Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Amazing Race 19-11: We Are Charlie Chaplin

By the time any given TV show reaches its nineteenth season, it's either gone beyond stale or become an institution -- usually both at once, and one could say that the two are simply different ways to describe the same state.  Indeed, it's slightly startling to be typing "19-11" in to the episode box.  To be fair, the count is a bit deceptive -- The Amazing Race has only been on TV for about a decade now ("only"), airing two shorter seasons each year.  A low-rated critical darling for the first few years of its run, it's become a stable presence that nobody bothers to cancel, one of the sedate elder statesmen of the reality TV world along with Survivor.

But is it still worth watching?  It's hard to think of a show whose quality persisted this late into its run -- the decline of The Simpsons is probably the most famous example.  It may be better (or at least more flattering) to view these competition reality shows less in the vein of fictional TV and more in that of competitions like sports.  After all, nobody wonders when they're going to get around to wrapping up that whole NFL thing.  But it's hard to deny that there's a sense of malaise setting in.  It's not so much that the recent seasons are that much worse than the initial ones -- you'll find people who say this, but it's mainly nostalgia -- but just that the formula has lost its power to surprise.  It's a comfortable show to watch, for me a bit of a family tradition, but the other side of comfort is complacency.

This episode is the penultimate one of the season, in which the final four is whittled down to the final three who will compete for the million bucks before taxes in the finale.  Geographically, it takes the teams from Belgium to Panama, as part of the continual quest for new destinations.  But it's most notable for the surprise elimination of perennial leg-winners and snowboarding stereotypes Andy and Tommy.  It's one of the few moments of genuine surprise this season has produced.

It also involves the perennial draw of competition reality shows: the joy of watching someone else fail.  I wish there was a more convenient word for that.  This is really what competition shows promise us: sure, every week someone will win, but more important than that someone will fail and be eliminated because of some monumental error that we're all sure we would never make.  With the exception of the finale, every episode is situated around the question of who will lose.  (Except for those non-elimination legs that everyone hates).  And this is very rarely presented as simply being the least good of a good group: it's always some kind of character or skill failing.

In a way this is a simple exhibition of cruelty, allowing the viewer to triumph in another's suffering in the way they are rarely invited to in fictional television.  Of course, this may just be my own individual reaction -- perhaps there are viewers out there who bite their nails hoping that everything works out for the best.  But in order to maintain the justice of the competition, the editing has to suggest that everything a team suffers is what they deserve -- effectively giving us permission to laugh.  And it's worth noting how comedic this show, and reality TV in general, is.  The Amazing Race occasionally highlights its contestants' stumblings with jokey music, but even when it doesn't it's easy to laugh at the pratfalls and slip-ups of the team.

Of course, as the omniscient viewers we're able to see the right path beforehand, and as such it seems obvious to us.  The best example is a tricky-to-find clue (printed on a dancing girl's skirt) at the end of this leg.  We receive narration of where it is, and the camera repeatedly flashes to it, but the teams are stumped.  What's obvious to us is not obvious to the contestants, making them seem dumber and weaker than ourselves.  Once again, a good deal of the pleasure lies in mockery -- seeing Andy and Tommy nosing around the docks of Panama in search of a nonexistant clue and laughing and saying "What the hell are they doing?"

On the other hand, "cruelty" is probably overstating things a bit.  After all, we're only watching people lose a game show, not be tortured.  In its genial family-friendly way, The Amazing Race doesn't even involve much humiliation, aside from the occasional eating challenge.  Still, it's important to keep in mind the pleasures these shows offer and to consider what it means that they're offering them.

The fist challenge for this episode involves the contestants dressing up as characters from the comic Tintin and trying to identify who it is they're dressed as.  I liked this challenge for a couple reasons.  It makes the racers actually engage in a limited way with the culture they're in, instead of just going somewhere and going through some motions.  And it also involves funny costumes.

Do you see what I mean about the comedic elements?

