Thursday, February 11, 2016

Why I Watch The Amazing Race

I am a pessimist by nature. It takes a lot for me to see a glass half-full. It's probably why I titled this blog "Closet Optimist" . .  . because, deep down, I want to be positive.

If you're reading this, odds are you were drawn in because this post is about The Amazing Race. It might be hard to believe that a show with thirteen Emmys would need support, but TAR (gotta love the punchy acronym) hangs on a precarious precipice, airing on Friday nights; a timeslot seen as a graveyard for dying programs. And with the recent  demise of two long-running competitive reality shows (America's Next Top Model and American Idol), fans of TAR are a little on edge.

The big news about the upcoming 28th season is that it will consist of eleven pairs of online personalities. While there have been premises that have gone awry (Family Edition, the dating couples format from last year), I'm trying to keep an open mind. If this season succeeds in the ratings, it will be because CBS had tapped into diverse online fanbases. But many see this format as base pandering by the network, and that would-be viewers would be out on Friday nights. Once again . . . I'm trying to be optimistic about things.

What frustrates me is that CBS's other major reality shows are not screwed with much as TAR, Survivor is the jock of the network, often renewed far ahead of time, even though it can suffer from diminishing results and it is a shell of its old self from the series' debut in 2000. Still, CBS gives it a cushy timeslot (Wednesdays at 8), and throws in a reunion show after season finales, where host Jeff Probst (a certified alpha male-sniffer) routinely whitewashes events and ignores those who don't earn his love. On the other side of the spectrum is Big Brother, hosted by Julie Chen, who is married to CBS President/CEO Les Moonves. That show airs during the summer, and frequently showcases the lowest common denominator as far as casting is concerned, often ending up with trainwrecks on par with The Real World and The Challenge. Like Survivor, Big Brother isn't going away anytime soon. When CBS's new president of entertainment Glenn Geller gushed about Survivor and Big Brother and didn't mention TAR once, two emotions stirred inside me: dread and "it figures."

Why am I bothering to write about this? Because I like TAR, having been a regular viewer since the second season. With all due respect to Ringling Bros, I think TAR is the greatest show on Earth. There are many reasons I feel this way, but I can boil it down to three.

1. The Travel Porn

I'm willing to say that I'm not the only person out there who hasn't left North America. It just hasn't happened for me. When I tune into TAR, the show can take you anywhere in the world. For instance, I didn't even know there was a country in Africa called Burkina Faso until TAR12. Even when you subtract the obvious problem areas, we're still dealing with a sizable portion of the world. Sure, there are smatterings of ugly Americanism, and Japan-centered legs often delve into unfortunate stereotypes, but I don't think any other major network show takes advantage of its settings like TAR. On Survivor, locales are often recycled (the 31th and 32nd seasons were filmed in Cambodia; seasons 33 and 34 are to be set in Fiji), and interaction with the locals are limited to reward challenge wins. With TAR, contestants have to interact with the citizenry for guidance. One side effect takes place when Racers bumble in tasks and locals have a good laugh. It never fails to get a chuckle out of me.

2. The Host With The Most

For the life of me, I cannot understand how Jeff Probst won  four Emmys for his "work" on Survivor, while Phil Keoghan has to do without. After finishing runner-up to hosting Survivor, the eyebrow-popping New Zealand native was snapped up by the producers of TAR to host the original program. While Probst often dictates how the story goes on his show, Phil acts as a narrator, giving viewers the lowdown on locations and tasks. Recently, he has been doing this while the game unfolds behind him, adding a unique dimension to the show. In the first season, he only showed up at the end of legs to eliminate last-place teams, but he wound up greeting teams alongside a local. Unlike Probst, I can probably count the number of times Phil has pissed me off with one hand. Also, he seldom has a mean streak. In TAR22, when John ran himself and girlfriend Jessica out of the game (long story), the episode ended with Phil throwing up his arms and exclaiming, "Oy, vey" to the camera. When Phil has fun with contestants, you don't need to shower afterward like with Probst.

3. The Thrill Of Victory, The Agony Of Defeat

With the kinetic nature of TAR, a viewer's adrenaline can spike along with the competitors. This leads to epic highs and lows. One example I can tell you took place last season, centering on the penultimate leg and ex-cheerleaders Tiffany & Krista. Krista was a native of Staten Island like myself, and she didn't behave like a brat through most of her time on the show, so I grew to like her. Anyway . . . Tiffany & Krista had found themselves in a three-team pack ahead of alpha duo Justin & Diana, a team that could be boiled down to "superfan and fianc√©/accessory." The Racers took a Roadblock where participants took part in the world's largest water-based stage production, based in Macau. They had to dive 30 feet from a ship mast and find a clue below the surface of the water. Krista took the Roadblock for her team, but she failed to find the clue on her first attempt, while the others were able to move on. Justin & Diana arrived on the scene, but they came too late for the restart of the show, where Krista failed again. Diana took the Roadblock, and she and Krista dove and looked for the clue. Diana found it, Krista didn't. As the lead teams arrived at the Pit Stop, it looked like the final leg was set up. But it turned out Justin & Diana had taken the wrong ferry from Hong Kong to Macau, incurring a 25-minute penalty for the time saved and a separate thirty-minute penalty. Suddenly, there was still hope for Krista. Most fans didn't feel much sympathy for Justin (who had made Diana run a mock race leading to his proposing to her), as he collapsed in tears, unable to grasp that his chance for a storybook finish had slipped through his fingers.

With the penalty counting down, an unknowing Krista got encouragement from Tiffany, and she eventually found the clue. They were still alive. But then came miscommunication with their cabbie, and they arrived at the Pit Stop behind Justin & Diana, resulting in their elimination. The only bright side from the ensuing finale was that Justin & Diana failed to win the final leg, finishing second to Kelsey & Joey. While you can find better examples of suspense (Chris & Alex rallying past Tara & Wil in to win TAR2), despair (teams passing Lena on the hay bale Roadblock in TAR6) and humor (Claire taking a watermelon to the face in TAR17), Krista's struggles, triumph and eventual elimination sticks out in my mind.

If you're reading this, you're probably a fan of one of the new teams, and you're looking for reasons to watch the show. I hope that I was able to persuade you to tune in to The Amazing Race in the weeks to come. In all likelihood, you will be as hooked to it as me.

Thanks to Nicole Rivera and John Seavey for their feedback. You can read John's recaps of The Amazing Race on mightygodking.com..

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