Over its six seasons, “The Amazing Race” has delivered stunning vistas and human drama.
Last week, it showed a scene of domestic violence.
Racing to the finish line in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, contestant Jonathan Baker dropped his backpack. Fearing his bag would be stolen in the crowded street, Victoria Fuller, his wife and teammate, grabbed Jonathan's pack and tried to run. The weight slowed her down, and another team raced by them, leaving Jonathan and Victoria to arrive in second place.
Right as they approached the mat where host Phil Keoghan stood, Jonathan grabbed his bag back and shouted, “How could you do that?” Then he shoved Victoria, and she stumbled, wailing, “Jon, stop it!” Phil told them they were in second place, and Victoria walked away, crying. Phil broke with protocol and said to an unrepentant Jonathan, “I think you probably should go and talk to Victoria.”
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Some viewers think Jonathan may have just pushed his wife's backpack, but either way, she clearly feels the impact, and nearly falls over.
When the race resumed this week, it was unclear what, if any, consequence there would be for Jonathan’s behavior. The recap of last week’s episode showed the scene and the shove; host Keoghan explained in a voice-over, “Victoria tried to carry Jonathan’s backpack to the pit stop, costing them a first-place finish. And sending Jon into a rage.” As they took off on this leg of the race, Victoria dismissed the incident, saying in an interview, “The last leg, Jon was very angry at me. I don’t like anybody screaming at me. But that’s just Jon.”
And with that, the race continued. No penalty, no elimination, no 800-number for information about domestic violence.
Changing ‘The Amazing Race’
Before it was a ratings hit, “The Amazing Race” was a favorite of many , even those who weren’t normally reality TV fans. A race around the world between couples with pre-existing relationships, it is part travelogue and part soap opera. There’s certainly been bad behavior before; last season, a racer refused to pay a cab driver the agreed-upon fare because the cab broke down, and he ended up in a police station obnoxiously trying to argue his case.
With this shoving incident, though, the race changed. In the most recent episode, Victoria and Jonathan’s interaction carried weight that it didn’t have before. Jonathan’s verbal assaults and obnoxious behavior are expected; he’s been loud and overbearing and extremely frustrating since the first episode. His verbal abuse of Victoria was disturbing enough, but now, having witnessed his anger turn to violence, every one of his outbursts seems much more consequential.
The couple continued to bicker and Jonathan continued to blame Victoria for their woes (“I guess it’s my fault, as usual,” she said at one point). Even during lighter moments — like when Jonathan screamed at his bungeeing wife, “Victoria, you’re a superhero! You’re a rock star, baby!” — it was difficult to be amused.
And the question lingered: Why was he still participating in the race? If Jonathan had shoved any other contestant like that, he’d almost certainly be out of the game. Shouldn’t he be removed for shoving his wife, never mind arrested for battery?
Contestants have been eliminated for less on other CBS reality shows: During the second season of “Big Brother,” an apparently drunk Justin held a knife to housemate Krista’s throat and said, “Would you get mad if I killed you?” She was amused, but he was removed from the house a few hours later. During the fourth season, contestant Scott was removed for freaking out and throwing chairs.
Presumably, there are rules against physical violence, or even threats of violence, on “The Amazing Race,” too. Even if there aren’t, how can producers of one of the best, most well-produced shows on television let this pass?
Executive producer and “Amazing Race” creator Bertram van Munster told USA TODAY that Jonathan “is actually a nice guy,” and explained to the New York Post, that “I had many conversations with [Jonathan]. I told him you’ve got to tone it down, you have to stop this kind of stuff, it’s not cool — until then, I’d never given advice to a reality-show player before to chill out.”
But none of this was on camera. Van Munster also said that he had “a very firm talk with [Jonathan] that night” after the shove. Van Munster said that he “warned him over and over again, but if he doesn’t want to listen, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Of course he can do something about it; he can do anything from kicking Jonathan off the show to instituting some kind of penalty. And he should have, if only to make Jonathan accountable for his actions on the race. Throughout this season, Jonathan has consistently blamed others for his own errors and refused to take responsibility.
This week, another team secured the last available tickets on a flight before Jonathan and Victoria, and that infuriated Jonathan. After getting tickets on a later flight, he went back to the ticket counter and said, “…you made us lose the race,” slamming his tickets down on the counter. Later, he hounded contestant Gus at every opportunity, demanding to know how Gus had taken Jonathan and Victoria’s plane tickets. In fact, Gus and his daughter simply had made their reservations first, from another location inside the airport. But in Jonathan’s mind, apparently, it was the agent’s fault and Gus’ fault, never his own.
Earlier in the season, Jonathan defended his obnoxious but not-yet-physically-violent behavior by, naturally, blaming the editing . He told TV Guide, “Victoria and I are like any married couple, we fight sometimes, but not like that. ... We do love each other. But the way we’re represented, I’m abusing her.”
Now, in a message posted on the couple’s Web site, he blames “a heighten[ed] version of stress and obsession mix with medication for a sickness called Sarcoidosis.” He also writes, “I am taking full responsibly [sic] for my actions on screen. Please allow me to make the effort. I am deeply saddened by the storyline that CBS went with. I am sorry for my actions, I am sorry to Victoria. Most all I am sorry to the Fans of the Amazing Race.”
Three days later, Victoria also posted to the couple's site: “Don’t worry, I am fine. Its [sic] a TV show and not a true reflection of our relationship. We both over reacted.”
Some have argued that CBS should not have shown the shove. Should we hide that which makes us uncomfortable? Or should it have been kept off because there was no consequence for his behavior?
If Jonathan and Victoria now win the race, will that victory serve as endorsement of his behavior, rewarding it with $1 million?
Is casting the problem?
During the last two seasons of “The Amazing Race,” it seems apparent that producers are making an effort to cast over-the-top personalities. And the behavior of those contestants hasn’t been pretty. Last season brought us, among others, Colin and Christie , who will forever be remembered for Colin’s constant freak-outs and verbal harassment of his partner, Christie. During last night’s episode, an angry Aaron punched a post in a parking lot; later, he said to his partner Hayden, “You’re psychotic.” Next week’s preview shows Freddy saying to a group, “one of you, I am going to break in half.”
On reality TV, villains are always fun, but Jonathan is not a villain, not a character that we love to hate. In an earlier episode, Jonathan, angry once again, lifted his arm rapidly as if to backhand Victoria, but stopped, although she recoiled.
And everything viewers are seeing has occurred in public, with camera crews standing close by.
This isn’t “Big Brother,” where viciousness and pettiness are expected. The human drama on “The Amazing Race” is generally a result of stress, either situational or relationship-related. Certainly, throughout the six seasons, we’ve seen ugly reactions, from ignorant, culturally insensitive comments to awful interpersonal interaction. Now, it seems producers wanted loud, obnoxious contestants who’d get people talking, and people are definitely talking. But at what price?
This “stunt casting” dilutes the show’s quality. It misses the point that the fun of the show was always watching ordinary people in these situations. And when producers refuse to take action when their cast goes too far, the show suffers.
Also during last night’s episode, Jonathan jumped into a cab in Budapest and, as usual, started screaming. “Go! Go! Go! Go!” he yelled at the driver. “Oh, come on — come on!” The cab driver finally had enough, and said, “Finito.” He opened his door, climbed out, opened Victoria’s door, and waved them out of his cab.
For once in the race, Jonathan’s behavior had a consequence besides wounding Victoria. Somewhere in Budapest, there’s a cab driver who “Amazing Race” fans and producers need to thank.
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