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Of Amazing Races and Starving Survivors

The top-rated reality show is no longer the best.

by Mark D. Johnson
December 20, 2002

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Of Amazing Races and Starving Survivors_Mark D. Johnson-The top-rated reality show is no longer the best. CBS delivered a heavy dose of reality this week, with the finale episodes of ”The Amazing Race 3” and “Survivor: Thailand”, the two most elegantly-produced reality franchises on television, each offering a million dollars to the winners, and by the end of the three-hour "Survivor" programming Thursday night, it was clearly an overdose. While “Survivor,” concluding its fifth installment, is single-handedly responsible for television’s reality megatrend, a comparison of two shows’ finales boldly underscores the strengths of “Amazing Race” and the weaknesses of “Survivor.” The former has stolen the quality crown as the best that Reality TV has to offer, but it has a long journey ahead to capture the ratings crown.

Wednesday’s whirlwind conclusion of “Amazing Race” featured its typical fast pace, some astonishing behavior, both good and bad, by contestants, and, most gratifyingly, an unpredictable finish. Much of the first half of the two hour special was devoted to the unbelievable whining and temper tantrums of Flo, an attractive young woman racing with her platonic friend Zach, the World’s Most Patient Man. Viewers are accustomed to rooting for their favorite teams of two as they race around the world, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many found themselves rooting for Zach to win and for Flo to lose. When she wasn’t yelling at Zach, she was crying and threatening to quit, and through it all, Zach calmly stayed positive, slowly prodding his insane partner to make the next rational move. Incredibly, his persistence paid off as they crossed the finish line first, beating the two remaining teams, Ian and Terry, the older married irascible couple (2nd place), and the likable, amusing brothers, Ken and Girard (3rd).

Unlike other reality shows, the arguments that arise among the players of “Amazing Race” are a natural byproduct of tense competition and extensive traveling. The squabbles on “Survivor” and “Big Brother” tend to be about back-stabbing and petty incidents, which only help to point out the ultimate triviality of those shows. Cast members are often chosen for their potential to incite conflict with their opponents. Conflict is good for high drama, which is good for ratings. “Amazing Race” is exciting enough on its own that it doesn’t need arguing contestants to raise the dramatic level. Yet the extreme emotions that are frequently displayed in the context of a physical race and between people with a pre-existing relationship, give “Race” a realistic edge that viewers can easily identify with. And since the teams are always on the go, they have less time to worry about how they look on camera. Sadly, “Amazing Race” has failed to draw a sizeable audience, going against tough competition (“The Bachelor,” “The West Wing”), but thankfully, CBS is giving the series a fourth run, starting in the Spring.

In stark contrast was the overly long and dull finale of “Survivor: Thailand,” which started out the season strong and featured several new competitions, but in the end resorted to an excessively familiar formula and not-so-likable contenders for the big prize. It came down to the final two: the lazy redneck-type Clay and the used car salesman and former soft-core porn star Brian. And the winner is (though we didn’t really care all that much): Brian, by a vote of four to three. His cockiness, sexist remarks, and manipulative gameplay earned him scorn among viewers, but he proved to be a smart strategist, which ultimately won him the game. Overall, the cast was one of the most lackluster in “Survivor” history, and the interspersed interviews lacked the usual insight and amusement. What seemed so fresh when the original “Survivor” piqued our interest in the summer of 2000 is starting to wear thin.

The two-hour wind-up was immediately followed by a commercial-heavy cast reunion hour, which was hosted by regular series host, Jeff Probst, for a change. CBS would have done better to split the finale into two weeks, with the final week consisting of the final voting, followed by the reunion. Three hours of “Survivor” is simply too much. The sixth “Survivor” series will take place in the Amazon and is set to begin airing in February, far too soon for this viewer. They have promised a major twist. We’ve heard that before, only to see a relatively minor variation. If “Survivor: Amazon” fails to offer something significantly new, I predict the ratings will start to fall irrevocably. I predict that the series, while still offering memorable moments, will soon find itself danger of getting voted off the TV schedule due to over-exposure and rigid routine. The seventh installment, presumably next fall, may well be its last. The flexibility and genuine excitement that “Amazing Race” offers is far more worthy of praise and attention than a weakened “Survivor,” but an interesting cast and intriguing, unscripted incidents always have potential to rise above any format-related failings “Survivor” might have.

Channel Hopping...
  • Tonight, Fox airs the two-hour pilot of "Firefly," which did not air when the season began because Fox execs did not feel it had enough action. Though Fox has officially canceled this fine show, creator Joss Whedon is shopping it around to other networks. Here's hoping it gets picked up. Three episodes are currently in post-production, and Fox has no plans to air them. It's so irksome when a network mismanages a good show.

Program Notes will not be published next week, but will return January 3, 2003.

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