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Race to the Center of the Earth is Amazing Race without its worst features

Eleven years ago, disappointed with the way one of my favorite shows had evolved and changed into something far less compelling, I offered suggestions about how The Amazing Race should fix itself.

My suggestions included:

  • Slow the fuck down
  • Let us learn about the cast
  • Go to fewer locations and increase immersion into local culture
  • Better challenges
  • Make travel harder

Alas, The Amazing Race has done none of those things.

But National Geographic Channel’s Race to the Center of the Earth—which is also a race across the world for $1 million between teams of people who know each other that was also created and produced by Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri—does most of this.

The result is a show that’s very much not The Amazing Race but is still somewhat familiar.

Race to the Center of the Earth has no host, no challenges, and no frenetic energy. Instead, there’s a narrator, the routes are challenging, and there’s a clock on every leg of the race.

But with teams with pre-existing relationships are navigating through spectacular locations, facing challenges from the natural environment and each other, it’s covering some familiar territory.

Race to the Center of the Earth’s clever format

Team Southeast Asia—James Batey, Marilina Kim, and Jay Wyatt—during an interview before near Mã Pí Lèng Pass in Vietnam
Team Southeast Asia—James Batey, Marilina Kim, and Jay Wyatt—during an interview before near Mã Pí Lèng Pass in Vietnam (Photo by National Geographic)

Race to the Center of the Earth (NatGeo, Mondays at 10) starts slowly, with less of a sense of urgency than The Amazing Race. It was initially hard for me to feel invested; it was fine, but didn’t immediately pull me in.

This is not a head-to-head race; the teams don’t start together, or even know who else is racing.

That’s because every team on Race to the Center of the Earth is racing on a completely different route, and are in four dramatically different locations. The teams are referred to based on their location, but all of the contestants are Americans:

  • Team South America: Autumn Fryer, Jon Irwin, and Sierra Knott of Team South America
  • Team Southeast Asia: Jay Wyatt, James Batey, and Marilina Kim
  • Team Russia: Jeremy Conkling, Angelina Fraize, and Chris Nelson of Team Russia
  • Team North America: David Bacon, Mindy Murphy, and Paul Montague Jr.

No one gets eliminated throughout the course of the race, and thus we meet these team members slowly, not with a barrage of bio packages in the first episode.

So how exactly does a race in different places work?

Teams have a course to navigate every day, hitting specific GPS checkpoints along the way. They have a set amount of time to reach their destination each day, while the entire course takes consecutive 13 days.

Their travel and trekking involves open-water swims and kayaking, carrying a canoe through a forest and riding bikes uphill, climbing glaciers rappelling down mountains. Sometimes teams drive themselves; sometimes they have to catch a bus. While the teams are mostly navigating through nature, they do pass through some small communities and larger cities.

The use of public and animal transportation means they’re not entirely in control of their pace: there are slow busses and cows stand in roads, never mind obstacles such as flat tires and injuries.

Race to the Center of the Earth's Team North America—David Bacon, Paul Montague Jr, and Mindy Murphy—in Quebec's Tadoussac Village
Race to the Center of the Earth’s Team North America—David Bacon, Paul Montague Jr, and Mindy Murphy—in Quebec’s Tadoussac Village. (Photo by National Geographic)

In the first episode, one team only has to scale the face of a rock and camp overnight on a ledge, while another navigates through Vietnam, biking uphill and then taking a bus.

Later, one team just takes a long bus ride for most of one leg, but the next they have to paddle a narrow, unstable boat through a rocky river. Meanwhile, another team drives and drives, and stays overnight with a family that feeds them.

It’s a wildly different set of requirements, though we’re assured by the narrator that this is fair because all routes have equivalent challenges, though clearly not on the same day.

So, how is all of this fair? At the end of each leg, each team is assigned points, based on how their time compares to an pre-determined pace time that’s particular to their route:

  • 30 minutes early: 2 points
  • on time: 1 point
  • 30 minutes late: 0 points
  • swept off the course: -1 point

They’re racing not against each other, but against the clock for their particular group of challenges. It’s a smart decision, and basically means we’re watching four separate treks.

The potential for being swept off the course and delivered to the next starting point means every leg is an equalizer; no one can fall far behind, like teams could on early Amazing Race.

Having a daily reset gets close to duplicating one of The Amazing Race’s worst modern feature: the equalizers. All that matters on TAR is not coming in last place, but otherwise errors don’t matter because they’re erased every day.

But Race to the Center of the Earth actually corrects this. Instead of resetting to zero every leg, teams are pulling slightly ahead or slightly far behind thanks to the point system. It’s a small but brilliant addition, and really makes all the difference.

All teams’ routes end at or near the Pacific Ocean, but they’re not going to swim or boat from there to the final buoy. Instead, they’ll all race together in a final leg—and the team with the most points will have a head start. (The location of the buoy and the final leg is a surprise, but footage of the buoy shows it floating in the ocean near an island with buildings, and it looks to me like Hawaii.)

It’s not exactly clear how the head start will work. Will teams have a staggered start based on their final points? Does only the team with the most points get a head start? And will that head start be easy to overtake?

How much of a difference the points make on the final leg will really affect what I think about the competition and its structure. What’s clear now (I’ve seen the first four of seven episodes) is that the point system helps to erase the differences between the routes.

A flat tire or a bad cab driver will only result in a one-point difference, perhaps, and every team has problems to contend with—never mind their own decisions and navigation, which present a considerable obstacle.

The format is very strong. Is the show as watchable as The Amazing Race? Did getting what I’ve always wanted make for a wildly entertainment reality TV competition?

As much as I’ve compared The Amazing Race and Race to the Center of the Earth, they’re very different: The CBS show is basically about couples traveling the world, and this is much more of an expedition race along the lines of Eco-Challenge.

I found the Amazon reboot of that show to be “outstanding, uplifting, and electrifying”—despite its flaws, like its relentless focus on just a few teams—and I just didn’t get as immediately invested in Race to the Center of the Earth.

The lack of urgency threw me at first, and there’s something about the show that makes it seem familiar, probably because there have been quite a few reality TV competitions that have covered this kind of territory, from The Amazing Race to Alone.

Instead of a host, teams have a GPS that takes them from waypoint to waypoint, while we get a narrator who I wasn’t fond of.

The narrator sounds to me just like The Good Place season four’s obnoxious Brent Norwalk (played by Ben Koldyke), especially when the narration boarders on condescension and cliche (“It’s time to put up or shut up”).

The narrator’s information is often helpful, but it’s just odd tonally. I’m all for having a full-on judgmental narrator (e.g. Love Island’s Matthew Hoffman), but either go there or don’t, rather than inject the occasional snide aside.

I grew to appreciate Race to the Center of the Earth the more I watched.

The teams get frustrated and bicker, but they are also surprised by each other and support each other. The locations are incredible, and the terrain they navigate is both challenging and captivating to look at.

The show also has time for lighter moments, like when a bear and some deer wander into an on-the-fly interview, and I absolutely loved those. It’s a slower-paced race, but a journey worth taking.

Race to the Center of the Earth: B+

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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