Of course, none of the racers have any idea who the Tintin characters are, and so rely on a combination of friendly locals and the Internet to learn the answer.  The co-operation of local passerbies is a big part of just about every episode of The Amazing Race.  Competitive reality shows have been attacked, with some fairness, for being advocates of dog-eat-dog neoliberalism.  But it's also worth noting how co-operation is an essential part of theses hows, especially The Amazing Race and Survivor.  There's a kind of reassuring note to the show, that the streets of every city on Earth are teeming with people who will help you if you get lost or just need assistance in some silly game show[1].

Amusingly, in this episode the cabbies of several of the teams end up working together and sharing direction, much to the chagrin of the racers trying to make it a competition.  Once again, co-operation occurs despite the focus on competition -- and the fate of the whole thing is, as usual, left in the hands of anonymous taxi drivers.

Having completed their comic book-character identification task, the teams can now take a plane to Panama, in order to walk a tightrope between two buildings.  If that sentence sounded like a string of non-sequiters to you, you're not alone.  The Amazing Race and many other reality shows take on a carnivalesque atmosphere, using their loose plot (a race around the world) to string together a series of disparate visual pleasures -- like, say, people dressing up in funny costumes or walking on tightropes.  In this way they're heirs to the legacy of variety shows, providing a little something for everyone, much more so than variety's official heir, late-night tak shows.  While the race provides a diegetic impetus for these performances, it usually doesn't provide a justification for them.  For instance, all four teams get on the same flight to Panama, so there's no

This accounts for the popularity of challenges which are visually striking but not all that, well, challenging or skill-testing.  Heights challenges, which usually occur several times per season, are the key example of this.  The only challenge is whether or not the teams will work up the nerve to jump or rappel or cross or whatever itis, which they pretty much always do -- although a shocking amount of people go on this show while being afraid of heights.  This episode's rendition is at least a little visually scary, although the tension is tempered by the fact that obviously none of these people are going to fall to their deaths in the middle of the episode.

The final challenge on this leg is a more quotidian one, a Detour that requires teams to choose between, to quote erstwhile host and certified choo-choo chrarlie Phil Keoghan, "two of Panama's oldest professions".  Fortunately, no prostitution is involved.  The actual tasks are constructing a sandal out of leather and transporting fish to the right stands in an open-air fish market.  Usually on The Amazing Race you end up with challenges that exoticize the country of the week, but here they just seem content to ignore it.  All I really learned about Panama from this episode was that it had tall buildings, shoes, and fish -- very distinctive traits.

In a way this is an extension of the humiliation factor -- affluent first-worlders forced to do manual labour in a developing country -- although this element isn't focused on in the editing.  But it's also the most competitive section of the leg, pitting the teams against each other in a contest that involves unusual and unexpected skills.  And somehow this shoe-making race is edited to actually create tension and excitement.  The Amazing Race never lingers on a single scene for more than a minute, always switching between teams and between tasks, so there's never really the potential for boredom.  The techniques used here are the conventional shooting methods of action movies (there's a reason Jerry Bruckheimer is a producer), which on their own are quite effective in making a dramatic narrative out of literally anything.

But after a while this narrative and this style grows thin, and nineteen seasons certainly qualifies as "a while".  Unlike most shows, a competitive reality show grows weaker the more you watch of it. The first season of Survivor or The Amazing Race or Top Chef seems amazing, dramatic, and almost iconic -- all of the characters are new to you, the tension seems genuine, and the format is fresh.  This is true even if you start with a comparatively weak season.  But as the format of the show repeats again and again, diminishing returns set in.  The new faces are edited into the same old archetypes, making them seem like nothing more than imitations, and you've already seen the drama a hundred times before.  That doesn't mean that watching more than one season of one of these shows is redundant, or that their current incarnation is neccesarily bad.  I still enjoy the show, albeit to a lesser extent than I did when I first started watching it.  But diminishing returns is endemic to the genre.

There are three pleasures that The Amazing Race promises its audience, then: schadenfreude, visual splendour akin to Andre Bazin's "cinema of attraction", and novelty.  The first two spring eternal.  The third is something that each episode of the show endlessly grasps for, constantly juggling between strange activities and stranger people, but something that is always fleeting.  If staleness is not inevitable, then I'd love to see a reality show that proves that -- and that show might just be a hit.

Next Week: A cornucopia of callbacks on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

[1]The cameras may induce a lot of this charity, but that's certainly not in the text of the show.

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