Friday, May 2, 2014

A Grand Unified Theory of The Amazing Race or Why I'm Running out of Teams to Root For

The trio of teams I once enjoyed, but now despise.

I don’t normally write about The Amazing Race, even though I enjoy the show a great deal, because I typically find that I have very little to say about the show beyond just recapping the events of any particular episode.  But this season has been particularly troubling to me because it’s been emphasizing some of my least favorite aspects of the show, both in terms of the racers and the format of the race itself.  So I figured I’d use this season (and the last few episodes in particular) to explore my Grand Unified Theory of The Amazing Race and use it to explain why I’m only really rooting for one team anymore this season.  So without further ado, I present to you:

Tyler’s Grand Unified Theory of The Amazing Race

Principle One: It’s a Game
When I say “It’s a game,” I mean that any actions within the rules are acceptable.  There should be no whining or complaining about somebody playing the game using the rules and tools provided.  This principle was most blatantly violated last week by Dan Dave & Connor who bitched endlessly about the fact that Brendon & Rachel U-Turned them.  I get that the U-Turn is a divisive gameplay element and has been since its predecessor, The Yield, was introduced ten years ago in Season Five (it’s hard to believe it’s really been that long).  There are multiple strategic uses (or non-uses) for the U-Turn.  Some teams will use it to stay out of last place.  Some will use it to ensure victory in a leg (as Brendon & Rachel did).  Some would even argue that you shouldn’t use the U-Turn unless absolutely necessary because it could end up backfiring on you.  And those people might end up being right, given that the previews for next week’s episode show that the Double U-Turn will be popping up again.

No matter what your strategic views on the U-Turn, you cannot complain about its actual use as “unfair” or “not right,” as Dan Dave & Connor and their “accidental alliance” did.  You especially can’t play the age card and whine about U-Turning “a 60-year old man” when that 60-year old man is half of a team that has won three legs, has yet to finish lower than fourth place in any given leg, and has pretty well established itself as one of the two best teams left in the race.  The proper response to being U-Turned by an opponent is not to complain about its “fairness” but to race faster so that you’re not behind them at the end of a Detour.

Principle Two: No Moralizing
One of the ugliest moments of this week’s episode came in passing and likely went unnoticed by most of the audience.  It involved Caroline & Jennifer calling Brendon & Rachel “NLUs,” short for “Not Like Us.”  As Dan Fienberg at Hitfix pointed out in his recap, it’s a textbook “page out of Bullying 101.”*  You identify a target who is “not like you,” choose an action or behavior you find particularly appalling, ostracize the target, and then recruit others to join you in ostracizing the target.  Now, I can’t say that Caroline & Jennifer are consciously engaging in bullying behavior, but the fact that they use the phrase “not like us” often enough to need an acronym for it says a great deal more than they’re probably willing to admit.

* Specific examples of “indirect bullying” that we’ve seen from the “Accidental Alliance” this season according to Peter Ross, Phillip Slee, and Ken Rigby:  Refusing to socialize with the victim, bullying other children so they don’t socialize with the target, ostracizing the victim, criticizing their appearance, dress, etc., name-calling, silent treatment, laughing and joking at the expense of the victim.

This year’s teams are providing an extreme example of what it looks like to violate Principle Two.  The simple fact is that, provided everybody stays within the rules and is actively trying to win, there is no “right way” or “wrong way” to run The Amazing Race.  And yet it continues to happen every season that some team gets offended because they were U-Turned or another team took their cab and they try to paint the perpetrators as the morally bankrupt villains.  But there is no right or wrong in the race, only winning and losing and so long as you’re following the rules and trying to be a winner, you’re racing the “right way.”

