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''The Amazing Race'': The show spaces out

On ”The Amazing Race,” the family format and dull challenges are taking away the show’s competitive edge

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The Amazing Race
The Aiello family: Robert Voets

The Amazing Race

type:
TV Show
genre:
Reality TV
run date:
03/08/01
performer:
Phil Keoghan
Producer:
Jerry Bruckheimer
broadcaster:
CBS
seasons:
29
Current Status:
In Season

”The Amazing Race”: The show spaces out

I’ve been trying to give the family edition of The Amazing Race the benefit of the doubt. I really have. I want so badly for it to redeem itself in the eyes of all of us fans of breakneck worldwide travel and prove that this new format works in fun and surprising ways. And then I can call all of my friends who have abandoned the show this season and say, ”Come back, you fair-weather viewers, you! The Race is better than ever!” And they will all reset their TiVos in a chorus of ”bee-boops,” and somewhere out there Phil Keoghan will raise an eyebrow in triumph.

And then, last night, the teams ran around Space Camp.

Sigh. Another night goes by without me calling my friends.

Before I get to the myriad of reasons the final part of this leg was so anticlimactic, let me address a new bit of evidence that popped up this week to explain why this show isn’t working. Every past season has had interteam rivalries, and they’re fun because they’re harmless. Unlike Survivor or Big Brother, this game isn’t really affected by these mini-grudges, except when it comes to a yield. So it’s just a fun little grace note to see adults get all worked up for petty reasons and curse each other.

But once you add kids into the mix, the team-on-team disdain becomes a little uncomfortable. I’m talking about the piling onto the Weavers. Sure, they aren’t my favorite team. They seemed annoying on the bus ride — and that’s even by Trailways-passenger standards — and I could do without them thanking the Lord every time they so much as pass a Stuckeys. (And before anyone accuses me of being a godless heathen, allow me to clarify again: I have no problem with people having God in their life. My problem is when people think God gives a crap about whether they win a game show. I hope that affecting the outcome of The Amazing Race is not one of the mysterious ways God works in.)

That said, this family is mourning the loss of their father and husband, and the Aiellos and Schroeders are giving them the stink eye. Yeah, boo to you, you sneaky widow! And don’t think we don’t have our eyes on you, you grieving, shell-shocked kids! While it was an amusing spin on the usual Race competitive instincts to see their opponents get wrongly suspicious of the Weavers for talking too long to the airline desk agents, it only made the whole thing a bit sadder when it was revealed that none of them had flown much before and they were just scared. Yeah, boo to…the sheltered family…who are lost in the world without their dead father and husband…uh…

Boo?

To be fair, there was one bright spot: The detour was the most Race-worthy yet. Though tearing the heads off shrimp was monotonous (and did it need to be done at sea?), it was no more so than other past tedious tasks. The real joy was watching the Aiellos get literally bogged down while trying to handle the mud. It wasn’t so much that it took them 14 tries to get it done; it was that it didn’t occur to them to switch drivers until the 14th, an ultimately fatal move. I would hate to see the Aiellos trapped in a Skinner-box roadblock where the teams are confronted with two levers, one that releases a clue and one that delivers a huge electric shock. How long would they be there?

”Okay, try the one on the left.” Zap!

”Owwww! Dammit! Okay, how about if we try the one on the left this time?” Zap!

”Arrrrgh! All right, slow down. Let’s think about this a minute. Okay, I’ve got a good feeling about the one on the left.” Zap!

Repeat ten more times.

And as irritated as I was at first by the Gaghans for their Pollyannish, perfect-family vibe, they have become a delight, if only for their contrast to the other antsy families. After watching the others sweat and grumble and berate each other, it’s always a pleasure when the Gaghans happily sail in with their ”There’s no ‘I’ in Gaghan!” attitude and effortlessly pass everyone on the challenges. I think their family slogan is ”Wheeee!” Watching the Aiellos glower at them as they sailed across the mud on the first try was, as the Bostonian Aiellos themselves might say, wicked pissah.

But after this brief shining moment of entertainment, the show fell apart. I got an inkling that things were about to take a turn for the dull when the teams raced for the Charleston Visitor Center. Knowing that they would land on two buses, there was no suspense in seeing who would get there first. The producers attempted to work up some tension when the Linz siblings passed the Schroeders for first spot on the bus. But when I say ”passed,” I don’t mean a balls-to-the-wall footrace. No, the Schroeders were walking, while the Linzes seemed to be jogging. It was like watching an old man in an electric scooter race a crawling baby, where first prize is a scoop of ice cream and second prize is a scoop of ice cream. I dare you to try to care.

After an eight-hour mystery bus ride — and the only thing duller than an eight-hour bus ride is showing an eight-hour bus ride on TV — the teams landed at Space Camp in Alabama. Last week I complained that the next-week teaser showing them in a NASA facility indicated that they still weren’t leaving D.C. Many readers corrected me, saying they were headed to the Huntsville, Alabama, Space Center. I’m sorry, I was wrong. But I will say that a charter bus ride is only marginally more interesting than staying in one place.

And what was the startling conclusion to Extreeeeeeme Bus Ride ’05? A ride in a centrifuge, where participants would have to endure 3.2 Gs! At its first mention, I imagined the centrifuge whirling around at impossible speeds while its riders attempted to pry their lower lip off of their eyebrows so they could see. But instead, in the least visually interesting challenge since eating a deep-dish pizza in Chicago, we saw fuzzy footage of people sitting still, occasionally trying to lift an arm for effect. And it didn’t look from the outside like the centrifuge was moving quickly at all. I expected a blur, but it was going about as fast as a merry-go-round. No wonder NASA is in such bad shape these days: A couple of rides on the Tilt-a-Whirl, and they think they’ve got fully trained astronauts. (And all of you space-travel experts, don’t bother correcting me about how 3.2 Gs is actually quite impressive and scary. That’s not the point. The point is that it doesn’t look impressive, and this is TV, where appearances are all that’s important. Over on NBC you don’t see them feeding Fear Factor contestants really bad-tasting steaks, do you? No. Because without the visual of someone nibbling at a cow penis, it doesn’t really matter what it tastes like.)

The fatal flaw of this event was that all of the families had to wait in an orderly fashion for the previous team to finish the centrifuge ride. Which meant that as soon as the last four teams arrived, we knew by their order exactly who was going to get eliminated, because they didn’t have to drive anywhere that might get them lost. They just had to watch some brutally obvious AOL product-placement video and then dash across a glorified amusement park. All of the false editing drama ended with everybody finishing exactly where you thought they would. If this keeps up, what next? A trip to Florida for a triumphant race from Tomorrowland to Epcot Center? All I know is it likely won’t end with me racing to my phone to tell my friends to tune in.

What do you think? Are you enjoying this season less? Is the family setup the problem? How can the producers fix it?