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The Pack: Amazon’s race with dogs is only sometimes amazing

The Pack: Amazon’s race with dogs is only sometimes amazing
The Pack contestants, human and canine, running to find out what pack they'll be part of. (Photo by Ali Goldstein/Amazon Studios)

Amazon’s The Pack is a globetrotting reality TV race that aims to be a sweeping epic like The Amazing Race, but starts off as a much clunkier reality show, made rickety by safety precautions and logistical considerations that are necessary when half of each team is a dog. The dogs save the show, and also weigh it down.

There are shades of The Amazing Race—cab rides, people ordering cab drivers to drive faster or turn, editing that makes foot races that are not competitive seem like close calls—and while it’s not quite up to the CBS reality show’s early standard, it’s probably the best of the knock-offs.

Olympic gold medalist Lindsay Vonn hosts with the halting ease of an SNL guest star reading Wikipedia entries off cue cards, though her limited interaction with the contestants is much more organic. Her dog Lucy is constantly with her, and even demonstrates—or tries to demo—the challenges.

The cinematography alternates between dynamic and awe-inspiring slow-motion shots of dogs, people, and places, and dizzying camera work that in some moments echoes The Blair Witch Project.

But here I am talking about the cinematography and awkward host reads when there are CUTE DOGGIES COME HERE PUPPY

A disclaimer: I grew up with a dog who I loved very much, but as an adult, I am very much a cat person, drawn to their independence and their quirks. I also watched a show about people and their deep connection to their animals days after suddenly losing my cat, and am still bound up in anguish over that sudden absence.

At first, I thought The Pack was probably a show for dog people, or people who will be very excited to see dogs, and less of a show for people like me—and I don’t just mean cat people, but people who are looking for a thrilling, well-crafted race-around-the-world reality show. That’s because it’s neither at first.

The Pack cares for its dogs more than its challenge design

The Pack host Lindsey Vonn on a beach in Los Angeles, the finish line for the first elimination challenge.
The Pack host Lindsey Vonn on a beach in Los Angeles, the finish line for the first elimination challenge. (Photo by Ali Goldstein/Amazon Studios)

What almost lost me in the first two of four episodes I’ve seen of The Pack‘s 10 episodes is that the challenges seemed to not actually matter.

The 12 pairs divide into two teams—excuse me, packs. The losing pack’s pairs compete against each other one pair, and then one team of dog and owner are eliminated, though Lindsay Vonn assures us they will “have had the time of their lives,” as if they are fragile.

I do appreciate how much care—and on-screen time—is given to safety for the dogs. Everyone travels via private jet, from Los Angeles to Mexico City to Costa Rica, with dogs perched on seats next to their partners.

The Dog Safety Team appears on camera, and they repeatedly reassure us by saying things like they are “making sure nobody was stressed out, at all.” There are flashbacks to training and preparation, where the production team trained dogs to be used to loud noises, or ziplining harnesses, or rickety bridges. We’re told the dogs learned “fetching, tugging, and stunt work.” You know, like how you teach your dog to jump, sit, and assemble Ikea furniture.

There is no talk about training for the emotional toll the dogs are facing from being dressed in cute outfits, like little sailor costumes or little tuxes. But also: PUPPIES IN COSTUMES.

The major challenge in each episode is essentially a Detour: two very different tasks, often in two very different locations. Sometimes the dogs are actively involved; sometimes they’re just passengers. When the dogs are required to do a task, it’s something they aren’t experts in, like searching, pushing a ball, or carrying something on their back.

The show opens with a bungled scripted cold open, and the challenges that follow are not much better. The competition begins eight minutes in, on the Universal Studios backlot, in Courthouse Square, which may be best known for Back to the Future or To Kill a Mockingbird, which I started thinking about instead of the mini-challenge that separates the pairs into packs because I was bored. The dogs then zipline, for no real reason except DOGS ZIPLINING OMG PUPPY, and then get into cars to go to the real challenge.

What’s truly frustrating, though, is that in the first two challenges, the actual outcomes don’t appear to matter. The two packs are perfectly and coincidentally tied and all arrive at the run to the finish line at the exact same time. It’s insultingly sketchy. But also: PUPPIES RUNNING IN SLOW MOTION

I imagine much of this is just the challenge of safely producing a competition with dogs, including the simple parts like getting them to and from a location. The Amazing Race constantly equalizes its teams for logistical purposes—it’s much more expensive to produce a show when your crews and teams are on different flights or in different countries—but at least it does that at the start of a leg, not in the middle.

The elimination challenges are better—and like the main challenges, improve as the show goes on. The losing pack all start in their hotel rooms, where a clue is delivered. Finding the clue creates a staggered start, and then they jump into marked cabs and head to the location to complete a series of tasks. These challenges get better as the series goes on; the first one comes down to which owner finds a clue in a fake newspaper last, not the actual challenge itself.

But this is me, cat person, focusing on the competition, not the CUTE DOGGIES LOOK AT THAT SWEET DOG

There is a tremendous amount of heartwarming and hilarious material, like two dogs who seem to bond with each other, and the story of Daniel Reese literally rescuing his dog Allister from a man who was threatening to kill it. There’s a heartbreaking elimination that will separate both human friends and dog friends.

The Pack also has great comedy, from the names of dogs (a man named Kentucky has named his dog Derby) to dogs interrupting confessional interviews, or just being dogs. “If the challenge was humping this toy, I think we could definitely win,” Linh Iacona says after Chance demonstrates.

The packs bond with each other, and there isn’t really any animosity, though there’s an early moment when Dixie, a therapy dog at a VA hospital known as “Dixie the Praying Dog” for its ability to get into down-dog pose, is told by its owner, Brian, to bark at a slow dog who won’t get into a vehicle fast enough.

Like The Amazing Race, The Pack gives highlights and history of the places it visits, spotlighting dogs, like Frida the Rescue Dog in Mexico City, or places that help dogs, like a sanctuary where 1,600 dogs roam free in Costa Rica.

Besides the cost of production, Amazon is spending $1 million on the show: a $500,000 prize to the winning pair, dog and human, plus $250,000 for the human to donate to their favorite charity. And the production is giving $250,000 to charities in filming locations, a great commitment that is dampened by the show’s insistence on making sure we are aware of the good it’s doing, which just reminds me that this is a donation from a company worth $1.5 trillion.

The commitment to dog safety and helping animals is commendable, and as someone who cares about all animals, I’m glad they’re doing both. As someone who cares about reality TV, I’ll keep watching, because there’s enough here to like, though I’ll also keep wishing The Pack had started its romp around the world as a better show.

The Pack: B

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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