‘Amazing Race’ has lost its way

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/ Source: msnbc.com contributor
By By Andy Dehnart

The past year and a half has been rough for long-time fans of “The Amazing Race.” The first season debuted in 2001, but only in the series’ fourth year did it finally earn the audience and massive fan base it always deserved.

Unfortunately, success came with a price.

During the first four seasons, two-member teams of people with preexisting relationships raced around the world. From Johannesburg to Manila, Hong Kong to Paris, Mexico City to Venice, they were challenged to navigate unfamiliar places, complete physically and mentally challenging tasks, and overcome the stresses placed on their relationship.

Parents grew closer to their children, grandparents finished tasks they didn’t think they’d be able to complete, couples learned that their communication skills weren’t quite as strong as they’d imagined, and friends laughed and bonded on their way to the finish line. Viewers grew frustrated with “equalizers,” pre-arranged transportation or hours of operation at certain tasks that caused the teams to bunch up, but also kept the tension ratcheted up. Along the way, these teams formed friendships with their fellow racers and sometimes butted heads when their paths crossed. All but one pair would be “Philiminated” — told that they “been eliminated from the race” by host Phil Keoghan — while the rest would keep running, ensuring our pulses would be racing until the very last minute.

And then came season five.

In the summer of 2004, “The Amazing Race 5” became a hit, ending its 12-episode run with a finale that was watched by 50 percent more viewers than watched the previous season’s conclusion. That was also the season that the race officially changed. With the introduction of two new elements, the series took a different route than it had its previous four seasons.

Ch-ch-ch-changesThe most significant change was the Yield, an option that permitted one team to force another team to stop racing for a period of time. While in the past teams sometimes worked together, and occasionally worked against one another, the Yield fundamentally changed the series’ focus from the race to the dynamics between the teams. Instead of just racing against other teams, they were now playing against other teams.

Also during “The Amazing Race 5,” producers changed the rules for non-elimination legs. Teams that arrived to pit stops in last place occasionally were not eliminated. But during the fifth season, teams who came in last on those special, predetermined non-elimination legs were forced to surrender all their money (and, a few seasons later, all of their possessions). This left the team to wander around a country begging for money from locals and tourists, all while a camera crew awkwardly, ridiculously, and offensively taped their quest for $1 million.

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The casting also changed the series. For the fifth season, CBS decided to pimp out a star from its summer reality series to its Emmy winning series, and former “Big Brother” houseguest, Alison, and her boyfriend joined the race. Alison was pretty universally loathed on “Big Brother,” and viewers remained baffled why the producers would let such a twit tarnish “The Amazing Race.” Of course, the answer was ratings.

“The Amazing Race 5” also included pompous and verbally abusive Colin and his suffering girlfriend Christie, giving the series its first detestable villain. And Charla Faddoul’s presence on the cast also caused some concerns, at least initially. As a little person, the first reality show contestant not to be of average height, her inclusion on the show seemed like stunt casting at best and exploitation at worst.

As it turned out, Alison and Donny were eliminated at the end of the second leg, after annoying the world with their immature bickering. And Charla’s heart quickly captured viewers, as she showed she was more capable and strong than her teammate and cousin, Mirna, and frequently stronger than other racers.

As Charla hauled a 55-pound side of beef through the streets of Uruguay, she gave the series one of its few iconic moments and the rest of us a lesson in perseverance and will, shaming anyone who thought a person’s lack of height could limit their abilities. When Charla and Mirna were eliminated from the race, even usually stoic Phil Keoghan broke down.

But Charla left early and Colin and Christie made it all the way to the end, arriving at the finish line in second place. Between the abrasive personalities and the new rules, producers had injected their show with elements of other reality series. Then the ratings increased, because apparently many viewers weren’t smart enough to appreciate a show that was more than just a popularity contest.

That led the way for future contestants , , and others, all of whom gave us more fighting and backstabbing than we usually see on a season of “Survivor.” Specifically, Rob and Amber’s aggressive play changed the face of “The Amazing Race”; instead of focusing getting themselves further in the race, they also focused on slowing other teams down. Their use of strategy was within the confines of the game, but as a result, the competition became more than a race.

It’s not as if the first seasons didn’t have their share of dramatic confrontations or even villains. “The Amazing Race” has seen plenty of abrasive personalities; season three’s winner, Flo, was known for her shrieking fits, during which she often insisted she was quitting the race. And from the first season on, contestants have always shared information—or declined to be helpful—based upon how much they like other teams.

But whether a team was loved or loathed by the other teams didn’t really matter; what mattered was their ability to get along with each other and make it to the next pit stop before all the other teams. Because other teams couldn’t conspire against teams they hated (or teams they were threatened by), those we loved to hate often made it very far, and even won. As unpleasant as that outcome may have been, it kept the race interesting and competitive, and when the teams we loved arrived first at the finish line, it made their win much more consequential.

That was the genius of “The Amazing Race”; its focus was on teams getting from point A to point B while dealing with each other and with the world. Dealing with other teams along the way was incidental and optional. That worked because the dynamics between couples with pre-existing relationships, whether they’re lovers, cousins, life partners, or best friends, has always offered more consequential tension than contrived conflict between people who’ve known each other less than a month.

But with the introduction of the Yield, teams are now forced to both race and play with each other and with every other team.  Annoy the wrong team, and a team might be penalized; teams that are too strong might be stopped.

We are familyUndoubtedly, the new game elements plus Rob’s example of a combative racing style will inspire teams who are part of “The Amazing Race 8.” But that’s not all that will affect this season.

For the first time, teams of two are being replaced by families of four. While some families consist entirely of adults or older teenagers, one family includes brothers who are 8 and 11 years old, and another includes siblings who are 9 and 12. Other teams have teenagers who are 15, 16, and 17. This raises obvious questions: Can the race possibly maintain the level of intensity and danger with such young kids along for the ride? Additionally, suggest that, at the very minimum, this race’s route will be affected by the presence of kids and larger teams.  Whether this will inspire more great “Amazing Race” moments or further drag down the series is as yet unknown.

The past three seasons have consistently delivered dramatic, engaging television, even as they’ve frustrated long-time fans with unnecessary changes. Despite the shift in the way teams must navigate the globe, the show has remained the leader of the competitive reality television pack. But besides its strong production values, unflinching tension, and uplifting stories, there’s one difference between this show and others such as “Big Brother” and “Survivor.”

“The Amazing Race” is not a game, despite what its cast members and producers might insist. It’s a race around the world, one that does not need to mimic others in order to reach the finish line.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.