show's once-great equalizer irrelevent.

Lack Of Mingling: In the old days, episodes began with Phil going on about how teams checking in at the Pit Stop would have twelve hours to "eat, sleep, and mingle with the other teams" before starting the race again. Around the fourteenth season, the producers thought that the teams were getting along too well . . . so they eliminated the "mingling" bit by separating the teams from each other. in order to inject drama into the mix. That seems like something Survivor creator Mark Burnett would do . . . or Bunim-Murray Productions for that matter. Actually, BMP would probably go one further and insist teams drink alcohol while shit-talking during interviews.

Stuntcasting: I know what you're thinking: "Rob & Amber." Yes, it felt like CBS sent fellas named "Rocko" and "Mugsy" to see the producers about putting the Survivor couple on the seventh season and the "all-star" season. There's also the casting of three Big Brother "stars": Allison Irwin (along with her idiot on-again/off-again boyfriend Donny Patrick) in TAR5, and Jordan Lloyd & Jeff Schroeder in the sixteenth season. The worst case had to be Caite Upton, who was best known for mangling the living bejeezus out of a response during the Miss Teen USA pageant. She wound up on TAR16, where she bickered endlessly with her boyfriend, Brett Horne. Fans also had to deal with Brandy Snow and her endless mad-on for Caite, even at the finish line, where she chewed out Catie. As big a bitch as Brandy was (enough for her partner, Carol Rosenfeld, to soon break up with her), I had to give her this: Catie was indeed a huge twit.

Crappy Tasks: This mainly pops up during the Speed Bump. This was introduced as a way to penalize teams that had finished in last place in non-elimination legs, as opposed to taking their money and/or bags. The problem is that the Speed Bump doesn't take enough time to be a huge deterrent. One Speed Bump consisted of merely throwing coins into a fountain's slot. Then there are the tasks that don't make sense or seem like filler, like teams getting fifteen minutes worth of waxing in Rio de Janeiro last season. For three teams, there was minimal discomfort. For the hirsute Zev & Justin, however, it was a quarter-hour of hell, courtesy of a devil that watched The 40-Year-Old Virgin one time too many.

Nobody Reads The Damn Clues Anymore: I know that if you've been running almost non-stop for 10,000 miles, little things slip your mind. But that doesn't excuse loads of teams failing to comprehend the given instructions. Then the teams arrive at the Pit Stop, where Phil informs them on their transgressions, then makes them sit down on the side during their penalty time, an adult version of a "time out." Most recently, "dating goths" Kent Cothron and Vyxsin Fiala failed to realize that they were not supposed to take a taxi to the Pit Stop two legs before the finale. And as they stewed away from the mat, Zev & Justin finished the leg, eliminating the bickering goths.

But for all of the gripes people have about TAR, I still watch every episode. And I'm trying to keep a positive attitude going into the nineteenth season, which premieres tonight. Here are some pluses:

Travel Porn Is Awesome: Admit it . . . when TAR went to Burkina Faso in its twelfth season, you didn't know there was a Burkina Faso, let alone where it was located. I didn't know the place existed. Every week, you learn about the world. While Survivor recycles locations under new names, TAR keeps finding new places, even if there are lots of places out there that scream "red flag." Also, the show manages to incorporate the traditions of the area into the game . . . as opposed to Survivor, where you don't get challenges indigenous to the location . .  .unless you count the season in China, where a Reward Challenge involved six-foot-long chopsticks and setting off fireworks.

Phil Keoghan Is Still Phil Keoghan: For the record, I'm more upset that Probst has been winning Best Host Emmys than Phil has lost them. Even if you consider him to be more of a narrator and greeter than an actual host, he still excels at his job. Thankfully, his role doesn't allow him to interfere with the game, as opposed to Probst's blatant brownnosing. By comparison, Phil has only pissed me off twice in eighteen seasons: letting Brandy go off on Caite, and letting Eric Sanchez call his buddy Jeremy Ryan to let him know that he and "girlfriend" Danielle Turner won TAR: All-Stars. For me, that ending was like getting punched in the face, and the call was a kick to the nuts. Yet I can't stay at Phil.

Ethan & Jenna Aren't Necessarily Overt Stuntcasting: In case you're just coming in, one team is dating couple Ethan Zohn & Jenna Morasca. Both have won Survivor (Africa for Ethan, Amazon for Jenna) and a million bucks apiece. Ethan lost a lot of luster during Survivor: All-Stars. Jenna lucked into her win, then bailed out of All-Stars to be with her dying mother. In the run-up to Survivor: Heroes Vs. Villains, CBS aired a special that included a feature on the couple. It turns out that Ethan suffered from Hodgkin's lynphoma, and he wound up going through chemotherapy. Through all of that time, Jenna stuck by him, and I actually softened my view on her. If you figure these two are ringers, know that they haven't been on a competitive reality show in seven years, so they're not exactly Rob & Amber. Even as I try to forget about Kill Reality and The Scorned (don't ask) and hearing rumors that Ethan proposed to Jenna during the race, I'm willing to give these two a clean slate heading into this edition.

No Hantzes! In my preview of Survivor: South Pacific, I completely forgot to mention the casting of Brandon Hantz, the nephew of notorious asshole Russell Hantz. That means we've had Hantzes in four of the last five seasons of Survivor. After two episodes, viewers have been squicked by Brandon, particularly his obsession for voting off Mikayla Wingle, whom he fears might lead him astray from his wife. Did I mention the guy in nineteen years old? Right now, I'm thinking that the next season of TAR will feature "all stars," given that it'll be the twentieth edition. My big fear was that CBS would send Rocko & Mugsy back to lean on the producers to bring "Ramber" back. Now it's seeing Russell & Brandon race. Right now, though, we should be thankful none of the Hantz family is on TAR.

Lack Of "Fuck You" Endings: I will admit that seeing sisters Kisha & Jenn Hoffman winning Unfinished Business was disappointing, but only because their "story" wasn't really told until the final episode. Not enough was made about how every other team from their initial season (TAR14) went out before any other team, or that Kisha would become the fourth openly gay person to win on the show. I felt the focus was mostly on Zev & Justin and father/daughter pair Gary & Mallory Ervin, but they finished fourth and third, respectively. But it wasn't what I considered to be a "fuck you" finish. In the show's eighteen seasons, there have been only three: Flo & Zach winning TAR3, the odious Freddy Holiday & even more odious Kendra Bentley lucking into a TAR6 win, and Eric & Danielle's All Stars triumph, even though they weren't really a "dating couple," on account of Eric being a major closet case. In comparison to other reality shows, having a crap ending in one out of six seasons is pretty good.

That's all I got. I hope you'll give The Amazing Race a shot this season. I still think it's the best reality show on television today, and unlike most of the Emmy voters, I actually mean that.

1 comment:

goodshotgreen said...

Yeah, Kisha and Jen, the only team on UB I felt didn't deserve being invited back. It wasn't a lost passport that did them in the first time, or bad luck. No, they stopped for a potty break ON THE WAY TO THE PIT STOP! The worst decision by a team in the show's history.