Help Me! I'm American!
I've always thought that Phil Keoghan, the host of "The Amazing Race," exuded a bland, Nordic kind of stoicism. He always looks kind of rigid, like he was carved out of granite, and his primary job seems to be little more than standing around on a carpet waiting for the exhausted and dehydrated contestants to collapse around him.
Of course, it could be that his stable presence is an intentional counterpoint to the fevered machinery of a Jerry Bruckheimer production. Bruckheimer, as everybody knows, is the Hollywood behemoth responsible for producing such contemplative masterpieces as Top Gun, Gone in Sixty Seconds, and Armageddon.
He's also the producer of "The Amazing Race," now plowing along in its 15th season. It turns out that the incoherent visual energy that fuels Bruckheimer's movies works really well for a game show, too, at least one about couples charging around the world in a, well, amazing race.
The show has won 8 Emmys, has been around since 2001, and stands a pretty good chance of being your favorite reality program. It's a surreal mixture of couples psychodrama, Japanese game show, and kitschy Travelogue, and it's actually pretty irresistible.
The formula is brilliant in its simplicity. Create a bunch of teams of two people, with each team having a pre-existing and floridly complicated relationship, and then unleash them on the world. They then careen about the globe in an acquisitive frenzy, shrieking things like "RAPIDO!!" at puzzled cabbies, regardless of what language the driver might speak.
Everything about the show conveys movement. The opening is almost concussive. Images fly at us, and then plunge away in a vertiginous free-fall, making us feel like we're being slung across the globe at an incredible and uncontrollable velocity.
The actual episode itself hurtles by at a ridiculous pace. The camera very rarely lingers on any one image for more than a second, ricocheting wildly from event to event as if attempting to document the immediate chaos of a war zone. A hand-held camera follows the teams about, bouncing and jangling with every movement. This camera is always in pursuit, and in tandem with over-the-top music that likely came directly out of the Bruckheimer factory, gives the show the feeling of an action movie.
In spite of the fact that very little actually happens when you travel -- you take an escalator, you wait in line, you eat a crappy sandwich, and then you wait in line again -- "The Amazing Race" makes it look like a furious industry of self-determination and activity.
To support whatever dialogue is taking place, subtitles appear on the TV screen, lending an air of complex internationalism to the proceedings, but the truth is that they're really not necessary. We can hear what's going on just fine, but the production team wants to establish a feeling of dislocation and anarchy, and so they imply through the use of subtitles that communication is a muddy chore. The idea, I think, is to create the feeling that the senses are being overloaded, and that an incredible frustration that could explode at any moment is mounting.
This is key, as what really propels the show are the dynamics that are revealed in each team during the race. Although it's awfully fun to be judgmental of their behavior, it's hard not to be sympathetic. Imagine you're exhausted, disoriented, and stressed-out, and then your stupid partner -- who never listens to you -- turns left instead of right, and you end up in a swamp in Cambodia.
Understandably, people lose their shit. However, it's not the behavioral exceptions that are the most interesting, but the persistent patterns of interaction and personality that reveal themselves over the course of the race.
This season, I can't stop watching Meghan and Cheyene.
About as physically nuanced as a Ken and Barbie doll, they see themselves as front-runners, and not just in the race, but in life, too. Cheyene, who has stupid hair, also has the bloodless manner of automaton Tom Cruise. He speaks in platitudes, like a dull athlete in a post-game scrum, saying things like, "We've been running a good race, which is a great sign for our future compatibility," unintentionally reducing Meghan to some breeding pod who must prove herself on the field of competition.
However, Meghan, whom Cheyene met while playing competitive tetherball way back in elementary school, is no joy either. She has the blank, disdainful look of a bitch factory, and seems to have complete authority over their relationship. In the manner of an inspirational speaker or a particularly bad life coach, Meghan talks into the camera, taking pitiless jabs at her man's performance on their last task, while he drives the car.
For the most part, the show builds toward the Roadblock, in which some insane Sisyphean task is constructed to slow down the front-runners so that the rest of the field can catch up to them. At this point, after a full day, everybody is exhausted and bitter, carrying with them the grudges they've been nurturing all day. And so, not only do we have the drama of finding out who will win this leg of the race, but we also get to see which team is going to have an emotional melt-down.
Last week, the teams had to unroll bale after fucking bale of hay, until a clue fell out of one of them. It was clearly an incredibly exhausting and frustrating thing to have to do, and the brother team of Sam and Dan nearly turned homicidal on one another.
When Meghan asked Cheyene which one of them should do the grunt work of this task, he said nothing and looked away weakly. And so, Meghan chose to sacrifice herself and cut off Cheyene's balls by manning up and doing it herself. Cheyene, with his ridiculously styled hair, stood on the sidelines offering diminishing encouragements by tossing her some gloves and praising his "baby girl." Meghan, who really wasn't strong enough to do the task, kept repeating that this was the worst thing she had ever done in her life, before bursting into tears.
Intense and joyless, Cheyene and Meghan were as unpleasant to one another as they were to the world unfolding around them. Contrasting this was Flight Time and Big Easy, the Harlem Globetrotter duo who are now leading the race. Exuding an easy and good-natured charm, like they thought it was all gravy, they sailed happily through their tasks, taking the time to enjoy the world they were passing through, rather than cursing it for getting in their way.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he's written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.