Montevideo, Uruguay: At the foam-covered dance floor of the Shake Mega Disco, contestants of the CBS reality show "The Amazing Race" and local midnight revelers reached for deflated, globe-marked beach balls, some of which contained clues for where to go next in the race. ©2004 CBS Broadcasting, Inc., All rights reserved.

      
In Praise of
The Amazing Race

I am not fond of unscripted reality TV shows in general; I find their premises contrived, and their validity questionable. I've never been inclined to witness some total strangers compete for a million dollars by either performing ridiculous stunts, or acting out petty grievances amongst themselves in front of a winking cameraman.

Thus it was with reluctance that I tuned to the fifth and current run of CBS' "The Amazing Race," upon someone's suggestion. I had not seen any of the previous installments.

I now regret not having overcome my prejudice of this television milieu far sooner.

The show, which sends eleven teams of two off to a grueling twelve-stage race around the planet in twenty-nine days (with the pair in last place eliminated at the end of each stage until the eighth leg), still has everything I dislike about reality TV. Each episode is judiciously edited to depict the contestants in gross caricatures, distorting their true personalities before the millions of viewers for the sake of cheap melodrama. The contests thrown their way -- schlepping a cow carcass, consuming 1kg of caviar -- are little more than cruel pranks.

As I wince at the many trials and tribulations they face in a journey of such scale and pace, even were it under the best of circumstances, I wonder whether my enjoyment is really to live their surreal adventures vicariously, or to relish in a particularly sadistic brand of schadenfreude. All avid travelers know, however, that wanderlust is the sweetest of all pain-inflicting pleasures. "The Amazing Race," for all its grotesque absurdity, does fully live up to its name.

Pushkin, near St Petersburg, Russia: At the landmark Old Tower restaurant, one member of each team -- here, brothers Lance and Marshall are seen with their close rivals, cousins Charla and Mirna -- had to eat 1kg of caviar before receiving instructions for moving onward. ©2004 CBS Broadcasting, Inc., All rights reserved.

       Argentina: Seeking Eva Peron's tomb in Buenos Aires, and paragliding down the Patagonian hills of San Carlos de Bariloche. Russia: Drinking a shot of vodka balanced on a saber with the Cossacks in St Petersburg, and finding respite in the palace built by Peter the Great for his czarina Catherine. The many remote, exotic and beautiful locales are spared of the blasť postcard treatment one would see in a typical travel documentary. Their mystique and allure are left intact by the spectacle of twenty-two bewildered Americans bumbling their way past them in comic haste.

Experienced globetrotters will easily empathize with those hapless contestants, notwithstanding the fact that the latter's escapades are all expense-paid, and that two of them will walk away in the end $1M richer. Together, they see all their collective memories on the road -- silly extreme sports, bouts of rage and desperation at the airport ticket counter, Montezuma's revenge, binges of personal indiscretion, juggling three time zones and currency exchange rates, that 50-lbs backpack -- played out as proofs of their own mettle.

Indeed, this is the greatest satisfaction I get from the show.

Alas, were I to have a suitable partner to form a team, I would seriously consider submitting my application to join the seventh race by the August 11th deadline. (The sixth race is completed and its program is in post-production.) I say this in vain consolation, preserving both my pride as a seasoned world traveler, and the good feelings between myself and anyone who did travel with me.

CBS website: http://www.cbs.com/primetime/amazing_race5.

-- CW, 28 July 2004

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