Editorial: Why The Amazing Race: Family Edition Doesn’t Suck

The Amazing Race: Family Edition

The Amazing Race: Family Edition

I must begin with a word of thanks to my oldest brother Chris, for without him I might never have watched The Amazing Race (TAR), let alone become a fan. You see, about a year and a half ago he started telling me about this great reality show where people travel all over the world and that I simply must watch it. Given that my brother is a world traveler himself (at time of writing he’s been to over fifty countries and more than 700 airports), I could understand why he’d want to watch such a show, but I just wasn’t that interested, and so ignored his recommendation the first time, and the second time (and the third, and so on). But eventually I grew weary of hearing “So have you watched it yet?” every time I talked to him, and finally gave the series a try with the premiere episode of the sixth season. I haven’t missed a show since, and caught up on the rest of the series thanks to GSN reruns.

So yes, I’ll admit it, my brother was right. I am now an avowed fan of the show, though I’m not typically one for gamedocs or competitive shows, and view most reality series as guilty pleasures rather than quality television. Accepting this reluctant path to fandom prompted me to consider just what it is about TAR that makes it so compelling, and why I’ve become just as annoying as my brother in urging others to watch it. Formal innovation has been one key to the series’ critical and commercial success, but without pre-related teams, the show could have ended up as some bastard child of Survivor and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles instead of an Emmy-collecting powerhouse. I address formal elements and teams in turn.

The Amazing Race skillfully melds gamedoc, docusoap and travelogue. Its premise is, as with most gamedocs, delightfully simple — whoever gets there first, wins. Along the way are the requisite arbitrary challenges and regionally-themed roadblocks, end-of-leg rituals, and elimination twists. The series is shot in a docusoap/day-in-the-life style, where cameras are always present but rarely if ever acknowledged. Breaks in the otherwise invisible, mobile surveillance endemic to reality series shot in uncontrolled environments do crop up in TAR from time to time (most notably in shots of crowds and passers-by understandably gawking or smiling at the camera), but for the most part the show is masterfully edited down to what appears to be a seamless retelling of the race. These gamedoc and docusoap elements are then situated within a travelogue visual style that offers viewers every kind of voyeuristic perspective imaginable, from the air to the sea, from the street to the tops of skyscrapers, from static pre-shot sequences to the real-time teams’ views of the passing landscape. The cohesive amalgamation of these varied formal elements, each present in equal measures, allows for numerous points of entry into the series.

That said, what ultimately makes TAR such great TV are the teams and the team dynamic. Instead of individuals, TAR pits teams (of two) against each other. The significance of this construction of competitors emerges not from number, but rather from familiarity — the team members are all closely related in some way, whether they are friends, couples, siblings, or parent and child. The importance of these bonds cannot be overstated, as these pre-constituted alliances elicit far more drama than ones that are arbitrarily or “organically” crafted in front of the camera as on numerous other reality shows. It is one thing to see people who have known each other for days cohabit, argue and bond, but quite another to see the same from people who have known each other for years or even decades, and to witness it all happening while they are on a manic race around the world, plopped down in unfamiliar locales and situations and chasing the unknown on a daily basis. When situated within the formal context described earlier, the processes of relationship strengthening and breakdown constantly on display serve to create a more believable constructed reality narrative than in most other series, one that has more in common with serial drama than game show. The relationships between team members (as well as between teams themselves) produce a number of intertwining plots and sub-plots, as well as a host of identificatory scenarios.

The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

It is these sorts of scenarios that I find even more fascinating in The Amazing Race: Family Edition (TAR: FE), and unlike many critics and fans, I think the introduction of a four-member, “family” team dynamic proves a nice twist on the series’ format. As a fan, I too lament the preponderance of race legs within the United States, and the contestants themselves have seemed annoyed by the amount of time spent in America this season — as matriarch Marian of the recently-eliminated Paolo family put it, “What the hell are we going to Phoenix, Arizona for? I want to go to New Zealand!” Still, even without the exotic locales, TAR: FE still has much to offer in the forms of interpersonal drama and viewer identifications. It does for me, anyway. For example, from the comparative lack of travel has emerged uncomfortably accurate portrayals of family excursions in America, such as of the ubiquitous road trip replete with missed exits, pointed bickering, random discussions, and instances of utter boredom. As I’ve traveled through and to nearly thirty states on road trips with various family members over the years, I found myself alternately laughing and cringing at the automotive escapades that dominated the first part of this season. Resonant scenes abounded – getting lost in New York, angry driver switches, knowing button-pushing, even coping with loss.

TAR: FE also successfully articulates the multiplicity of relationships within families (father-mother, father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, mother-daughter, big sis-little sis, big bro-little bro, brother-sister, sister-brother, father-son-in-law) and their often-uneasy coexistences. As the youngest of seven, I am all but too aware of these, but never have I seen so many of them represented on one show! This season offers up myriad examples of the imperfect nature of familial relationships, of power struggles and favorite-playing, of how conflicts between two family members still impact those not involved. Occasionally these types of direct conflicts — such as the scream-fights between Marian Paolo and her son DJ — are quite difficult to watch, but they speak a mediated truth about the frustrations of blood relations. Thankfully, what also emerges from these representations of family dynamics is a curiously inevitable solidarity. No matter what transpired during a particular leg, all of the families come together on the mat at the end, appraise their performances, and reaffirm their bonds in an earnest, upbeat coda. Of course, this is a false, televisual coda, since the race is not yet over and the next episode will surely produce yet more conflict and interpersonal drama. Yet each episode’s progression from one end of the family love-hate continuum to the other satisfyingly mimics the repetitive nature of familial relationships.

