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The 'Amazing Race' Improvement Plan

[Editor’s Note: Michaels assures us that he wrote this piece well in advance of Tuesday night’s Amazing Race finale and tried to send it to us Tuesday morning, but was unable to connect to the Internet from Dulles International Airport where he was apparently flying out of on business that’s of no interest to us. This makes Michaels look like more of a chimp than usual, which is no small feat. Anyhow, enjoy his now-outdated ramblings.]

Sometime tonight, horrible Survivor alumni Rob and Amber will doubtlessly complete their unstoppable death march through The Amazing Race in triumph — a wonderful turn of events for the fawning schoolgirls who coo in delight at Rob’s every misdeed, but a dispiriting result for me, all other right-thinking people, and, assuming my theory is wrong and He hasn’t been on vacation for the past five years, God in His Heaven.

But you know what? It’s OK that these two awful, awful people already enriched beyond reason by CBS should take home yet another pile of reality TV-generated filthy lucre. The prize goes to the swiftest, not necessarily the most virtuous. They can’t all be Chip-and-Kim, folks — into every life, a little Freddy-and-Kendra must fall. So it’s hardly like Rob and Amber will be the most contemptible team to ever receive Phil Keoghan’s hearty congratulations at the finish line. And besides, after the $1 million prize from Survivor All Stars and the Mark Burnett-financed wedding, another $1 million is hardly life-changing money — really, it’s just enough to screw up their taxes at this point.

And the ultimate reason it will be perfectly acceptable to me if the contemptible Rob and Amber wind up beating out the slightly less unpleasant but still no great shakes Ron and Kelly or the genuinely nice but still somewhat bland Joyce and Uchenna? Because good winning team, bad winning team, or winning team clearly in league with Satan, The Amazing Race remains one of the most engaging, entertaining shows on television, scripted or un.

But that’s not to say the format couldn’t stand a little bit of tweaking, and no, I’m not talking about the teams-of-four-family-members concept apparently being trotted out for the next edition of The Amazing Race. What I have in mind are a few simple rule changes that will keep future contestants on their toes and viewers like myself on the edge of our seats. I offer these proposals merely as an interested Race observer, with no thought toward any financial compensation should any of them be adapted. (Unless, of course, they are, in which case you’ll be hearing from my attack lawyers, Bertram.)

Here are the modest changes I’d make to The Amazing Race if I were granted absolute dominion over time, space, and CBS’s programming:

The locals are not your personal sherpas. Not to keep dumping on Rob and Amber — though it’s fun and easy, too! — but last week’s episode in London featured America’s fun couple using their charms, wiles, and the presence of a camera crew to accompany them as their own personal tour guide. That week’s challenge required the racers to track down clues that would lead them to Sherlock Holmes’ address. “221 Baker Street,” the helpful limey said, unprompted, and while it’s great he knew that and all, it seems like the point of the race should be to have the actual contestants figure it for themselves, seeing as how the team name is Rob and Amber and not Rob and Amber and Some Guy They Shanghaied on the Underground. I mean, unless that guy is getting a cut of the prize money…

This isn’t the first time Rob and Amber used a local to shepherd them around a leg of the race — it happened in India, South Africa, and probably one or two other places I’m forgetting. It’s certainly not a violation of the rules — other teams in other seasons have done the exact same thing causing me the same amount of irritation — but it certainly seems to go against the principle of the race. Because why do we watch The Amazing Race? To see which teams can keep their wits about them as they battle unfamiliar surroundings, suboptimal traveling conditions, and ever-creeping fatigue? Or to see which ones can find the most helpful tour guides?

So I think there should be a rule discouraging such behavior, if not eliminating it outright. While you should certainly be able to ask the locals for directions — otherwise each leg would wind up going on for a week or two as racers stagger about some foreign locale — if someone physically accompanies you for a significant portion of the race then you should have to take a time penalty at the pit stop at the end of each race leg. I’m thinking an hour or two for each half-mile or so. Teams would still have the option of commandeering a helpful passerby, but they would now be forced to weigh the pros and cons of such a move. And the new rule would reward teams with the moxie to get from point A to point B on their own.

