I watch reality TV, and so should you

After I wrote about reality TV that doesn't suck a couple of weeks ago, The Poisoned Sponge correctly identified the subject of the next post. For this, he wins a 48 hour extension to his normal lifespan, which has been automatically credited.

The Amazing Race

The Amazing Race is a reality gameshow that truly, honestly, doesn't suck. Though it'd been running for 12 seasons when I discovered it late last year, I'd never seen it and only peripherally heard of it, because when it airs in the UK at all, it's buried in the schedules at early hours and on channels I don't pay much attention to. And if you've missed it too, you should get right on the task of watching this excellent show. (Oops! How did that link get in there?)

The premise is simple -- a race around the world for $1m -- but the exact formula is cleverly constructed to make for very compelling television.

First and foremost, the race is between a set of two-person teams, and each team has an existing relationship. This makes for a huge amount of diversity in the contestants -- divorcees, a parent and child, gay partners, work colleagues, best friends, grandparents... all competing against each other. Much of the draw of the series is about how these teams react under pressure, with some working closely and with no interpersonal tension, and others bickering and falling apart through the race. A surprising amount of the show's drama comes not from the artificial hurdles of the race itself but from human relationships becoming dysfunctional under pressure.

Not that the hurdles are bad. Teams encounter various staged challenges between race checkpoints, to be completed by one or both team members before they can receive the next clue. These challenges range from the time consuming, like rounding up sheep or rigging a sailboat, to the phobia-inducing, like hang-gliding or bungee jumping. Some of these challenges are breathtaking, others are funny, and others fill time, but they're not presented in a stagey enough way to detract from the human angle, and in those cases where the contestant is required to face his or her fears, they can really contribute to the narrative the show builds.

The teams follow clues between elimination points, and as well as the planes that take them from country to country and continent to continent, transportation is a mixture of self-drive vehicles provided by the producers, and public transport. It's important to emphasise how much freedom the teams have in many of the legs of the race -- they hop in random cabs, create their own travel itineraries, and often take considerably different routes to their destinations, each team with their own camera guy in constant tow. Though things like the challenges obviously need to be planned in advance, many sections of the show are not set up at all, and it's quite common for a team to make a navigational mistake and get themselves and their (mute) cameraman lost or into some unfortunate trouble. When I was a kid I loved shows like Treasure Hunt and Interceptor, but those were carefully staged, with everything happening to a plan which was not permitted to vary much, even if the contestants or Anneka Rice weren't privy to the details beforehand. Not so in The Amazing Race: teams have a degree of freedom which, while not total (teams may be told they can only fly on certain airlines, for instance) is unlike anything else on TV.

If you dislike fast-paced editing, you're going to have a problem with this show. The average shot length must be about 5 seconds. But (with the disclaimer that I like fast-paced editing) it's very deftly done and not gratuitous. The point of view switches between teams constantly, but somehow, it's still easy to get a feel for the personalties of the players. But as well as speed and tension, the editing is done with a great deal of wit and humour. Source footage which surely amounted to many tens of hours per episode is condensed into tight, satisfying narrative, and ironic cuts abound. I think it's probably the best edited show on television. Each episode must take an age.

There's a lot of Amazing Race out there (13 seasons of the original American version, and three seasons AXN produced for syndication across Asia which are just as good, and much more diverse in contestant nationalities) but I recommend you start at the very beginning (this is the very beginning). The first season of the US show mastered the form from the get-go: diverse locations and challenges, teams you end up loving, teams you end up hating, great strategic play and epic game-ending blunders, teams bonding and teams disintegrating, tension, pathos, schadenfreude, and an ending which could not have been more of a dramatic and satisfying twist had it been scripted.