Why 'The Amazing Race' Can't Lose

With rare exception CBS's Amazing Race has had a lock on the annual Emmy, but its wins are more about formula than quality.

The facts speak for themselves: in the ten years that an Emmy has been presented for a competitive reality series, CBS’s The Amazing Race has won eight times. (The only exception was in 2010 when the award went to Top Chef and this past year when it went to The Voice.)

The way I see it, unless the producers of The Amazing Race decide to recuse themselves sometime soon (because their mantle is already full enough), I doubt, despite the two upsets, that any other reality show will be upending The Amazing Race's impressive domination of this category anytime in the near future.

There are other equally fine reality shows that deserve the chance to be recognized for their quality and then to, finally, take home the gold. For example, it’s almost shocking that CBS’s long-running Survivor -- in many ways the father of all contemporary competitive reality shows --has never grabbed the top prize, if only as a tribute to its influence and longevity.

The Amazing Race also often gets brownie points with Emmy voters for its exceptional production—traipsing all over the world looks, and is, far more impressive than just recording the action in the sewing room on Project Runway.

Actually, much of The Amazing Race's award success probably comes from the way the Emmys are voted on. As has long been Emmy custom, each season producers of a show pick one episode from their series to submit for Emmy evaluation. This limited exposure plays into The Amazing Races’s favor where every minute of ever episode is literally a mad dash to the finish line. In comparison, with rare exception, no final fashion show or even epic musical performance can quite match the sheer exhilaration of watching the foot races and high-speed narrow-street car chases that have come to define The Amazing Race.

Not that other shows aren’t trying. The suspense-building quick-cutting technique that works so well on The Amazing Race is frequently employed, to some degree, in almost every other reality show ranging from Project Runway to Top Chef to Cupcake Wars. It's especially evident on these shows as the clock on that episode’s main challenge begins to run out. The sequence inevitably starts with a shot of the clock at ten seconds then cuts to shots of various designers/cooks/decorators running about madly; then cuts back to eight seconds on the clock; then a contestant yelling, “Hurry!” or “Time’s almost up!”; then back to the clock and so on….

Then, amazingly, when the clock hits zero, everything is miraculously done! But, of course, these particular moments (so cliché) are just so much editing trickery, a way of generating some excitement—Will they make it?!

Alas, this literal last-minute suspense, no matter how well done, is just never enough to compete against The Amazing Race’s weekly hour-long photo-finish in front of Phil Keoghan. Moreover, the interpersonal dynamics, so key to the success of shows like Survivor and Big Brother, cannot not always be well displayed in just a single one-hour installment (hence these other series again miss out on the chance to impress Emmy voters). And no matter how they edit it, no amount of fabric store shopping on Project Runway can compete against a kayak trip down the Amazon.

Ultimately, comparing The Amazing Race to an American Idol or a Project Runway is rather like comparing apples to oranges. It’s a track and field final sprint against a game of scrabble. It’s pitting physical feats of human endurance against, arguably, the more cerebral and creative challenges that are the focus of Top Chef and Project Runway.

Amazing Races’s dominance of its category, and simultaneous near shutout of other nominees, reminds me of actress Angela Lansbury’s now legendary non-winning streak for her role on Murder, She Wrote.

Lansbury was nominated 12 times for her role as amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher. Twelve times and not a single win! Lansbury was (and is) the Susan Lucci of primetime. Part of the “blame” for her continuing losses rested with the tough competition that Lansbury faced every year in her category. For many years, she was regularly squaring off opposite the landmark work done by the duo of Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless from Cagney & Lacey. Later, she had to face of against such imposing performers as Dana Delany (in China Beach).

In some ways, it’s not a great surprise she never won. By its very nature, Lansbury’s series, a classic and light-hearted whodunit, never afforded her the necessary meaty plotlines and other opportunities for histrionics and showmanship that usually garners awards. For better or worse (probably better), no amount of nimble mystery solving could overcome the life and death struggles and family dramas depicted on Cagney & Lacey or the horrors of Vietnam as seen on China Beach. In Lansbury’s show, there were never any deadly diseases or alcoholic relapses for Jessica to endure so that the actress could fully exploit her range and garner herself an Emmy in the process.

On a weekly basis Lansbury and her series lacked the bombast that was necessary to propel her name to the tip top of the Emmy voting ballot. The same sort of frenetic bombast that The Amazing Race, by its nature, generates in its weekly hourly installments. And the show has the Emmys to prove it.

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