By Cutting Non-Elimination Legs, The Amazing Race Commits to Consequences

Emily Bushnell and Molly Sinert compete on The Amazing Race (Picture: CBS)

The latest season of The Amazing Race is great not only for what’s included in the competition, but also for what’s not. For the first time, producers have removed non-elimination legs, resulting in some of the most compelling episodes in years. The entire reality competition genre could learn from this example.

Longtime TAR watchers know that there have been non-elimination legs on the show since season 1. Back then, it was a novel concept to occasionally spare last-place competitors and give them another chance to race. Because these teams were handicapped in some way in the following stage—usually an added challenge to overcome—they became underdogs that we championed (or resisted). But over the decades, this twist became routine. It was exhausting waiting for the inevitable revelation that an entire episode would culminate in a lot of nothing.

Non-eliminations might have been interesting for a while longer if limited to The Amazing Race, but they’ve seeped into the reality competition aquifer. American Idol introduced the judges’ bailout, which Simon Cowell and his friends used to save a singer who had been eliminated by audience votes. Eventually, over at Project Runway, mentor Tim Gunn was given the power to bring back one designer per cycle. Top Chef even released Last Chance Kitchen, an entire series to get Cooks in Boots back into the fray.

That was frustrating. At times it felt like the producers kept people around just because they had to fill their episode orders. What they dubbed “drama” was more akin to the reality TV version of the sitcom clip show: a pointless episode aimed at extending the season to a contractually-specified number of weeks. This was especially true of last year’s Amazing Race cycle, which featured three stunning non-elimination stages. With several teams dropping out because they couldn’t continue playing after a long, pandemic-related delay in shooting, it was pretty clear why this “surprise” kept popping up.

Then there was the Season 4 episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which 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 an obvious waste of time as everyone behind the scenes surely knew Willam was going home before they decided to put us through the charade of watching the year’s biggest enemies.

But at least someone actually left this week. These days, drag race is increasingly dependent on the “double shantay” to be delivered when RuPaul is so smitten with a lip sync that he can’t bear to let either queen fly away. In reality, however, it plays out like a tactic to create drama. In Season 14, for example, it was cynically easy to predict that RuPaul would save both Jorgeous and Jasmine Kennedie before they even started lip-synching, since they’re both driving the storylines. That’s exactly what happened. The belated addition of the “golden candy bar” that saved Bosco after she was declared a lip-sync loser only reinforced the impression that gimmicks were overshadowing the game.

Worst of all, that “you fooled yourself!” bullying reeks of cheating. At Top Chef, several chefs have won their seasons after returning via Last Chance Kitchen. While technically legal, it’s awfully cheap if the champion can skip big challenges. Tackling a handful of head-to-head cooking competitions in a web-only spin-off isn’t the same as surviving restaurant wars. Competitors who win after rebounding certainly have a great comeback story, but it’s also a great story when a supposed leader goes down. When people get chance after chance, it gives the impression that the show is rigged.

In this season of The Amazing Race, however, the stakes feel higher from the get-go. The complete lack of scope only increases our passion for the teams because when our favorites fall behind we know they have no hope. This is the kind of drama that makes us scream at the TV, and it’s worth it. Take the “mega leg” in episodes 3 and 4: That was a two-hour, multi-week engagement that felt worthwhile because we knew that after all the fighting, breakdowns, and sculpting, someone was going to get kicked out. We knew there wouldn’t be a stunning save to negate all the action that had come before. (Let’s politely ignore the episode where a team was removed for testing positive for COVID. At least that wasn’t pre-planned.)

Most importantly, by eliminating one team at the end of each stage, The Amazing Race delivers on its implicit promise to its audience that the show is about skill and teamwork, not free tickets. As The Mole’s Netflix reboot also proves the value of always getting someone home on time, The Amazing Race timed it right to address the consequences. Fingers crossed other shows do the same.

The season finale of The Amazing Race airs December 7 at 9:00 p.m. ET on CBS.

The Amazing Race is being talked about on our forums. Join the conversation.

Mark Blankenship is the Reviews Editor at Primetimer. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.

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