That The Amazing Race 33 even made it to our television screens on CBS is an impressive feat. More than a year and a half elapsed between the race stopping because of the pandemic, and then resuming post-vaccine but still in the middle of the rapid spread of a deadlier variant.
We’ll never know what the original TAR 33 would have been like, in part because four teams were not able to return. But thanks to those who did—and the entire production, from its executive producers to camera operators—the season was finished, and it was enjoyable from start to finish.
Was this a flawless season? No, not that that’s even possible. But especially under these circumstances, what made it to TV was pretty wonderful. For the most part, I was engaged and entertained—as evidence of that, I haven’t recapped the race regularly in years, but I was inspired to do so by this season.
The more I’ve thought about the season since watching the two-hour finale, the more I appreciate The Amazing Race 33, and the more I think it should be a model for future seasons.
In many ways, TAR 33 accidentally became the “back to basics” season that fans of long-running shows (Survivor, cough cough) so desperately want. The changes that were made, small and large, made the season better. Here are five reasons how this season changed for the better.
No U-Turns, Yields, or other social games
One of the many things that made me fall in love with The Amazing Race early on was that it was not a strategic game between strangers, like Survivor or Big Brother, but a challenge that two-person teams faced together.
Over the years, TAR added more and more social elements, trying to get the teams to interact and create drama. It worked! Some of those moments are memorable, others were insufferable.
TAR 33, however, had no Yields or U-Turns, the first time we’ve had a season without a U-Turn in about 15 years, since TAR 12, when it replaced the Yield, which was introduced in season five. There were also no Fast Forwards or Intersections.
I did not miss them. I do not need them back for Amazing Race 34.
The race doesn’t need any of those elements. Travel is dramatic enough, never mind the theatrics produced by pairs of people who have strong attachments to each other, the potential $1 million reward, and the challenges crafted by the producers.
The lack of those social elements didn’t drain all of the competitiveness from teams, who still engaged with each other as rivals in a race for $1 million.
And while many of the teams seemed to like each other, and also occasionally worked together, such as following each other during self-drives or working on a task at the same time, there was none of the frustrating “just give us the answers” shenanigans of previous seasons. (Amazing Race co-creator Elise Doginieri told me after season 32 that producers were considering prohibiting sharing answers.)
In short: the social elements aren’t necessary for a great race.
Renewed appreciation for travel—and reality TV crews
The Amazing Race always has an element of living vicariously through the contestants, who get to race around the world and do some pretty awesome things.
But this season, just watching people travel—pre-pandemic in England and Scotland, and mid-pandemic during the rest of the race—was a joy.
So much has been lost over the past two years, including the ease and pleasures of travel, from casual conversations with strangers to meals in restaurants. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that not being able to go on vacation is equivalent to the nearly six million lives lost. But that is a significant change for many of us, and there’s research showing how the pandemic has “threatened the psychological wellbeing of travelling.”
I found merely watching people travel safely—even if their masks slipped or disappeared sometimes, causing my anxiety to rise—was quite satisfying, and made me eager to travel soon.
(As a tangent, it’s fitting that The Amazing Race once again captured a shift in how we travel, as it did between seasons one and two because of Sept. 11, 2001.)
Of course, none of this would be possible without hundreds of people who risked their own health to bring us entertainment, from host Phil Keoghan to local PAs. At the finish line, Penn also acknowledge those crew members who’d traveled with them and literally make the race possible; one camera operator captured all of the others for our benefit.
Survivor 41 also did that in its first episode, and while prestige reality TV like Survivor and The Amazing Race try to make that huge apparatus invisible to viewers, it’s nice to get a glimpse of the actual human beings who produce reality TV, and some on-camera appreciation for them.
A finale free of the taxi driver lottery
One of the most-annoying parts of the final leg is when a team’s fate is determined by the random selection of a cab driver. It completely knocked out one team in TAR 32.
During TAR 33, however, the teams final three teams drove themselves through Los Angeles.
It’s not easy to drive or navigate through the hellscape that is L.A. traffic, even if the teams asked strangers to look at a maps app to see the best route under current conditions. Once they were on a highway or a back street, they couldn’t rely on traffic reports from Google Maps or rely on Waze to identify a secret route that would take them down a cemetery’s walking path or down someone’s driveway.
