I finally understand why The Amazing Race won its 10th Emmy

The Amazing Race won its 10th Emmy for reality competition last night, with its streak of wins interrupted only twice, by Top Chef and, last year, by The Voice. My reaction was predictable.

The CBS competition isn’t a bad show; I meant every word I said when I presented TAR with the first reality TV TCA Award. There are a lot of extraordinarily talented people who make it come to life.

Like Modern Family, though, it’s a series in creative decline–and even if it wasn’t, there are so many other options on the buffet it’s insanely frustrating to see voters consistently choose to eat only the mashed potatoes.

Orange is the New Black won zero awards last night, though Uzo Aduba won for guest in a comedy series at last week’s Creative Arts Emmys, and if the Television Academy is serious that the Emmys exist to “recognize excellence within various areas of television and emerging media,” there’s a lot of excellence they continually fail to recognize, both in nominations and awards. (Perhaps invalidating everything I’m writing here, two strong, deserving reality shows did win Emmys last week: Shark Tank and Deadliest Catch.)

But I think I finally understand why The Amazing Race keeps winning.

Choosing a nominee

Nominated to win the Emmy for best reality-competition program this year were The Amazing Race, Dancing With The Stars, Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance, Top Chef, and The Voice.

Honestly, from that list, I don’t know which show I would have picked, because none of the series had particularly spectacular seasons; SYTYCD’s was particularly weak relative to its earlier strong seasons. I’m really torn. Project Runway, just because? I don’t know.

That’s a difficult choice, but let’s back up and look at an even more difficult choice: selecting among the 49 shows that were eligible for the award. Producers who are voting members were told that the category “[i]ncludes all game shows or any program that gives a prize or is itself a contest and/or competition” and they were to “vote for no more than ten achievements in this category that you have seen and feel are worthy of nomination.”

When you look at this list, depressing that the same shows are nominated year after year and also completely understandable. It’s at once overwhelming and underwhelming. It’s difficult. It really is. Just look:

  1. Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition
  2. The Amazing Race
  3. American Dream Builders
  4. American Idol
  5. American Ninja Warrior
  6. America’s Got Talent
  7. The Bachelor
  8. Bad Girls All Star Battle
  9. Bam’s Bad Ass Game Show
  10. Beat Bobby Flay
  11. Best Ink
  12. Big Brother
  13. The Biggest Loser
  14. Brother Vs. Brother
  15. Capture
  16. The Challenge – Free Agents
  17. Chopped
  18. Cutthroat Kitchen
  19. Dancing With The Stars
  20. Deal With It
  21. Face Off
  22. The Face
  23. Food Network Star
  24. Four Weddings
  25. Funny Or Die’s Billy On The Street
  26. Game Of Arms
  27. The Great Christmas Light Fight
  28. Guy’s Grocery Games
  29. Hell’s Kitchen
  30. The Hero
  31. Hollywood Game Night
  32. Ink Master
  33. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge
  34. King Of The Nerds
  35. MasterChef Junior
  36. The Million Second Quiz
  37. Project Runway
  38. Project Runway: All Stars
  39. Project Runway: Under the Gunn
  40. RuPaul’s Drag Race
  41. The Sing-Off
  42. So You Think You Can Dance
  43. Survivor
  44. The Taste
  45. Top Chef
  46. Trust Me I’m A Gameshow Host
  47. Ultimate Survival Alaska
  48. The Voice
  49. Wipeout

My experience of looking at that list and trying to choose up to 10 nominees, which I highlighted in green, went something like this: Oh, yeah, no, no, maybe? No. Nah. That’s good but Emmy? No. Oh, I wish I’d watched that. That show, are you serious? Oh, I really liked that a lot. Yes, that. Okay, next, no. Nope. No way. It was really, honestly challenging.

Survivor was a no-brainer because it had two super-strong seasons and still excels on nearly every level. But why did I choose Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge and not Face Off? It’s because I’m rewarding creativity and potential and skipping over a show that is, yes, good but is in a deep rut of repetition. If I was choosing shows based on improvement, I would have selected The Taste, which really moved forward in its second season; if I was acknowledging contributions to the genre from still-watchable and often-entertaining series, I might have selected Top Chef or Project Runway. I wish I could have voted for The Rock as host on The HeroI really liked RuPaul’s Drag Race, but it doesn’t seem Emmy-worthy, the best of the best, but then I went back and chose it anyway because I could choose up to 10 and why not. But also I only chose nine because I couldn’t decide on one more.

After just trying to choose 10 shows, I actually understand and appreciate why a show such as The Amazing Race gets nominated year after year. Besides the fact that everyone is applying their own arbitrary criteria about what deserves a win, some shows just stand out among the list as good shows. TAR is no Guy’s Grocery Games, that’s for sure. Even if some voters are aware of Survivor‘s production values or the exceptional casting and heart on Masterchef Junior, more are probably aware that, among all those shows, The Amazing Race is a pretty good one, so why not check that box.

Once the actual Academy votes for a winner from the nominees, I’m pretty sure there are more than a few voters who keep choosing it because it keeps winning, and because they don’t watch any reality television. If they do bother to watch the submitted episodes, TAR’s self-contained, action-packed episodes are an easy yes. Those who are voting at that stage, especially, are not doing critical analysis; they’re checking boxes on a standardized test that has no consequences except to make someone really happy.

I’d really love for other talented people who produce good work to be happy, too, and I’d also like my choices and opinions to be validated on television’s largest stage, so I’ll probably keep freaking out, but at least now I appreciate that the terrible decision wasn’t an easy terrible decision to make.

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