Expedition Impossible vs The Amazing Race: a scorecard

There were two possibilities for ABC’s Expedition Impossible, the Mark Burnett-produced adventure race which debuted last night on ABC. The first was that it’d be a game-changing new show, which is what I thought it could be when it was announced. The second was that it’d be an Amazing Race knock-off that either improved on the CBS series or was a pale imitation.

After one episode, Expedition Impossible is decidedly the second, but it’s both an improvement and a pale imitation at the same time. It shares a lot of its DNA with Amazing Race. There was a lot that used template directly, with only minor changes (stages instead of legs, “You are the winners of stage one” instead of “You are the first team to arrive”) that just highlighted the similarities. Burnett would like to insist that “this isn’t The Amazing Race,” but it owes a lot to that series.

Still, it’s worth noting that The Amazing Race followed and clearly borrowed from both Mark Burnett’s adventure race series Eco Challenge and Survivor, so this is far from outright plagiarism. And the new series does improve on a lot of what is very, very wrong with The Amazing Race.

Since it’s impossible to not compare the two shows, here’s a breakdown of the two shows’ common elements so we can see which show has the advantage:

Advantage: The Amazing Race

  • Prize: The Amazing Race awards $1 million compared to $150,000 and some product placement cars. Cheap and lame, ABC.
  • Host: Dave Salmoni is no Phil Keoghan. He looked super-awkward standing at the finish line, and barely contributed anything except narration, which was unnecessary and annoying, like most narration on reality TV shows.
  • Logo: Expedition Impossible‘s logo looks like it was designed in Microsoft Word’s WordArt, and seems more aligned with the cheap, cheesy shows ABC sometimes airs.
  • Opening sequence: Expedition Impossible didn’t have one (this week?), and TAR’s is thoroughly awesome–especially since it introduced a remixed theme song a few seasons ago.
  • Cultural integration: TAR does an increasingly weak job of showcasing the backdrop for its ridiculous challenges and bickering, but there is some effort to make use of local culture, particularly in challenges. The snake charmers were TAR-level in terms of using local culture, but I give this one to the CBS series because I absolutely didn’t buy that the place Expedition Impossible began was “fiercely guarded by local warriors,” perhaps because Mark Burnett has costumed extras and pretended they were locals before.

Advantage: Expedition Impossible

  • Navigation and clues: Teams walked and rode camels across the desert; there were no cabs. And while they were going from point A to B, it was far more interesting to watch–plus, we actually got to see the journey, and that makes all the difference. Also, one of the clues shown on screen indicated that teams had the option of using a GPS or compass, which makes it more challenging than going to a landmark.
  • Casting: The cast seems much more diverse and different then the years of cookie-cutter teams we’ve gotten on CBS, and not just because of the blind guy or the awesome team of mustached Gypsies. Some of that comes from having three-person teams instead of two-person teams, which automatically creates a different dynamic. While the teams come with pre-defined names, some of which (Grandpa’s Warriors) are more creative than others (NY Firemen), there’s also greater diversity in professions and backgrounds; at the very least, we’re actually able to see more than the description here.
  • Pace: Expedition Impossible seemed a bit lethargic, but that’s only because TAR’s editing is so energetic that anything would seem slow compared to it. And TAR uses its pace and frenetic editing to conceal the show’s weaknesses. I’m thrilled that EI slowed down to actually let us get to know contestants (imagine that! imagine knowing their names before the season ends!), and didn’t use fast-paced editing in a manipulative way.
  • Consequences: Incorrectly counting the number of snakes sent teams 30 minutes off course, a significantly better punishment than making teams wait between guesses or just letting them continually check answers with a challenge judge.
  • Product placement: The Ford commercial starring Mark Burnett aside–and that long segment was a commercial, not direct product placement–the product placement was far more subtle, even with SUVs in the desert. Of course, this is episode one.


  • Cliffhangers: Both shows use transparently manipulative cliffhangers going into commercials, ones that usually see immediate resolution post-commercial, meaning that they really have no consequence and are unnecessary.
  • Stereotypes: Expedition Impossible has a diverse cast, but the editing did no favors to its eliminated team, Latin Persuasion, and there was some lamentable homophobia from the No Limits team about how humiliated they’d be if they got beaten by the team that includes gay men. Guys: The only thing that’s humiliating is thinking it’s humiliating to be beaten in a race by someone with a different sexual orientation. And Fab 3: There are plenty of stereotypes about gay men already; you don’t need to add more by saying that gay men like to wear wigs. What?
  • Challenges: Counting snakes is, you know, counting, and not a huge challenge. While the rappelling looked cool and was actually integrated into the trek, it didn’t do much for the episode. Still, I would have given this to Expedition Impossible for its finding water challenge, which was inspired, but I was annoyed by the fact that the difficulty of actually finding water in the desert was mitigated by the ability of every other team to essentially cheat off the first team to figure it out.

discuss this story