Part of what has been fascinating about “reality” TV over the past year is how fast it is making cliches. What seemed fresh only a year ago with Survivor is now being repeated in various ways. On the one hand, this is disappointing because, once again, the networks are transforming anything remotely interesting into pre-packaged fodder. But on the other hand, we have the opportunity to watch the process in action. Most TV has been cliched for so long that it really can be intriguing to watch the networks destroy something new.
Stumbling over each other to repeat the success of Survivor, both NBC and CBS have premiered their new reality game shows on the same night. NBC’s LOST takes six strangers, groups them into three teams of two, leaves them with only a cameraman for each team and very little money, and sets them on a race to figure out where they are and how to get back to the Statue of Liberty. CBS reverses the logistics, but ends up with something very similar. On The Amazing Race, eleven teams of two start in New York and weave their way across the globe. Their goal is to complete challenges and avoid elimination — two elements that NBC’s LOST does without. Perhaps taking a cue from Survivor, both shows use “foreign” countries as playgrounds for their U.S.- native contestants.
LOST is more creative in this enterprise. Although it is a game, the show leaves the contest to the participants. Once NBC drops them in the desert, they’re left alone to see what will happen. Of course, we know that producers are an international “911” call away, should anything go terribly wrong, but for the most part, the contestants are left to their own devices. Yes, the cash prize drives the show, but it also leaves open the possibility for unscripted interactions. Unfortunately, the producers can’t leave well enough alone. Whenever we start to take an interest in how one team is trying to get to the next town without being able to speak the native tongue, a narrator (Al Trautwig) comes on to tell us that that’s what they’re doing. We’re never allowed just to sit and watch, because the show compresses what could have been a full season’s journey into three episodes. To be honest, what disappointed me most was finding out where the contestants were dropped in the first half of the first episode. For a show called LOST, they got found pretty quickly.
The Amazing Race is much more like the reality TV we’re used to. Each episode is filled with challenges so that nothing too spontaneous can happen. This makes the show less interesting on a conceptual basis than LOST, because it becomes little more than The Price Is Right, set in the great outdoors with bungee cords. But, unlike LOST, the producers of The Amazing Race seem to know what they’re doing, delivering three or four good challenges each week. They want to make sure that “amazement” and excitement abound, in the same way that lighting and music help to make The Price Is Right more exciting. To that end, The Amazing Race is packed with the cliches that work; it has more bickering, more drama, more comedy, more everything, than LOST.
As the networks search for the next cliche that’ll work, failures can often be much more interesting than successes. While everyone watched Richard Hatch scheme his way to $1 million, the boring cooperation in the Big Brother house offered a fascinating critique of the genre. Producers certainly didn’t plan it that way (and have made sure that nothing of the sort happens again, by revamping the second season into an indoors Survivor). But their initial failure to incite dramatic conflict made it abundantly clear that this is what these shows are really after. In the same way, The Amazing Race is the slicker production here and seems destined for higher ratings. Even so, I’ll stick with LOST, despite its flaws, to see what I can learn.