Over the last couple of years, my family has probably watched 25-30 seasons of Amazing Race and Survivor combined, culminating in the All-Star season 40 of Survivor: Winners at War. We haven’t watched either since, and with the 41st season of Survivor delayed due to Coronavirus, I had hoped that World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji might fill the gap. It, too, comes from producer Mark Burnett, although World’s Toughest Race actually predates Survivor, having aired on various other networks starting with MTV between 1995 and 2002. It never quite caught on.
I understand why. I was excited about the prospect of a show that essentially combines elements of Survivor (it’s on the same island of Fiji) and Amazing Race (teams pitted against each other in a 671 km race across the island). In reality, however, Eco-Challenge is both a much, much more difficult race, and also much less interesting one. In a way, Eco-Challenge made me realize what I love most about Survivor and Amazing Race, and that’s the casting, and the drama, the scheming, and the bickering. That does not exist here.
Eco-Challenge, hosted by Beat Grylls, is more about the indomitable human spirit, which is great in a Nike commercial but falls flat in a 10-episode series. Right off, the problem is that there are 66 teams, and there’s no way — in 10 hours — that all of their stories can be told. In fact, since roughly half the teams don’t speak English, they’re essentially excluded from the edit unless they are involved in a particularly dramatic moment. Moreover, for many of the teams, there’s no compelling hook — in fact, that applies to most of the frontrunners, who mostly keep their heads down and trudge ahead through rivers, mountain bike paths, rocks that need to be climbed and jungles that need to be walked through. It’s an intense and difficult race that doesn’t leave a lot of time for interpersonal drama, which is what the messy benches among us like so much about Survivor and Amazing Race.
It also doesn’t work that well as a competition series. Some may remember that terrible opening season of Amazing Race when the first-place team won by a full 24 hours, and we had to watch as editors attempted — in vain — to manufacture some drama out of the finale. Likewise, in Eco-Challenge, the first few teams finished in the eighth episode. There are 10 episodes. The drama, such as it is in Eco-Challenge, is far more about which teams will finish the race or which teams will be eliminated either due to falling too far behind or because of injury (it’s mostly injury; teams are given 11 days to finish, and the frontrunners finish in under 6).
That’s not to say that Eco-Challenge is not without some merit, particularly for those who might like those introductory packages at the Olympics or American Idol, where we hear the hard-luck stories, and learn about the grit and determination of the contestants. There’s a lot of grit and determination in Eco-Challenge. I’m not downplaying it, either — every single person in this race is tougher than I am both physically and probably mentally. But to their credit, they do not play for the cameras well.
There are, however, a few teams for which it’s hard not to root. Mark — who has raced in the Eco-Challenge numerous times — had to leave his former team, a group of now senior citizens, to race with his son because Mark now has Alzheimer’s. I vacillated between being inspired by him, and wondering why he was still out there putting himself in this much danger.
Likewise, the more interesting teams — like Mark’s and Mark’s former team — are usually in the back of the pack, and most of the drama lies in whether they make in in time to the next check point. Their eliminations, however, often bring as much relief as they do sadness, because it’s hard to watch a lot of these players put themselves through so much physical pain. There is one team, for example, whose strongest player suffers a heatstroke on the first day, and yet the team continues on, and we have to watch this guy continue racing instead of going to a hospital. Later on, we also see a player experience hyperthermia and we are left to wonder if he’ll be able to recover enough to return to the race. The fact that I’m asking why that is even a consideration is probably why I could never race in an Eco-Challenge. Also, the wet feet. There are so many shots of wet, shriveled, broken, and calloused feet in Eco-Challenge. Feet should not have to endure this much suffering, and we should not have to endure seeing those feet.
Bear Grylls, meanwhile, acts more like an observer than the host of a reality competition series: He remarks on the teams like he might on animals in the wild. “Watch these majestic Canadian players traverse the dangerous Fiji jungle.” Grylls manages to relay something akin to both reverie for the race and its players, as well as an attitude that suggests he could do this all in his sleep. “Breaking a leg and cracking a couple of ribs is part of a hard day’s work!”
I’m sure, however, that Eco-Challenge has an audience; it’s just not the same one as Mark Burnett’s other reality competition series. This one is for fans of tough-guy competitions, or advanced hikers, bikers, climbers, and kayakers who might want to see others compete on difficult terrain. It’s an endurance competition — can you travel 671 km without collapsing? — which gains these players all the respect in the world. Their struggle and their spirit, unfortunately, does not make for particularly compelling TV. In fact, I tried to watch this one with the family, but they got bored and quit before the end of the second episode, leaving me to endure the rest on my own.
‘World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji’ premiered on Amazon Prime today, August 14th.
Header Image Source: Amazon Prime