Thirty-five thousand miles, thirty days, four continents, nine countries and countless adventures ...
So reads the exciting, Indiana Jones-ish tagline for Jerry Bruckheimer's groundbreaking reality TV show from 2001, The Amazing Race. This boxset features the complete first season, which took eleven teams of two literally around the world on a whistle-stop, breakneck, challenge-filled and emotion-fuelled race to claim the prize of $1million. It's a great pitch. The team-ups all have a connection - family, lovers, best friends etc - and the race will see them at their highest, and most interestingly for us, their lowest. Along the way they will forge alliances, play devious tricks, help and hinder one another and, above all else, bicker amongst themselves as events conspire against them, the proverbial brown stuff hits the fan and their physical and emotional thresholds are pushed to the limit. Well, that's how the producers, Jerry Bruckheimer amongst them, would like the show to come across, I'm sure. And, since I normally despise reality TV and particularly high-concept fare that sees Joe Public try to become a Joe Celebrity, I doubted very much if this admittedly successful show could even entertain me, let alone win me over. So, let's see how close this Race came to my finish line.
Starting out from their first meeting in Central Park in New York City, the eleven teams rush to open up the envelopes containing the details of their initial destination and are then, immediately, on their way to get there by whatever means necessary. Their first port of call is South Africa, which sets the format in motion with gusto. There's no build-up - it's just get up and go. Quickly. Given clues and directions, the teams have to find their way to designated Pit Stops and the last ones to reach them are eliminated. No viewer votes here, folks. No last-minute reprieve. You're last, you're out. Bye-bye big bucks. From this point onwards the episode template is fashioned. After the occasional task - called a Road Block - is completed, that must be performed by one member of each team, and then a well-earned 12-hour rest period to enjoy a taste of new culture and one-another's dubious company, the teams continue on their epic, whirlwind journey around the globe.
“I don't think I can bungee-jump.”
“You're gonna bungee-jump your ass off!”
The tasks are often quite spectacular. We get a truly terrifying bungee-jump which soon sorts the men out from the boys, and from that point on the poor dwindling number of contestants are being spat on by tribal chiefs in their customary greeting, ringing Quasimodo's bell at the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, finding their way across the Sahara Desert and through the chaotic streets of New Delhi, hunting down mystical shaman and encountering tigers, all captured in frantic, handheld camerawork that attempts to put us right into the heart of action. These pell-mell and hectic postcard moments often result in relationship-testing bust-ups, two couples in particular really coming close to breaking point throughout the course of their respective exploits. Which is, quite obviously, the real aim of the game. As a species of spectators, we seem to love nothing more than watching people turn on one another. And so, we get lots of arguing on the backseat of jeeps whilst navigating badly, or engaging in rather dodgy Road Warrior-style pothole-rage with other speeding teams.
“The most daring competition ever attempted ...”
Of course, the true test of any reality show, is how engaging and/or infuriating the characters involved are. This high-concept gig revolves around teams that form a wide range of personalities, from go-getting, gung-ho muscle heads to dysfunctional family members and lovers, some you will either learn to tolerate, some you will just continue to dislike until the end. None, I fear, you will find yourself actually rooting for with any true conviction. The clear intention is to have us, the audience, warm to them as their collective adventure progresses, but the problem with this show is that it simply moves too fast for any real bond to be achieved. We see plenty of activity, plenty of strife and the fact that many of the teams become better people for all their tribulations is obviously commendable but, at the end of the day, we feel resolutely untouched by any of them, or their character-building achievements. When all said and done, they're doing it for the cash. It is great to see them blundering about in blind panic on foreign streets whilst innocent and bemused bystanders look on, though. The language barrier is a great hold-up that they are given no help with whatsoever. But if they'd turned up in Liverpool, my town, with some of their attitudes in tow, they wouldn't have gotten out alive. Seriously.
“This is a game. We're here to play. We're here to win.”
We get separated parents who are itching to reconcile (a big cash incentive healthily spurring them on), dating couples and room-mates, a pair of romantic and intrepid grandparents, a mother with a thirst for adventure alongside her wilful, independent daughter and, naturally, the season's villains, Team Guido - two gay partners going under the name of their pet dog. But these two aren't exactly bad guys in the “Nasty Nick” from Big Brother mould, though they do possess a certain modus operandi that puts the other contestants in suspicion of their tactics. In actuality, the pair is just playing the game as best they can. They are out to win and, let's face it, for $1million, you'd be quite prepared to stab a veritable stranger in the back, wouldn't you? Thus, with some canny local knowledge, a fortuitous ability to speak French and a surprisingly tenacious competitive streak, the two manage to hang on in there, whilst ex-soldiers and tough, Michael Chicklis-lookalikes (step forward Kevin and Drew) tend to fall by the wayside, episode after episode.
“This is the west gate.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Cos it's the west ... and it's the only exit.”
A clever element that stops anyone from streaking miles ahead (literally) is that the transportation involved in globe-trotting often means that the teams have to gather together - for a flight, or a ferry, for example - and this keeps the thrust of the show from becoming too obvious. As the season progresses, there is never a clear leader, meaning that it is still all to play for. The locations, too, are breathtaking. We get the Taj Mahal, the Arc de Triomphe, the Great Wall of China, a part of Tunisia cunningly named Tatooine and a fabulous Alaskan glacier - but, due to the kinetic rush of the race, we are unable to savour any of these visual delights for very long. There is some nice footage of a 2000 year old Roman arena in Tunisia called El Jem, around and beneath which the teams have to race, and the beautiful Temple of Dawn in Thailand where they have to solve an ancient puzzle. But, despite its travelogue motives, the show cannot really linger for too long in any one spot. Another great element is what's missing from the format - and that's the irritating hosts that pop up with ever-more screen-time than the contestants. Here, we just have the one, Phil Keoghan, who is as unobtrusive as they come. He gives a fairly strong recap at the front of each episode and a little narration throughout, but he is a likeable guy and never outstays his welcome. Afterall, the show is about the participants, not those pulling the strings.
One thing that really gets on my nerves though, is the score. The Amazing Race has a main theme by John M. Keane that is pure Hans Zimmer. Think The Rock - so often used now that it's becoming a joke - and even, wait for it, Gladiator. Oh yes, that lovely haunting, yet uplifting, melody at the end with Lisa Gerrard's wonderful vocals is lifted practically wholesale to greet the winners as they run down the final stretch back in New York towards the winners' podium. Keane and his musical collaborator, Thomas Morse, must belong to Zimmer's Media Ventures Group to have gotten away with this.
Overall, I ended up quite enjoying this show. I wouldn't watch any of it again, but I found the sparring between partners quite entertaining and the entire concept, if a little too rushed to be completely satisfying, is refreshingly action-packed. It wins through the sheer scale of the undertaking, truly becoming a game show like no other.
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