I don't like to travel much. Actually, I should say I don't like to fly much. Being trapped for hours and hours inside an oversized pickle jar 30,000 feet above the ground is not my idea of fun. So when I watch The Amazing Race, I usually end up thinking about what they don't show just as much as what they do. Competing teams routinely board planes, trains and busses for 10-, 15- and 20-hour stints. Three seconds later they're clambering off, racing pell-mell toward the next clue. What happened to the interminable spans in between?
In a sentence, it wouldn't make for very good TV.
So it's off to the next adrenaline-filled escapade. Rappelling—upside down—from the top of a towering hotel in Las Vegas. Or parasailing in some remote corner of Europe. Or sliding down a mountain of indoor snow in Dubai. The contestants on The Amazing Race (divided into teams of two) do really amazing things … when they're not sacked out on intercontinental flights that have to feel to them like they're never going to end.
One of the most critically acclaimed and Emmy-recognized reality shows on TV, The Amazing Race has already circumnavigated the globe more times than most of us have traveled outside our home states. And maybe that's why so many of us watch it. It's the modern, screen-addicted equivalent of reading Around the World in Eighty Days or even Robinson Crusoe. From our comfortable couches we get to see how uncomfortable—and exciting!—it is to trot around our planet, and on somebody else's dime, too. Exotic locales. Strange and wonderful foreign cultures. Weird food. Festive dances. It's all there on The Amazing Race.
What's also there, though, is bickering, backbiting, backstabbing and general blathering on about all manner of subjects that don't do much to enhance the National Geographic nature of these far-flung expeditions. Profanity laces some of the teams' dialogue. And morality doesn't always board the plane along with the players when it comes to the lifestyles they represent. Unmarried couples who live together, for instance, are typical. As are homosexual couples.
Some of the game's "roadblocks" and other mini-contests have involved skimpy swimsuits or even stripping down to your underwear. And while we've seen teams treat locals well, we've also seen them paint America with a awful blend of anger, impatience and arrogance. It's a race, true. But should being in a race mean you set aside all human decency to make it to the finish line first? True sportsmen would tell you no. But reality TV is teaching us—and its participants, too—that "just a game" means "I get to do whatever I want." And, frankly, the crazier things a person does, the more camera time he or she gets. The Amazing Race, despite its reputation for being cleaner than many and more educational than most, is no exception to the rule in that regard.
"This Is the Most Stupid Day Ever"
The 18th iteration of The Amazing Race, dubbed Unfinished Business, involves 11 also-ran teams from earlier seasons. A previous-episode recap informs us that Mel White (a gay activist) and his son, Mike, were eliminated. That recap also shows shirtless male contestants wearing sumo wrestling outfits. Women wear equivalent two-piece garb.
Nine teams proceed from Kurihama, Japan, to Lijiang, China, where they race up Jade Dragon Mountain. A roadblock involves finding and organizing charms representing the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Later, contestants name their own sign as they insert a wish into a prayer wheel. The episode culminates with teams' arrivals at the city's Eternal Tower.
Mistakes are what make up the bulk of the screen time for the neon-and-black-clad "dating goths" Kent and Vyxsin. And to his great credit, Kent maintains a mostly positive outlook despite Vyxsin's repeated errors. "That little pink kitten is trying her best," he says. But he lies about a car breaking down.
Live fish get lobbed onto a skillet. Profanity includes close to 10 misuses of God's name, three uses of "b‑‑ch," four of "h‑‑‑" and one of "d‑‑ned." Milder exclamations include "freaking," "screwed" and "sucks." One obscenity gets censored.
"Run Like Scalded Dogs!"
This season, and in this episode (which shows the teams traipsing through Chile and Argentina, roping hay bales, playing poker against the Travelocity gnome, and pretending to be old-school bandits) a lesbian couple and a gay man constitute the show's predictably "representative" casting. Other sectors of society tapped: models and/or B-grade celebs, hicks, jocks, cops, jerks and grandmas.
The team that loses in this leg of the race is composed of moms who frequently—and sincerely—call on Jesus for help. But most of the time, contestants misuse God's and Jesus' names (close to 20 times). Profanity, actually, is the episode's biggest problem: We hear at least three uses of "d‑‑n" and "b‑‑ch"; one each of "p‑‑‑ed," "h‑‑‑," "bloody" and "a‑‑." "Freaking" stands in for the f-word.
Its biggest boost comes from those losing moms. They compete hard, but cleanly and fairly. And when they know they're in last place, they're OK with that. "We just wanted to be an example to our children, to other mothers, actually," one says. "Just pursue your dreams and don't give up. As long as my children know that I didn't give up, that's what important to me."