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Fall '01: "Lost" and "The Amazing Race"

Contrary to popular belief, Lost and The Amazing Race are different shows. In Lost, teams don't know where they are, and they have to get to New York City. In The Amazing Race, teams are in New York City, and they have to race to a mystery location. So you can see that, while both are reality shows involving teams rushing across the world, they're almost completely... well, almost completely the same, I guess. They're also suspiciously similar to those Michael Palin PBS specials like Around the World in 80 Days, if you ask me.

But if you squint, there are differences. Lost is a half-hour NBC show, while The Amazing Race is a hour-long CBS show. See? Completely different! Although in both cases, the fun apparently comes from watching the contestants try to communicate with bemused natives. If you just can't get enough of Americans talking loudly and slowly in the hopes that that will translate into any language, you can take a break from scouring AMC listings for Hope & Crosby's "The Road to Zanzibar," because a good forty percent of the dialogue in either show consists of teams being shocked that someone doesn't speak English. The other sixty percent, as per standard reality show rules, is people either screaming at each other or feebly trying to outwit the other teams, who are all either yelling at each other or engaged in wacky schemes of their own.

Lost is brought to you by Conan O'Brien, which explains the low-key name. The Amazing Race is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, which explains the unjustified presence of the word "Amazing." Potential guest stars for Lost include Max Weinberg and Mr. T, while there's always a chance that Bruckheimer can get Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis, providing that one of the exotic destinations is Hollywood.

The real difference in these shows, assuming that we can continue to pretend that there is one, is in the examples. Let's cover Lost first, which gives the winning team $100,000 and a car (as opposed to The Amazing Race's cool million dollars). First, the contestants got blindfolded, taken to an airplane hangar, and taken away for body searches, which only heightened the hostage impression. Then they got loaded on a jet at 4 a.m., and off they went. They'd have felt pretty stupid if it had turned out to be a big scam. I mean, let's say somebody tells you that they're a television producer, and you have to get blindfolded and flown somewhere. Don't you at least consider the possibility that the only way you'll appear on television is with the caption "Last Known Photo?"

The start was easier for The Amazing Race, which simply gathered the teams in New York City for interminable "Meet the Contestants" footage.The Amazing Race also has twenty-two contestants, while Lost has only six. Luckily, The Amazing Race cuts down on the confusion through the cunning use of stereotypes.

In every reality show, the contestants are quickly assigned stereotypes. Lost does a pretty good job of speeding up the process by having people say things like "As a gay man..." in the first ten minutes. They also have someone named "Lando," which is definitely worth something. I mean, come on. Lando! However, the contestants might as well not even have names on The Amazing Race, which has teams that have large imaginary subtitles labelling them "FRAT GUYS," "YOUNG LOVERS," and "WORKING MOTHERS." And so on, since there are eight more teams that I can't bring myself to commit to memory. Luckily, each episode will eliminate one of the teams, because if Survivor has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that the American public likes seeing people thrown off of television shows. Which may explain the lasting popularity of ER.

On Lost, Each team has a cameraman, who is allegedly as lost and hungry as everyone else. However, the cameraman doesn't have to help set up the tents or carry the packs, so it seems like a softer task. On the other hand, as far as I know, the cameraman has to rely on the orienteering abilities of two reality show contestants and isn't eligible for the hundred grand. So there's that. By sharp contrast, The Amazing Race has a cameraman system that I don't remember. Sorry about that.

One of the challenges the Lost teams face is that they don't know anything about geography. Having studied a globe, I can authoritatively say that dawn in Argentina is at a different time than Mongolia. Speaking of Mongolia, that's where the first Lost challenge took place. Meanwhile, the Amazing Racers don't really have to know too much, because their airfare is pre-paid. Also, their first trip was to South Africa, where there's a lot of English speakers.

Part of the theoretical fun the audience has is considering how they'd play the game differently from the contestants. I asked some of my co-workers what they'd do if they suddenly found themselves in Mongolia, and most of them said they'd probably try to go west to Europe and from there get a plane to the U.S. Except this one guy, who claimed to have family in Ulan Bator. I suspect that having a lot of family around the world is one of the things that would disqualify players, just like having the slightest idea of geography. Any players that know in advance that the planet is round probably have an enormous advantage.

So which should you watch? I think the choice is clear. Lost, being half the length, will only eat up thirty minutes of your life. That's still probably thirty minutes too many, but you can't have everything.


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