Appellate Judge Erick Harper believes there are only two reality shows worth watching—The Amazing Race and Dog: The Bounty Hunter. No points for guessing which one he'd rather appear on.
The world will play host to twenty-two people who have decided to take a break from their ordinary lives and race around the world—this is The Amazing Race.
We all, I think, get a kick out of bashing reality TV from time to time. It's an out-of-control mess, a cancer that is quickly destroying American television and turning it from merely a vast wasteland into an outright cesspool. Reality television, we say, is driving out quality, more expensive programming in favor of cheaply-made, unscripted shows. And usually, when we decry the evils of reality TV run amuck, we are right.
However, in 2001 action mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer threw his hat in the reality television ring. The result was, in the words of host Phil Keoghan, "a contest like no other in history." The Amazing Race has gone on to garner massive ratings, a loyal fanbase, and a pair of Emmys for Best Reality Program.
Facts of the Case
In a contest ripped from the pages of Jules Verne, teams compete in a race around the world. Eleven teams of two people must travel to a series of pre-ordained destinations as they strive to win a prize of $1 million. Along the way they will face all the usual hazards of travel in foreign countries. They will navigate the crowded streets of Mumbai, India; they will see Paris from the heights of the Eiffel Tower and the depths of the sewer system; they will experience the heat of the Tunisian desert and the cold of an Alaskan dogsled trail. As if all this weren't enough, they will also face devious tests of wits, skill, and physical strength devised for them by the show's producers. In the end, if they are successful, they will win The Amazing Race.
One of the strengths of The Amazing Race is its focus on the positive. Where other reality shows like Survivor and Big Brother lock people in one place and watch with sick, voyeuristic pleasure as they stew in their own juice and turn on one another, The Amazing Race focuses on the adventure and excitement of people overcoming obstacles on a trip around the world. While there is some personal conflict among the teams, there seems to be a deliberate choice to downplay it and focus on the journey and physical challenges. The atmosphere here is so markedly different from other reality shows that when one team (the infamous "Team Guido") attempts to engage in some Survivor-esque skullduggery they are ostracized by almost all of the other teams. The race, at least in this first season, is marked by a surprisingly high level of cooperation among the various teams as they, like the first-season viewers, figure out just how the whole affair is supposed to work.
This is not to say that The Amazing Race lacks for drama; far from it. However, instead of Survivor's squabbles over who can catch fish or who eats too much rice, the conflict driving The Amazing Race's drama is that of people trying to overcome obstacles and rise to meet challenges unlike anything they might encounter in their ordinary lives. The race is often as much a journey of self-discovery as a trip to exotic locales. This exploration of people's hidden capacities and talents causes The Amazing Race to offer a uniquely uplifting perspective on its contestants, rather than reveling in the dark side of human nature so often showcased in programs of this kind.
The Amazing Race also shows viewers more of the world than they are likely to see on any other prime-time program. The producers have made a real effort to include challenges and obstacles that are culturally relevant to each destination and capture the local flavor. Sure, the nature of a race doesn't really allow time to examine these fascinating places in detail, but the show presents at least a glimpse of several different cultures around the world, something Americans in general could use a lot more of.
This release of The Amazing Race—The Complete First Season contains all twelve episodes of the first race, including the two-part final episode. Paramount has also thrown in a number of special features to enhance your amazing viewing experience. The "Side Trips" allow viewers to see ninety minutes of footage that never made the television broadcasts. These clips are accessed by hitting a button on the DVD player remote when an icon appears on the screen, much like the features included with The Matrix and The Scorpion King. As with any deleted scenes, the quality and interest level of these clips varies. However, reinforcing the idea of The Amazing Race as a generally positive show, it is interesting to see how often the material cut involves personal hostility or bad feelings; it speaks volumes about the overall attitude of the show's producers that this material was excised.
Included on Disc Four are two featurettes looking back on this first amazing season of The Amazing Race. The longer one, right around 20 minutes in length, included reminiscences from the contestants about how they first heard about the show and how they won their auditions. I found the shorter one slightly more interesting, as the producers and host Phil Keoghan talk about the challenge of putting together such a massive show when it had never been done before. Often the producers and host were barely a step ahead of the contestants, at times even on the same flights and trying to figure out how to get to their destinations without tipping off the teams. Also, running such a race around the world required negotiations to secure the cooperation of several foreign governments.
Probably the most entertaining and enlightening extras are the commentaries provided for four episodes. Each commentary track features two of the race's two-person teams joining forces to discuss their memories of the race and that particular episode. These are informative and frequently hilarious, especially those that feature the gregarious frat brothers, Kevin and Drew. "Team Guido," who emerged as the quasi-villains of this first race, are also quite entertaining to listen to, especially as they give their interpretation of the infamous events at the Tunis airport.
The video quality of this set is impressive, especially for a reality program originally shot for broadcast television. The picture is sharp and clean, looking at least as good as some of Paramount's recent feature film DVD releases. The transfers do a much better than expected job of rendering such amazingly beautiful locations as South Africa's Victoria Falls, India's Taj Mahal, and China's Great Wall. The episodes are presented in their original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Audio comes through in an effective but forgettable Dolby 2.0 mix.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is a great DVD release of a great show, but if I could make one change, I might have Phil Keoghan or one of the producers participate in at least one of the commentary tracks. It's a small quibble, but I think it would be interesting to get their thoughts in a more sustained format.
We've all probably flirted with reality TV from time to time. Maybe we watched the first season or so of Survivor, before it became fashionable to point out its faults. Maybe we had a brief fling with Trading Spaces or What Not to Wear. This show is different. The Amazing Race—The Complete First Season is that rare piece of reality television that you won't have to hide under the couch when your friends come over. It's compelling, exciting television with at least a hint of educational value somewhere in the mix, and that's quite an achievement these days.
Not guilty! A rare nugget of value amidst all the reality TV fool's gold. Paramount's DVD set does this amazing show justice.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• 90 Minutes of Previously Unseen "Side Trips"
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