I find pleasure in other aspects of this season’s race, such as how teams have fashioned snarky, televisual nicknames for each other (Cleavers, Desperate Housewives). (I also find myself annoyed by the Weavers’ tiresome invocations, some suspect clue-box site choices (the World’s Largest Office Chair?!?), and increasing numbers of product tie-ins.) I initially got hooked on The Amazing Race by the competition and the travelogue, but while I would like to see the families cross one of the oceans sometime soon, I’ve realized that I no longer care who wins. What has kept me glued to CBS on Tuesday nights this time around is not the race at all, but the cacophony of familial dynamics and their, well, familiarity. Each week I am reminded of one or more of my many, many family members and various situations we’ve muddled through, and I inevitably end up thinking about and honoring those in my life and in my heart long after the credits have rolled. All that just from a silly reality TV show.

Links
The Amazing Race: Family Edition
The TARFiles
Television Without Pity: The Amazing Race

Image Credits:

1. The Amazing Race: Family Edition

2. The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

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7 comments

  • everyone wants to go to New Zealand!

    I too like TAR but it has been interesting to see how it has taken on a more competitive/elimination edge over the seasons, Nevertheless, there are delightful moments when competing teams help each other (seemingly spontaneous)–as in the last series, when one team helped another lug heavy rowboats–in direct contrast to the couple who who drove past an accident scene, into first place. There interesting (largely silent) commentaries on moral values in such moments. TAR needs to keep these moments, for me to keep liking it, and the contestants. Some of the team ‘tags’ venture very close to parody sometimes (eg “Gay Couple Not Dating But Exchanging Wistful Glances”?

    The only real problem I have with TAR is the incessant music soundtrack, creating a faux tension when little exists. This is the most adolescent and manipulative aspect of the show.

    As for contestants wanting to travel to New Zealand–that is perfectly reasonable! Phil Keogan still claims his NZ citizenship even though he sounds completely American-transformed to our ears, He used to be a host on NZ kid’s TV.

    Geoff Lealand (from New Zealand)

  • TAR: FE still lacks critical elements

    In reading this article, it seemed as if it were a list of all the reasons why I dislike this season of TAR and have a general disinterest in the series as a whole. Slimmer found interest in the program’s focus on team, or in this case family, dynamics rather than in the tasks themselves or the exotic locales the race usually brings contestants. Indeed, that is what I find least interesting about reality programs. Growing up as the last of four children, I certainly have had my fill of family arguments, as I was reminded of this as a spat broke out over the dinner table this past holiday weekend. I don’t care to see that on television.

    What I find drawing about reality programs is seeing contestants performing tasks and challenges that I would not do myself or even have the opportunity to see someone perform. Bravo’s 2004 Project Runway is an example of this, as I found myself drawn to the series because it offered me a chance to see how fashion designers create their works (within the world of reality television, of course). Even ABC’s 2001 series The Mole intrigued me as I watched contestants emulate international spies by performing exotic physical tasks, all the time trying to figure out which one of them was working for the other side. These are exactly the elements that are lacking in this season of TAR. In the producers’ attempts to appeal to the audience interested in team and family dynamics during gameplay, they completely alienated the audience that found interest in the travel and challenges beyond the ordinary. That has led to the audiences apathy in tuning in every week, or in my case simply pressing record on my Tivo.

  • Last Night’s Ep.

    Last night’s episode was emblematic of the failure of this season for me. Besides the fact that virtually nothing happened (the “challenges” included sitting in a balloon and waiting – waiting! – for a geyser to erupt), the family dynamics have become tiresome. I know what you mean, Joanna, about enjoying the interpersonal drama and identifying with the “characters,” but these elements just haven’t gone anywhere this season for me. It’s just become a predictable display of repetitively irritating events: the Weavers make their insanely hypocritical asides and thank Jesus for the most minor of achievements, the Godlewskis rip apart Christine in their screeching Chicago accents, the Linzes make frat boy jokes, and the Bransens, well, they don’t have much going on besides Walter’s seeming reluctance to do anything more taxing than walking. In addition to the travelogue and challenge aspects, I love to watch the relationships change, deepen or break apart across the course of the race, especially because it ties in with one of the reasons I love serial television in general, for watching characters develop. For instance, I got addicted to the Adam and Rebecca storyline of a race or two ago, as their relationship disintegrated across the trip and intriguingly ambiguous gender issues with Adam slowly emerged along the way. But in addition to not going anywhere geographically this season, they also aren’t really going anywhere emotionally, and it’s the most static season I can remember in multiple ways. Maybe by not forcing them into unfamiliar locales and truly challenging situations, the show also doesn’t force them out of their standard personalities. Plus, we haven’t been rid of anyone for weeks now. I keep Tivoing the Early Show the next morning for nothing!

  • Lackluster, at best

    As a devoted fan of TAR and a penchant for wanderlust (I currently post this from Turkey) I find TAR:FE to be lackluster and a high level of cringe factor. There is no doubt that dynamics are in place amongst all teams. With 4 people on each team though, little camera time is available to truly develop a story. The lack of travel destinations has been an embarrasment to American culture. There are much less stereotypical things to do in the south than sleep in a trailer, go to a racetrack, and shop at a BP gas station. Honestly, I’ll never be happy until the legs include places like North Korea and Iran, but that’s the sadist in me. This season, however, leaves much room for improvement. Here’s hoping TAR producers do not make this mistake again.

  • hi im arriane, i just want to say thank you for this post i really like your blog. keep up the good work
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