Ask Andy: How can you watch Big Brother and skip Amazing Race?

I’ve often wondered how you continue to watch, ridicule and bitch (however hilariously) about [Big Brother], but at the same time, criticize and completely write off Amazing Race. You can’t tell me [Big Brother] is a better show to watch. –Howard Friedman

With The Amazing Race kicking off its 21st season Sunday, I thought this was a perfect question to begin a new (and totally derivative! I am like the producers of some fourth-rate singing competition!) feature: Ask Andy (it even has a creative name!). This was asked in the comments, and I answered it briefly there, but I think it deserves a longer answer.

On the surface, this seems like an easy answer: Of course Big Brother isn’t a better show, and it actually takes more time to watch, with three episodes a week, never mind the time it takes to follow the what happens outside of the episodes. The Amazing Race is beautifully shot, has talented editors who have time to craft narratives, and starts with a brilliant concept that plays off of pre-existing relationships and the thrills and stress of travel and immersion in different cultures.

So again, why would I watch the shit and not the shining, Emmy-winning series?

First, despite the constant live feed cutting this year, which makes CBS’ claims that the feeds are “uncensored” even more laughable than it already was, the real-time nature of the series provides a window into the production that we don’t get on any other series ever–not even on the superior real-time series Glass House, which had heavily produced live feed segments.

As someone who is interested in how a show is produced and what it is saying, this is fascinating–and while I’ve watched the Showtime After Dark feeds in the past, I rarely do any more, and haven’t ever paid for the live feeds. Thanks to the tireless efforts of feed watchers, tweeters, and recappers, though, we’ve learned all kinds of things, such as how the series hid a cast member’s bigoted comments and made him out to be a hero instead.

There’s no other show for which we get raw footage like this, and I’m grateful for it, however outraged I often am at what we are seeing. It’s fascinating to track that and watch what’s happening, especially since the show plays out in real time.

Second, Big Brother has an interesting premise that, when it works, makes for incredible television. The best example for me is season six, when everyone was convinced they were the only person playing with a secret partner, but then someone figured it out, and some of the greatest alliances in the show’s history were born. Oh, Friendship, how I miss you. But I digress.

Ultimately, though, the answer is this: The Amazing Race started out as an exceptional series that has declined significantly over the years. I was once one of its greatest cheerleaders; now I think it’s embarrassing that it wins Emmys when so many other shows produce better hours of television.

So why I watch or don’t watch comes down to expectations. I don’t expect Big Brother to be great, I expect it to be ridiculous trash that sometimes can be entertaining and/or offer insight into the process of producing reality television. I expect greatness from The Amazing Race because I know it can be great, even if its budget is cut or it has to recycle cast members to fulfill the obnoxious “bring back cast members” edict that is either coming from somewhere high up inside CBS or is the world’s greatest coincidence.

So when I devote an hour expecting awesomeness and instead get a shoddily edited hour with poorly constructed legs and weak character development of cast members who breeze past landmarks and people as they do pointless challenges, I feel cheated.

I will, as I have done the past few seasons, give The Amazing Race a shot to recapture me. But I will not stay if it hasn’t changed. Here’s a metaphor: I’d stop going to a restaurant if the food quality and/or service declined significantly over time, even if it was still better than fast food, but I’ll stop at a fast food restaurant on a road trip because I know what I’m getting.

Have a question for me? It can be about reality TV or non-reality; objective or subjective; behind-the-scenes ; or about something else entirely. I’m game, though I make no promises. Just ask me already.

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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.