How The Amazing Race should fix itself

The Amazing Race 17 will film this summer and air next fall, but the show is in decline: it just had its lowest-rated finale ever. Worse, it’s getting kind of predictable and sloppy.

I’ve been a huge fan of the show since its first season back in 2001, but there has been a notable slide in quality. Perhaps the race is doing the same stuff it always has, but because it’s failed to grow and evolve, it seems stale. For me, the 14th season’s refresh was a revelation, but that was also apparently an aberration, and it’s been disappointing for some time. In addition, the budget cuts affecting other CBS reality shows have apparently impacted the race: teams were often on the same flights at the start of a leg, challenges are uninspired, and entire legs are a joke.

For sure, the show often delivers fantastic moments, and great drama. And as apologists often remind us every time the show wins another damn Emmy, the show is complex to produce. But a kid who spends three weeks banging their hands against their keyboard does not deserve an A on the essay that results. That effort is impressive, but all the effort in the world doesn’t matter if the end result doesn’t work.

Only because I care about the show do I complain, and I want it to improve. So, inspired by a post-episode comment and discussion that included such innovative ideas as giving a team a GPS for one leg of the race, and by the radical changes So You Think You Can Dance is undergoing, here are my suggestions for what the race needs to do to reinvent itself.

I’m sure others will have even more creative ideas, but these get at some structural flaws that don’t seem all that difficult to fix. And since The Amazing Race has been renewed for one more season and season 17 will tape this summer, there’s still time to save it.

  • Slow the fuck down. This pretty much overlaps with the other items below, but I think the show’s speed is also its central problem right now. In the beginning, TAR really stood out because its pace was unlike any other reality series–or even drama–that had come before it. From the frenetic music to the constant rushing, it was heart-stopping action from start to finish. Now, that feels forced at best, and it’s impacting the show in negative ways, as the items below discuss. Yes, it’s still a race, and there should be tension and high-adrenaline moments, but not ever single second needs to be that way. And while we’re at it, the music can lay off a little bit, and stop blaring to point out an error or correct decision.
  • Let us learn about the cast. With same-sex teams, it’s often difficult to figure out the names of individual team members, and that’s a problem. It illustrates how the editing just skims right across the surface of the cast and that’s it. Each person gets some hook, and the producers’ questions and editing hammer the shit out of that all season (e.g. the cowboys are from a small town and have never seen anything else!). As part of that, the editing seems to over-rely on stereotypes and fake conflict to craft easy-to-understand, dumbed-down narratives. That should end, and the opposite should be true: As they race, we should get to know the cast members. This doesn’t have to become Real Housewives for that to happen, but it wouldn’t negatively impact anything to show each person as an individual who might even grow and change throughout the race.
  • Go to fewer locations and increase immersion into local culture. One way to work within a limited budget is to stay in the same place for a longer period of time. The 16th season visited eight countries (not including the US) in three weeks and one day; I’d be content with a race that visits six locations–not just countries, but cities or regions–and gives teams more complex challenges that require more interaction with locals. For example, teams might be asked to help put a roof on a school in a small village; or hike on foot from one challenge to the next with a local guide; or work in a restaurant as a server for an entire shift. These ideas suck, but you get the idea.
  • Better challenges. Speaking of sucky ideas, this sseason, the challenges were bordering on pathetic, even when they were visually interested. Time to hire away someone from Survivor‘s production team to help conceptualize challenges that are actually challenging and that do more than pander to their location.
  • Make travel harder. It’s challenging enough to navigate unfamiliar cities, never mind ones where people speak a different language than you, but the show can do more to challenge the contestants–especially if they all must end up on the same flights. They’ve been forced to drive themselves less and less, and that always equals great drama. But they should have to do other things, like plan a route in advance that requires several ground transportation connections. As part of that, the race should also:
  • Force teams to make more decisions, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The biggest decisions teams usually have to make involve which Detour task to do. I think there should be more significant choices, and ones that have equivalent pros and cons. For example, they might be required to take a ferry or a bus to the next location, with the bus having to contend with rush-hour traffic and the ferry being crowded, slow, and infrequent. That has the potential to throw the race into chaos, rather than a carefully organized progression from point A to D, but that’s what it needs.
  • Increase the length of the final leg. In recent seasons, the final leg of the race brings teams back to the U.S. to race around a city in a single day. Since the final flight is inevitably an equalizer–otherwise, you don’t have three teams racing–that means the final leg needs to find its drama elsewhere. And running around a city for a few hours isn’t necessarily great, though I did think Sunday’s finale was an improvement over the rest of the season. I think that when the race is down to four teams, they should head back to the US after the now-standard final non-elimination leg. That means at least two episodes in the US, and they can stay in the same city, giving more time for more movement and drama.
  • Drop the non-elimination legs, or turn them into double legs. It was never fun when teams who were spared elimination were punished by having their money and stuff taken away and thus were forced to beg people for money while running a race for $1 million. Since the replacement, the Speedbump penalty, has become all but irrelevant, it’s time to just remove the non-elimination legs altogether–or, if it’s necessary to keep teams around longer, replace them with those fun legs where they check in at the mat and Phil tells them they’re still racing.
  • Dump the interpersonal game play. The U-Turn and Intersection were nice efforts, but one of the best parts about the race was that it was a pre-existing couple against the world, not Survivor. It’s easy to make an argument for including inter-team competition, because it creates instant tension and angry meltdowns. Ultimately, though, it’s lazy, and the only payoff is frustration, as teams are eliminated for reasons out of their control. Sure, it’s arguable that teams who’ve been U-Turned deserve it, but that criteria is arbitrary at best, and it comes across like a marathon where runners are allowed to club each other in the shins. Wait: maybe that’s what the race needs.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.