Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Amazing Race 20-09: Bollywood Travolta

Most episodes of The Amazing Race stick to the show's established formula pretty rigorously.  The challenges and route are created to give rise to a specific type of competitive narrative, and usually they do as they're supposed to.  This is why most Amazing Race challenges are only moderately challenging: they ultimately have to be surpassed in order for the narrative to progress.  Sometimes, however, things don't go according to plan, and the editors (the real authors of any given reality shows, if you have to pin it down) have to stitch together a different narrative.  These are the episodes where reality television is most fascinating, if not necessarily at its most entertaining.

This particular episode is set up to be a pretty harmless, disposable leg of the race, complete with the non-elimination anticlimax at the end.  It's the usual trip to India, a staple because of its crowded foreignness and ability to provoke mental breakdowns and bouts of racism from the racers, both of which make for can't-miss TV.  The Amazing Race has gone to this well so often that they're down to hitting up Cochin in search of a new city.  The challenges are pretty standard fare, with none of them seeming immediately difficult: they have to perform a Bollywood dance routine, then score a point in cricket or learn how to drive an Indian taxi.  This is the usual MO: use stereotypical "foreign colour" to provide an opportunity for your contestants to embarrass themselves.  This is especially promising on this season, full of hate-worthy characters.

But things get derailed at the seemingly innocuous dancing challenge, when redneck-caricature team Mark and Bopper fail over and over again.  What was initially an opportunity for some easy laughs now becomes surprisingly physical and brutal, as heatstroke starts to set in and Mark gets rejected again and again.  There's almost a deconstructionist tone to the episode, as the pratfalls and broad humour of the race are turned into something stomach-churning.  The repetition of the peppy Indian dance music starts sounding almost nightmarish.

The narratives of competitive reality are not too different from the narratives we associate with sports, the way we turn an objective, almost scientific competition[1] into a story.  Usually The Amazing Race draws on a competition story, revolving over who's going to win and who's going to lose, and whether or not good will prevail.  But in "Bollywood Travolta" that's all but dispensed with.  There's little suspense as to who will clinch first place, as frontrunners Dave and Rachel cruise to an easy victory, remaining ahead of their competition the whole way (with the exception of a confusing airport scramble that puts Ralph & Vanessa momentarily ahead).  There also aren't any of the usual editing tricks to build suspense as to who will come in last -- the cut-aways to the other teams checking in at the pitstop seem increasingly perfunctory as the story turns more and more towards the travails of Bopper and Mark.

What we get instead is the other sports story narrative, in which moral redemption is achieved through the act of playing the sport and not necessarily through victory.  These are mainly hard-luck stories in which simply making it to the game represents a triumph over adversity.  The most obvious examples would be the original Rocky and much of Friday Night Lights.  These narratives are really no less sentimental and silly than the more conventional version, but because of their association with underdogs have become associated with gritty urban realism.  And indeed, there's a kind of blue-collar dignity that makes you want to cheer for Bopper & Mark, no matter how stereotypical they act.  They talk constantly about their family, which seems designed to present them as having more real concerns than the pretty twenty-somethings that seem more like glamorous fairy creatures.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily add up to a more effective episode than the boilerplate Race standard it was designed as.  For starters, while the drama is genuinely affecting in the moment, further consideration makes it seem rather silly.  Bopper tells his friend that the race isn't worth his life, and this seems to be a sticking point, as though a dance competition would literally kill him.  This drama, with Bopper begging Mark to quit and Mark refusing, is repeated again and again until Mark finally does quit -- only for their positions to seemingly reverse, with Bopper urging his teammate to give the challenge one more shot.  This doesn't seem to have a diegetic reason, although  most fans have decided that it was producer interference outside the episode's narrative.

This is followed by the standard sappy goodbye montage of the eliminated team enjoying the race.  This is the kind of gross, affecting but entirely overplayed sentiment that has made The Amazing Race such a long-lasting series -- it plays to the cheap seats, and is unabashed in doing so.  In this case, the montaged team isn't actually eliminated, which makes the whole thing sort of silly.  There's a similar montage next week when they're actually eliminated, and I believe there was one the first time they were saved by a non-elimination.  Even broad reality shows can't show their editing tricks too often.

(Bopper & Mark have really gotten lucky with these things, which you think would invalidate them as hard-working underdogs, but for some reason it doesn't.  This is mainly because reality shows present their formal caprice as a reflection of the internal values of the team.  The fact that Bopper & Mark keep getting saved shows their never-say-die attitude, despite the fact that the teams that didn't get lucky never got a chance to never say die.)

The rest of the episode is pretty prosaic.  The race's ongoing storylines, such as a ridiculously petty squabble between Rachel & Dave and Art & JJ and the continued catfighting between the ex-Big Brother team and Ralph & Vanessa.  There's been an awful lot of drama between teams this season in a show that usually focuses more on the relationships between teammates, which makes it a bit more like a conventional trashy reality show but also kind of more entertaining in a guilty-pleasure way.  This culminated in an episode a few weeks ago that went over 20 minutes without a challenge, just a lot of drama and arguing between all the teams except the happy-go-lucky hillbillies.  (That was another episode that messed with the standard format, an encouraging sign at least in theory.)  Nobody comes out very well in these arguments other than Bopper & Mark for not getting involved in them, which is what makes them such clear heroes in this episode.  But they physically can't win, and that leaves us with a conundrum, as the finale seems set to be a showdown between four villains.

What other narratives do we have to latch onto, then, besides good versus evil?  "Bollywood Travolta" offers up a lukewarm battle of the sexes, a trope that reality television always falls back on when it's desperate.  Art and JJ make several bitter comments at the Roadblock about how the girls will have a natural dancing advantage over the guys ("I'm telling you man, dudes do not move like girls.  It doesn't look the same"), but are then hoisted by their own petard when Rachel (the redhead one) beats them at the sports-based cricket challenge.

This would be a standard liberal pseudo-feminist narrative if it weren't for the fact that the episode seems to suggest that Art & JJ have a point.  After all, the three male/female teams all send their female member to do the dancing roadblock, and all three finish before the two all-male squads (although Art and Mark are hardly the type of men you'd want in a dance contest).  The same Rachel that later triumphs in the Detour remarks at this challenge that "I'm a girl, of course I'm going to be emotional", making her hardly a feminist heroine.  She generally lives up to, or is edited into, the misogynist diva character that many reality-show women have inhabited before her.  To their credit, The Amazing Race casts plenty of tough chicks, fey guys, and generally vaguely gender-non-conforming individuals -- but it also casts plenty of meatheads and divas, and they're the ones that have survived this season.  The detachment of the format, which generally doesn't explicitly judge its contestants, here seems like a weakness -- it's possible to read this episode as a reaffirmation of misogynist principles, and indeed that's easier than any other reading.

In the end, "Bollywood Travolta" does strike narrative paydirt in the ongoing tribulations of Bopper & Mark, making the fate of a comedy team something serious.  But it's an unsustainable narrative -- the bad thing about underdogs is that, in the end, they usually lose.  And what's worse, it seems to come about almost entirely by accident instead of producer or editor creation.  The last thing a reality TV show wants to be is dictated by reality.

Next week: "Come on, I Dean / Oh my hands are so clean / And at this moment / I am stapling".

[1]This applies more to sports to reality shows -- the latter are often patently unfair, but sports are a regulated system designed to create an impartial test of athletic ability with no external variables.  Of course, this works great for a science experiment, but as people we require a bit more narrative oomph, which is why the ref is always screwing over our home team.

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