Now that’s not to say that there aren’t strategic advantages to be gained from bringing moralism into the race.  Leo & Jamal seem to be trying that very ploy, teaming up with the aforementioned aggrieved teams not because they have any particular animosity toward Brendon & Rachel or sympathy for the “Accidental Alliance,” but because they see Dan Dave & Connor and Caroline & Jennifer as the two weakest remaining teams and think they would be at an advantage racing against them in the final leg as opposed to Brendon & Rachel or Jet & Cord.  That’s a perfectly valid strategy, but then Leo & Jamal haven’t really been complaining about any teams playing “the wrong way,” they’ve just taken advantage of the atmosphere.

Principal Three: It’s a Race!
Where Leo & Jamal have lost me is in their seemingly slavish devotion to their alliance.  We’ve seen alliances before.  We’ve even seen lopsided alliances before.  Hell, Caroline & Jennifer helped boost themselves to a fourth-place finish two seasons ago by partnering with eventual winners Bates & Anthony.  But that alliance, as all Amazing Race alliances should be, was both transitory and mutually beneficial.  Bates & Anthony helped them a lot but they pulled their own weight a lot as well. 

This season, however, the Country Blondes have been just this side of useless since almost the beginning.  In the last leg they failed to solve a relatively simple puzzle and needed Leo & Jamal to give them the answer.  Prior to that they failed to assemble a toy donkey and needed Dan Dave & Connor to both show them how to put it together and carry it for them.  Before that, they had to team up with Dan Dave & Connor on a pair of Roadblocks, had to beg the Express Pass out of Jet & Cord, and still managed to finish last in two legs only to be saved by a Non-Elimination.

Yet there were Leo & Jamal giving Caroline & Jennifer another answer despite the pair being tied for the last.  For the record, that was the second time this season that Leo & Jamal have flat out given an opponent the answer to a task when that opponent was the only team left behind them.  Luckily, they’ve managed to avoid elimination both times but in their attempts to avoid offending teams, they’ve forgotten the most important third principle of The Amazing Race: “It’s a race!”  The team that finishes last loses.  So if you’re going to form an alliance or help another team, make sure that you’re getting something back from the exchange.  Don’t just give away the answer to a puzzle.  Make sure that you’re helping teams who can help you back.

That’s my Grand Unified Theory of The Amazing Race.  It’s not complicated.  It’s just meant to remind us all why we’re here: to reach the finish line first.  It also has made this season particularly frustrating.  If you had told me in the premiere that these would be the final five teams I would have been excited.  I never particularly enjoyed Brendon & Rachel their first time around, but I didn’t have any animosity toward them, which seems to be the general response from viewers who knew them from their previous appearances on Big Brother.  That team aside, though, I actually did like the other four teams who are still alive.  But the three teams I’ve highlighted here have all managed to completely lose any sympathy I had for them coming into the season.

With three legs left (airing over the next two weeks), I have only one team to root for: cowboys Jet & Cord, who just might be the best team in Amazing Race history at completing tasks but who have an infuriatingly consistent knack for getting lost.  I could probably be satisfied with a Brendon & Rachel win but I fear it’s going to come down to whiners, bullies, and morons and this season is going to end in extremely disappointing fashion.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and amateur television critic.  You can reach him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.


  1. I was really rooting for Dave (not Dan) and Connor at the beginning of the season and am one of those Big Brother fans who holds much animosity toward "Brenchel." But I'm with you on this one. Dave and Connor's whining killed me and the fact that it was targeted at Brendan and Rachel has kept me conflicted. Argh.

  2. I've discovered that I don't like Brendon & Rachel when they're losing but I can kind of like them when they're winning. When she struggles, Rachel has a tendency to melt down (she's similar to Luke in that way). But when she and Brendon are doing well, she's happy and excited and generally what I want from racers. The only thing that keeps me reserved is the whole "if we win Brendon will let me have a baby" thing, which kind of creeps me out. But she's a professional reality contestant at this point so I can see her just making that up to give them a storyline for the season.

    And thanks for the "Dave" catch. I was meticulous about making sure I spelled Brendon's name right but didn't even think twice about that one.