Having broadcast TV’s two best reality competitions, Survivor and The Amazing Race, on the same night is a beautiful thing—and it’s amazing that this is the first time it’s happened in the 21 years they’ve both been on the air.
It’s also amazing how reinvigorated The Amazing Race feels in this pandemic era. That could have really hampered it, and did in a few ways last season, but mostly the restrictions have given it new life.
Last season was terrific, and TAR 34 is building on that, adding two new twists that corrected for two of the weaker parts of last season, and retaining welcome changes like the lack of U-Turns.
The biggest change of all is the elimination of non-elimination legs. That’s huge; non-elimination legs have been around since season one, though they’ve been used in different ways, and with different penalties
While the non-elimination legs have always been pre-determined, built into the show’s schedule, they have resulted in conspiracy theories when certain teams are saved, so I’m glad those will go away, too.
Perhaps because of that, we have one extra team: seasons 3, 4, 10, and 15 all had 12 teams, too, but since season 15 in 2009, all seasons of The Amazing Race have had 11 teams.
I’d also expect to see more than one Pit Stop that’s not a Pit Stop—a keep-racing thing, so not technically a non-elimination, but a chance for a team that’s behind to catch up.
The other major twist is the “Scramble,” which was a label used for the entire first leg. Instead of going from clue to Roadblock to Detour to Pit Stop, the teams had three tasks and could do them in any order.
That instantly refreshed the way the episode unfolded, especially because so many of last season’s challenges didn’t create any movement in the teams. It also really disrupts the sense that the teams are just running from place to place, checking a box.
A bunch of teams arrived at the Pit Stop at the exact same time, and had they all been one pack going from task to task, that would have been far less interesting than the, well, scramble.
Because the teams had to drive themselves, there was additional strategy in terms of planning a route, which some teams did, asking strangers to look things up on their phones and then marking it on maps.
As they raced from thing to thing, Mattie pointed out that “it’s hard to gauge if teams are ahead of you or behind you.” That was true for the editing, too, and I didn’t mind being unclear about where everyone was.
The editors provided some nice on-screen progress indicators, both for individual teams and, about halfway through the episode, showing us which teams had two tasks done and which had just one.
I don’t think the scramble helped me learn who the teams were, but between Amazing Race and Survivor 43, there were 42 people for me to get to know in three hours, and my brain is not capable of that.
The fun began before the 12 teams even got to the start line. They were flown to Munich on The Amazing Race’s charter jet, and then flew down a river on a log raft (which has been a thing for a long time!) and ran to the start line with wet shoes.
After Phil Keoghan gave his traditional send-off—you can read about how he created “the perfect line to launch this massive thing” the night before season one began—we got a quick glimpse of the camera crews waiting for the racers.
I appreciate that quick fourth-wall breaking, and there’s even more of that footage, including challenge rehearsals, in this CBS Sunday Morning segment.
The teams mostly seemed to be having a good time, and no one immediately emerged as a villain for me. While teams encountered some challenges, of course, the editing kept the mood light and fun, with quite a few funny moments throughout.
Many of the teams got help from tourists near the start line, marking their maps. Nina and Aastha spent time chatting and making friends, and the editing gave us a not-so-subtle line of cars driving away, with little labels indicating which teams were leaving them behind.
“Are we the last to leave? Yes we are! But slow and steady wins the race on The Amazing Race,” Nina said. (I think it was Nina, but maybe Aastha. The race is not great at differentiating between same-sex teammates. I wouldn’t mind Challenge-like shirts with their names on them.)
Later, as Dom drove herself and Rich through Munich, she told the camera, “I’m centering myself on my breath, and focusing on remembering why I’m here and who I am, and my power and my strength.” And then—perhaps a time jump—another car blasted its horn at her. “Sorry, sorry!” she said.
The first Scramble sent them to three Oktoberfest-inspired tasks: smashing a block of ice, rolling beer kegs, and sawing a log.
Each one earned them a piece of a clue, which together sent them to the pit stop. Individually, not incredibly challenging tasks. The beer keg roll was probably the trickiest, since they had to complete two laps in 55 seconds.
The Scramble, though, and the editing of it, really kept the tasks from seeming too repetitive, because we were jumping around from thing to thing, team to team, not watching a bunch of teams attempt the same (easy) task at the same time.
One interesting strategic move was Molly and Emily—identical twins who were separated at birth and met just one year before going on the race together!—thought they’d save the location near the river for last, guessing that Phil Keoghan’s pit stop locations are generally in scenic areas. I don’t think that really paid off, but I like the ingenuity.
I’m curious if the Scramble will be part of every leg, or most legs, or just a few. After seeing it once, I definitely want this to be the norm, but a mix would be ideal.
After the first Scramble, Big Brother’s Derek, Claire, and Derek’s nipples all arrived at the pit stop first, winning $5,000.
Nina and Aastha placed last, and I felt a little bad for them because their entire experience consisted of a few hours in one city—though they did get to fly on The Amazing Race plane to Europe.
In a post-leg interview, Dom said, “We’re meant to go through the challenges and journeys to make us realize our fullest potential.” The Amazing Race certainly does offer those challenges and journeys, and I’m glad it’s continuing to evolve to reach its fullest potential. And I’m genuinely excited for the rest of this season.