Season 34 of The Amazing Race is great not only because of what’s in the competition, but also because of what isn’t. For the first time, the producers have removed non-elimination legs, which has created some of the most nail-biting episodes in years. The entire reality competition genre could learn from this example.
Long time TAR watchers know that non-elimination legs have been with the show since Season 1. Back then, it was a novel concept to occasionally spare last-place contestants and allow them another chance to race. Since those teams were given some kind of impediment in the following leg — usually an additional challenge to complete — it turned them into underdogs we could root for (or against). But as the decades wore on, this twist became rote. It was exhausting to wait for the inevitable revelation that an entire episode was culminating in a whole lot of nothing.
Non-eliminations might’ve been interesting for a little while longer if they had been limited to The Amazing Race, but they leached into the groundwater of reality competitions. American Idol introduced the judges' save, which let Simon Cowell and friends rescue a singer who’d been eliminated by audience votes. Over on Project Runway, mentor Tim Gunn eventually got the power to bring back one designer per cycle. Top Chef even delivered Last Chance Kitchen, an entire series designed to let booted chefs get back in the fight.
This was frustrating. Sometimes, it felt like producers kept people around simply because they needed to pad out their episode orders. What they framed as “drama” was more like the reality TV version of the sitcom clip show: a pointless installment designed to get the season to a contractually obligated number of weeks. This was especially true of last year’s Amazing Race cycle, which featured an eye-rolling three non-elimination legs. Considering several teams had to drop out because they couldn’t keep playing after a long, pandemic-mandated filming delay, it was pretty clear why this “surprise” kept popping up.
Then there was the Season 4 episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race that forced Sharon Needles and Phi Phi O’Hara to lip-sync for their lives, only for RuPaul to reveal that Willam had been eliminated for breaking the rules. This was a blatant waste of time, since everyone behind the scenes certainly knew that Willam was going home before they decided to subject us to the charade of watching that year’s biggest enemies face off.
But at least somebody actually left that week. Nowadays, Drag Race has become increasingly dependent on the “double shantay,” which is supposed to be delivered when RuPaul is so impressed by a lip sync that he can’t bear to make either queen sashay away. In reality, though, it plays like a tactic to gin up drama. In Season 14, for instance, it was cynically easy to predict that RuPaul was going to save both Jorgeous and Jasmine Kennedie before they even started lip syncing, since they were both driving storylines. That’s exactly what happened. The later addition of the “golden chocolate bar,” which saved Bosco after she had been declared a lip sync loser, only heightened the impression that gimmicks were overshadowing the game.
Worst of all, this “fooled ya!” chicanery has the stench of cheating. On Top Chef, several chefs have won their seasons after returning via Last Chance Kitchen. Even though that’s technically legal, it’s awfully cheap when the champion is able to skip major challenges. Nailing a handful of head-to-head cook-offs in a web-only spinoff is not the same as surviving restaurant wars. Contestants who win after getting bounced certainly have a great comeback story, but it’s also a great story when a perceived frontrunner goes down. When people get chance after chance, it gives the impression a show is rigged.
In this season of The Amazing Race, though, the stakes feel higher from the beginning. The utter lack of wiggle room just intensifies our passion for the teams, because if our favorites fall behind, then we know they have no hope. That’s the kind of drama that gets us yelling at the television, and it’s worth it. Take the “mega leg” in Episodes 3 and 4: That was a two-hour, multi-week commitment that felt worthwhile because we knew that after all the fighting, breakdowns, and sculpture chiseling, somebody was going to be kicked out. We knew there wouldn’t be a buzz-killing save to negate all the action that had come before. (Let’s politely ignore the episode where a team was removed because of a positive COVID test. At least that wasn’t pre-planned.)
Most importantly, by eliminating a team at the end of every leg, The Amazing Race is keeping its implicit promise to its audience that the show is about skill and teamwork, not free passes. With Netflix’s reboot of The Mole also proving the value of always sending someone home on schedule, The Amazing Race has chosen the right time to commit itself to consequences. Fingers crossed that other shows will do the same.
The Season 34 finale of The Amazing Race airs December 7 at 9:00 PM ET on CBS.
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Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.