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Why Amazing Race 33 was such a satisfying season

Why Amazing Race 33 was such a satisfying season
Amazing Race 33's teams and host at the end of the race. (From left) Taylor and Isaiah Green-Jones, Sheri Cook, Moe Badger, Michael Norwood, Akbar Cook, Kim and Penn Holderness, Phil Keoghan, Raquel Moore, Lala Gonzalez, Cayla Platt, Lulu Gonzalez, Dusty Harris, Ryan Ferguson, Arun and Natalia Kumar. (Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS)

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

Kim and Penn Holderness win Amazing Race season 33
Kim and Penn Holderness win Amazing Race season 33 (Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS)

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

TAR 33's final six teams on the charter plane that flew them around the world after the break
TAR 33’s final six teams on the charter plane that flew them around the world after the break. (Image via CBS)

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

Dusty and Ryan search for a clue on Amazing Race 33's finale
Dusty and Ryan search for a clue on Amazing Race 33’s finale (Photo by Adam Torgerson/CBS)

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.

No equalizers

Moe Badger and Michael Norwood run from a mystery task that was cut from The Amazing Race 33, episode 4
Moe Badger and Michael Norwood run from a mystery task that was cut from The Amazing Race 33, episode 4. (Photo by Helmut Wechter/CBS)

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

Kim and Penn Holderness run toward the Amazing Race's mat to win TAR 33
Kim and Penn Holderness run toward the Amazing Race’s mat to win TAR 33. (Photo by Adam Torgerson/CBS)

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.

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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.

Discussion

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Happy discussing!

Neal

Wednesday 9th of March 2022

This was actually my first time watching TAR, I'll admit it I watched because of Kim and Penn, casting them was a total viewer grab by casting and it worked, cause I'm a fan now. As a first time watcher I didn't mind the structure, I felt like it each week it made the lead teams fight, didn't matter how big a lead you had the day before, you got a 15 minute head start which with the self drives, was nothing if you got lost. I did go back and watch the first season to see how the race was intended to be run and it was jarring how far behind 3rd place got by the end. This season Ryan and Dusty made one error on an EVEN start and were done because the other teams where humming by then and just never let up. I intend to watch other seasons and maybe my view will change but it liked the format, I agree would've been cooler to see more globe hopping, but mayhap they can bring that back as things get less restrictive. I liked that no one even a team that was rolling was a lock, and no one was out of it.

Pgreyy

Tuesday 8th of March 2022

Wow. I am surprised by the positive review of TAR 33. I would put this as the second worst season ever (only the Family Edition being worse.)

And yet, I agree (basically) with your 5 positives, Andy. (Though, I did find Kim and Penn a bit performative...and I would still prefer "in at 9:15am, out at 9:15pm" over staggered grouping starts--perhaps there's a hybrid option combining the best parts of each?)

So what did both my son and I so negatively react to?

Put simply...not enough teams after the restart...and they didn't go anywhere...and they didn't do anything.

The reality of losing four teams, replacing two of them with teams that were already eliminated, really killed off the sense of stakes in this season. It felt like every other leg was an NEL...(which usually saved the same back of the pack team.)

You never felt that any of the teams could do anything smart to change their fate...based on the lack of needing to find travel options and so many challenges being based too much on luck.

Remember in the Family Edition when they were told "go see the big chair" as a challenge? Too many of this year's challenges felt like that.

The nadir was probably when they went from a "needle in a haystack" challenge of smashing plates to get a clue into another "needle in a haystack" challenge of finding a coin under a rock.

I understand that the course designers were hampered by the reality of running a competitive travel show in the middle of a global pandemic...but it did me me question whether a bad TAR is better than no TAR.

Thankfully, as you said, most of the teams were enjoyable to watch. (Though Arun and Natalia have be considered one of the worst teams to run the race, from a competitive perspective...they were at least as nice as they were lucky.) I could even see a few of these teams being picked for an All Stars/Second Chance/Unfinished Business type of season.

In the end, despite our disappointment with this season, my son and I watched through to the end...with his second choice team beating my first choice team (his first choice team didn't return after the restart.)

In the end, I think we both agreed that some TAR is better than no TAR...but I can’t see this as a season we'll ever choose to rewatch. It left us unsatisfied...but eager for a return to form in the future.

Thanks for a different perspective, Andy.

Bruce

Tuesday 8th of March 2022

Beyond the good casting was the ability of fans to get to know the participants better. Instead of one hour a week of exposure, many of the teams posted a video recap the day after each program. This gave an expanded view of the challenges, some insight into what worked and what didn't, and some rationale for why a challenge played out the way it did. It also gave more of the backstory of the teams. Kim and Penn, as long-time news reporters and video producers, did a great job at this and it will be nice to see them continue with their vlogs to include other cast members.

Julie

Monday 7th of March 2022

Andy you summoned up the season perfectly. Definitely could have done without Akbars berating. I hope Sherri is proud of herself! IMO, not spending the majority of the season in over populated countries was a double plus!!

Dennis

Monday 7th of March 2022

After all they went thru, i would like to have seen 1st 2nd and 3rd prizes..

Andy Dehnart

Monday 7th of March 2022

They do get prizes for coming in second and third—and every other place! It's a tiered structure, with teams getting more money based on how long they stayed in the race. I haven't seen clear confirmation recently of what the second-place prize is, but it was once reported as $25,000; I wouldn't be surprised if that has gone up, or stayed the same.