Navigating, asking for directions, taking shortcuts: that was all the responsibility of the team alone. And that’s the way the final leg of the race should be.
Equalizers were an accident during season one of The Amazing Race, but as producers discovered, they are necessary: it’s logistically and financially impossible to have teams spread around the world, even if it did make great TV for Joe and Bill to be in Alaska while the other two teams raced for the finish line in New York City.
But in a race, equalizers can quickly drain the excitement out of the show, because it erases their efforts. If teams leave the pit stop staggered according to their start time, but all end up waiting in line for something to open up the next morning, that makes what came before it less important.
And sometimes, what precedes an equalizer is just completely pointless. During season 31, there were two tasks during the first episode that did not matter because all of the teams ended up equalized once they arrived in Tokyo.
For The Amazing Race 33, once the show restarted, all teams traveled together on the same charter airplane. That meant they’d be equalized every time the show traveled via airplane. Instead, the producers created staggered start groups, and the teams’ position in those was determined by their finish in the previous leg.
It’s not quite the same thing as checking in at 9:05 p.m., and departing at 9:05 a.m., but I vastly prefer that format, if the other option is a bunch of equalizers.
Perhaps because of the post-restart redesign of the race’s legs, which were all in Western Europe, there ended up not being a whole lot of movement from start to finish. But I don’t blame the start times for those, especially because there were opportunities for teams in the later groups to overcome the 15- or 30-minute deficits that separated them from the group that started first.
Also, the starting groups basically replaced the Speed Bump as a penalty for coming in last during a non-elimination leg, with the team that was saved having to start last. I prefer that to a challenge. (Pre-restart, there was one Speed Bump Task, but it did not air.)
At the very least, I’d love to see a regular season of The Amazing Race use this same format, just to see how it works.
TAR 33’s likable cast
I really liked spending time with most of The Amazing Race 33’s teams, though I do think we got lucky because of the restart.
While I missed Taylor and Isaiah, I did not miss Sam and Connie, and Caro and Ray, who were kind of grating in the first few legs. Neither team was even in the same league as some of the awful teams who’ve competed on TAR in the past, and perhaps they would have mellowed out once they got used to the rhythm and stresses of the race.
Akbar and Sheri did return, and so did Akbar’s berating. But they were the second team eliminated after the restart.
That left us with a really agreeable, enjoyable final five.
Of course people got frustrated, with the race and with each other, but there was far more support than animosity. Perhaps some of that was due to the joy of safely traveling mid-pandemic. But I also just think it’s good casting.
Despite being identified as “Internet personalities,” a phrase that causes my breakfast to resurface in my throat from merely typing it, Kim and Penn were not typical performative social media stars on the race to gain more followers.
They were an impressive pair, supportive and respectful of one another and their competitors, and almost always in a joyful mood. That they became the oldest team to ever win the race was a terrific bonus. (Their Amazing Race recaps were a nice bonus, too, with lots of great insight.)
Raquel and Cayla’s friendship was always strong, but as a team, they got better and better throughout the race, placing first or second in the final six legs. They almost won, too.
Ryan, whose attitude toward life is so admirable considering what he’s been through, was slightly overshadowed by Dusty’s over-enthusiasm, but they had an impressive run, especially in the first half of the race.
Even Arun and Natalia, who struggled and struggled, especially with navigation, were mostly in good spirits. They actually crushed several of the challenges, and when the non-elimination legs saved them twice, were always in good spirits. “We’ve made the best use of what we’ve been given,” as Arun told host Phil Keoghan.
That’s what The Amazing Race and its producers did, too: made the best of what they were given. Despite some legs that didn’t give the teams much of a challenge, it still managed to be a dramatic race.
Amazing Race 33 felt closer to the race was at its start more than 20 years ago: just teams of two, navigating the route and challenges together.
For a season interrupted by and completed during a global pandemic to feel so creatively refreshed is a testament to the strength of the core format of The Amazing Race, and even if some of those changes were not ideal but just the best option available, they worked. I hope there will be future seasons, and I hope they’ll borrow remember what worked so well in season 33.