18 November 2006

Amazing Race: Pretty good.

For the past few weeks I have been watching a reality show called The Amazing Race. I have actually been meaning to write about it for the past few weeks but, as with Lost and the Sopranos, I do not want to be drawn into weekly update obsession.

The show is essentially a race around the world, by various couples (father/daughter, ‘married entrepreneurs’, ‘dating actors’ etc), in the hope of winning one million dollars. Most weeks, the team that reaches the end-of-episode checkpoint in last place is eliminated.

They presumably just go until there are only two teams left, and presumably in America, but I’m just guessing. Each episode sees activities that must be passed in order for teams to continue.

I was always against reality TV (I still do not, and cannot, watch X Factor/Big Brother/I’m a Celebrity etc), but this year I’ve developed a liking for some examples of the genre.

American Idol was one, partly because Simon Cowell is an excellent TV character (I don’t watch X Factor despite my fondness for him), and partly because every contestant on American Idol is a better singer than every contestant on X Factor.

The key with American Idol, as now with Amazing Race is how compelling the characters are. This is both the reason why ‘traditional’ TV will never die, and why I am constantly bemused by British offerings. In Idol, I was positively rooting for the bald rock dude and short, ugly Jewish soul singer to win. That they did well (fourth and third place, respectively) meant I watched for the duration of the series.

And so it is with The Amazing Race. Viewing began as an exercise in laughing at the obnoxious Americans but, as the season has drawn on, some teams have endeared themselves to me.

First was the team of married pro wrestlers, Lori and Bolo. I knew I was in for some entertainment when, as the contestants were earnestly reading their first mission statements aloud, Bolo looked at his information card and said ‘blah blah blah. Let’s go’. They are great comic relief, and actually quite likeable.

Next were probably the old couple (or the ‘GRANDPARENTS!’, as the opening titles have it), who decided the best way to win the race was to take it easy.

To their credit, they outlasted the pairs of New York teams (two women from Queens and ‘Brooklyn Jews in Iceland’, as Ari sang in the opening episode), but they hold the dubious honour of being last in two consecutive episodes.

Fortunately for them, the first was a non-elimination episode (though they were parted from all of their money as punishment), but they were given the boot the next week.

My favourite team, though, are the father-daughter team of Gus and Hera. The former is rather overweight and, as a result, also subscribes to the ‘let’s not rush’ strategy. To his credit, their smarts compensate; one episode in Sweden saw them get lost in Stockholm, slump to last place, but perform their task so well (curling shot glasses in a bar made entirely of ice) that they ended up second.

The main step in my rooting for them was when they were in Africa. Visiting an old departure point for slaves Gus, himself an African-American, is overcome with emotion at the poignancy of the moment. It was sad and beautiful, and I was deeply touched by it.

Obnoxious Jade Goody and ‘Princess’ Nikki have nothing on this effective emotional manipulation for real compelling televisual reality. The less said about that miniature Robbie Williams on X Factor, and his infinite levels of Brylcreemed seediness, the better.

Currently, viewers are on the edge of the proverbial cliff. With Lori and Bolo trailing in last place (they got forced onto the last plane from Berlin to Budapest, and their Traban sputtering to its untimely death), the episode ended with the legend: TO BE CONTINUED

I’ll be watching next week, for sure. I cannot say the same for Channel 4’s collection of unbearable social misfits masquerading as a game show, Unanimous. I never thought a Jerry Bruckheimer production would attract me so.

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