The Amazing Race has won the Emmy for Best Reality Program three years in a row. Folks otherwise snooty about reality TV actually watch this show. What’s so great about it? Do high production values and global scavenger hunts make people imagine themselves high-cultural tourists even while they’re watching sensationalist TV? Or is there something more substantial going on here?
Yes and no. As The Amazing Race: The Seventh Season showcases, this series has effective drama, tight editing (courtesy of producer Jerry Bruckheimer), exciting competition, and compelling storylines. Host Phil Keoghan is less smarmy than most (take that, Jeff Probst). We learn a little something about other ways of life as the contestants sprint by (though not much). And Keoghan’s voiceover narrates a vague liberal pluralism in its narrative judgments on the contestants.
But we’re still prodding other people with a stick for our own amusement. Will the engaged couple break up after a strenuous globetrot? Can the bickering brothers learn to get along? Can the show prompt a reality TV supercouple to implode on national television?
This last hook is the new wrinkle for Season Seven. If reality TV is a Frankenstein EZ Bake oven, cooking batches of horrifying celebs who circulate to other shows, The Amazing Race heated up Rob and Amber Mariano (the couple who met on Survivor) as wily villains. In a featurette called “Reliving the Race,” Keoghan defends the decision to cast them: “It got people stirred up. Some people loved them, some people loved to hate them… They brought a lot of attention to the show.”
The strategy pays off big. Rob and Amber bring the corporate raider mentality over from their other show and proceed to lie, cheat, and steal their way through this slightly more gentile gamedoc. After realizing that the couple is obstructing other teams, one competitor, Lynn Warren, half of a gay male couple, snappily encapsulates how the rest of the cast feels: “They’re kind of like an STD, you’ve gotta protect yourself from them and the only way you can do it is just keep yourself away from them.” Partner Alex Ali, in the featurette, points out that reality villains can be fun to watch on TV, but “It’s not entertaining” when you’re playing against them. For his part, Rob and Amber are well aware of their designated roles. Rob recalls, “We both knew we were going to have big targets on our backs,” but he throws down the gauntlet nonetheless: “If you can beat us, beat us.”
But even on reality TV, claiming it’s all for show doesn’t always cut it. On one leg that involved racing Land Rovers across a rugged off-road course, twin brothers Brian and Greg Smith flipped their car and could have been seriously injured. While Lynn and Alex stopped to help them, Rob and Amber drove on by, happy to get ahead in the race. In the featurette, the brothers say they remain shocked that Rob and Amber ignored their plight. Rob insists those who complain are “immature” or “insecure.” For him and Amber, the competition justifies any and all behavior.
While creators Bertram Van Munster and Elise Doganieri criticize the Marianos’ behavior, they simultaneously showcase it. The show focuses on couples, sometimes sensationalizing “negative” interactions, then absolves itself of ethical responsibilities by asserting its “documentary” status. Ray and Dina, who were married after the show, come off as a dysfunctional train wreck here. We see shot after shot of Ray yelling at Dina and her sobbing, the editing suggesting that he is abusive. Not only do the producers not step in to help the woman, they also hope for confrontations stemming from extreme stress (at the same time, Keoghan’s voiceover intones that Ray’s uncontrolled anger is hurting his team). In the featurette, the creators insist Ray did not intend to behave in this fashion. Doganieri explains, “On the road, I think that competitive edge got to him,” though he was a calm, nice guy outside of the race.
Similarly, the season focuses on conflict between Ron, who recently served in Afghanistan and Iraq and was a prisoner of war, and his beauty queen girlfriend Kelly. They fight, she calls him a “stupid redneck,” and their relationship crumbles on camera. One exchange sparked press criticism of Kelly, as the creators note. Riding in a cab, frustrated and bickering, she tells John, “Your patterns of life show that you don’t make commitments.” When he says he was in the military, she replies that he got out of that commitment too, “By being a POW, you left your commitment early.”
In the featurette, Keoghan says, “People have criticized Kelly for what she said to Ron in the car. Not to defend her, but just to say that these teams are extremely tired, they’re running, the teams that get all the way to the end, 30 days straight, under a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. Sometimes they say crazy things.” But the show banks on these “crazy things.” Doganieri lectures, “Maybe on the race was not the time to bring up getting married. You know, stick with the race for the moment. I don’t know what they’re thinking about now.”
Still, the show’s most problematic situation involves race. Winners Uchenna and Joyce Agu had to shave their heads during one task. Joyce’s sacrifice, as Uchenna argues, brought them closer. During one leg of the race, when they came in last, they had to start the next leg without money or possessions, and ended up having to beg in the airport for money. As an African American couple, they were subjected to glares and rude rejections by many white passersby.
In the featurette, Keoghan insists that this storyline is one of the show’s finest hours: “To go from begging in an airport for a dollar, where they felt so humiliated, to think that they went from that and about 24 hours later were millionaires is extraordinary.” It’s a familiar logic, this celebration of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But it also speaks to a complex racial discourse, here mapped onto Uchenna and Joyce’s bodies.
And yet, for all its problems, this season of Amazing Race covered 90,000 miles, five continents, and 25 cities. Such distance and variety create stress for contestants: they have to try to catch uncatchable planes, navigate in strange places, and maintain team unity while running around the world. Their achievements, in other words, were not only on TV.