Fix the Fast-Forward. The Fast Forward, a one- or two-time-only event that lets one team skip all other tasks and go directly to the pit stop, should be one of the most exciting twists on The Amazing Race. Right now, it’s one of the dullest. Because, with only one team able to reap the rewards of a Fast-Forward, the minute other racers realize a team has opted to try to win the Fast-Forward, they’re loath to follow. After all, since the Fast-Forward usually involves a task that only one team at a time can perform, why waste chasing after a prize you’re not going to get?

So what I propose is, make the task that earns the Fast Forward something multiple teams can do at once — in other words, make it a race to the finish. This season, Rob and Amber had to stand around at a Fast-Forward to see if the contemptible team of Ray and Deana could walk across a Soweto tower — wouldn’t it have been more entertaining to have the two teams racing each other across the tower?

My colleague Jason Snell heard me suggest this and added the caveat that if the producers really want to encourage multiple teams to try and win Fast Forwards, they should bump up the prize — allow the winner of the Fast Forward to not only jump ahead to the pit stop but to skip the next leg of the race entirely.

That is why Jason runs the show around here — because he takes the ideas of us peons and makes them better. Also, he owns the server.

Prizes galore! Let me see if I can understand this: Joyce and Uchenna finish first in a leg so long that it’s spread out across two episodes and requires Joyce to shave off all her hair, and it turns out to be one of the few stops on The Amazing Race where a prize isn’t doled out to the front-runner. Joyce is a hell of a lot more mellow person than I am. Because if I show up in first place with a freshly shorn head only to find out that The Amazing Race producers have decided to stiff me, I’m not leaving that pit stop until I get my prize, even if it means cold-cocking Phil Keoghan and riffling through his wallet.

Here’s the new rule: You finish first, you get a prize. And that’s because…

Reward the front-runners. It seems patently unfair that a team can win leg after leg of The Amazing Race and then, because of an incompetent cabbie or obstinate barnyard animal or malfunctioning Soviet-era automobile, finish dead last and be shown the door. It seems to me you should be rewarded for your repeated success, and I’m not talking with free trips courtesy of Race sponsor Travelocity either.

So what I’d like to see is that teams that finish a leg in first place more than once receive the equivalent of a one-time-only Get Out of Jail Free card that they can use at any point in the race except for the final leg. That way, when a cruel quirk of fate causes an otherwise strong team to finish a leg at the back of the pack, they can use their one-time immunity pass to stave off elimination. They’ll have to forfeit all their cash, of course, and any prizes they’ve picked up along the way — because, remember: under my enlightened rule, we’re doling out prizes at every pit stop — but they get to stay in the race.

The advantages to this rule change are manifold. It places greater emphasis on teams to finish first. It rewards teams for their craft and savvy. And it reduces — if not eliminates entirely — the need for those ridiculous anti-climatic non-elimination legs.

Breathless Rob groupies currently composing angry e-mails to yours truly should note that this rule change would actually benefit the smirking meathead who has inexplicably won your affections. See? Not every rule has been devised as a retroactive way to punish future Robs and Ambers. I leave that to the cruel whims of the Almighty.

No more celebrities. Ever. OK — some rules are devised as a retroactive way to punish future Rob and Ambers. But if you’re the least bit interested in a reasonably level playing field, this makes perfect sense.

Ignoring the fact that part of the challenge of The Amazing Race is coping with the pressures of having a camera trained on you 24-7 as you try and negotiate your way around the world, pitting a team that’s already enjoyed more than its share of camera time against teams of nobodies gives the aforementioned team an advantage that’s neither a matter of acquired skills or an accident of birth. And with the last leg of Race usually concluding in America, the disparity becomes even greater. Since most people in this country treat fame like a communicable disease — hang around a famous person long enough and maybe you’ll catch it, too! — any team of celebrities, even reality-show celebrities, can count on aid and assistance from gushing fans and star-struck passersby. Any team just a few minutes behind Rob and Amber tonight when The Amazing Race returns to America best work on their concession speech.

So no more celebrities — at least, not in races involving civilians. The Amazing Race wants to do some sort of All-Star edition or a season peopled entirely by reality show veterans, fine and dandy. I can always make alternative viewing plans. But don’t stack the deck against other racers just because it gooses the ratings.

Next week — how to fix American Idol. It involves having Paula Abdul sleep with more contestants.


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