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The Pre-Pandemic World of The Amazing Race Is Giving Us the Feels

International travel? Social closeness? It was once possible!
  • Remember dancing? Amazing Race contestants Will Jardell and James Wallington take in carnival in Trinidad in the season opener. (Photo: CBS)
    Remember dancing? Amazing Race contestants Will Jardell and James Wallington take in carnival in Trinidad in the season opener. (Photo: CBS)

    We talk a lot these days about the "before times." At least I do. Those misty, watercolor memories of a time before a global pandemic. A comparatively less stressful time that was vaguely… before. Often it's a knowingly silly form of gallows humor, while other times it is a deep and very sincere longing to, as Lost once presciently pleaded, go back. It usually comes armed with a pang in the gut when reality quickly sets in and I realize that I live in the here and now and the world around me is in rough shape. But I've found one blessed exception to this rule in the last few weeks, and that's been watching the current season of The Amazing Race on Wednesday nights. It's a weekly chance to exist within a pre-pandemic space and revisit a show that once brought me so much joy. It's the most comfortable of comfort TV.

    This is possible, of course, because the current season of The Amazing Race — the show's 32nd since it began airing in 2001 — was taped a whopping two years ago. So CBS had this one in the can when they needed a show to fill in for Survivor's fall time slot. It's something of a happy accident, but it also means we're getting the rarest of rare objects: new reality TV that's an artifact of a pre-pandemic world. And not just any artifact either; The Amazing Race offers a unique glimpse into so many things we can't do at the moment. It's as if someone had the foresight to make a TV show about people going to the movies, meeting friends for indoor karaoke, and then indiscriminately making out with strangers. (Nobody pitch that idea, it's mine.)

    The first and most obvious thing is that The Amazing Race is about international travel, something that most of us cannot do right now. The eleven teams of two kicked off their race in Los Angeles's Hollywood Bowl and flew to Trinidad and Tobago, mirroring the Caribbean vacations none of us could take this year. (Okay, some of us couldn't have taken a Caribbean vacation even in a non-pandemic world, but stay with me here.) From there, they moved on to South America. This week, they'll take their next leg of the race to France, as the race around the world continues. This is an area where a traditional source of frustration with the Race pivots from "bug" to "feature." Over the years, as the show has streamlined itself — for better and for worse — the focus has shifted away from self-navigating teams given the freedom to make their own travel arrangements, haggle for better/faster routes, take chances with risky connection times, et cetera. The early seasons were packed with these kinds of maneuverings, and while they sometimes resulted in teams way ahead/behind each other (and thus making it harder for the show to sell the angle of a suspenseful race to that leg's Pit Stop), it made it a lot easier for the home audience to see who was good and not so good at running the race. These days, flights are usually pre-booked by production, the racers are bunched up early on in every episode, and the finishing order for each leg is determined by the tasks within each episode. This is normally something that irks me, or at least has me muttering about how everything used to be better, but this season, I'm missing the added airport stress marginally less. These days, I want to watch travel, and I want to watch things going as smoothly as possible.

    Needlesstosay, watching the racers complete their tasks without having to worry about masks or maintaining a safe distance has been a balm as well. Thus far, there haven't been any tasks which require the teams to breathe within super close proximity to each other, but it's nice to watch something where you're not mentally picturing the radius of everybody's invisible vapor cloud when they talk.

    And then there are the hugs. Race partners hugging each other. Racers hugging host Phil Keoghan at the Pit Stops. Racers attempting to hug local ambassadors only to be awkwardly rebuffed not because there's the threat of catching a deadly disease but because cultural mores vary from place to place.

    Also, while The Amazing Race is experientially a good time, there's also the fact that revisiting a show that's been on the air for 20 years — one you maybe watched for its first fifteen or so seasons and then drifted away from as the years went on — has been a great source of comfort in uncertain times. It's not dissimilar to the nostalgic feelings brought on by HBO Max's West Wing reunion (which, anecdotally speaking, appears to have spurred on a lot of West Wing rewatches). I'd definitely lapsed from The Amazing Race over the years, and quibbles with the competition's structure aside, it's been great to get back into the show's rhythms: the Detours, the Roadblocks, the telltale signs of stress with the teams that will become arguments down the line, the alliances, the inevitability that the nicest teams always go home first. Even the parts that have been making me angry are, in a weird way, making me happy. For the last two weeks, an alliance between two self-styled nerds who are dating and a pair of blonde sisters has been sticking in my craw, if only because their partnership (two all-white teams drawn to each other because of vague "we just clicked with them" reasons) has directly led to the elimination of both the all-Black teams, and I am mad about it, but also I'm glad to have something like this to be mad about.

    The Amazing Race has always been a show that values the globe and the ways in which travel can enrich and educate. You're never going to mistake it for something truly high-minded, but for a show where one of this season's challenges was traversing a tightrope while balancing a tray with a wine bottle on it like a clown, it brings Americans to other cultures, and other cultures into our living room. It's a marketing hook, sure, but it's something we can't really do at the moment, and watching this portal into a time when we could is TV time well spent.

    The Amazing Race airs on CBS Wednesday nights at 8:00 PM ET.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Amazing Race, CBS, Phil Keoghan, Coronavirus, Reality TV