Thursday, August 16, 2012

Amazing Race: Australia season 2 recap - an overview

The second season of Amazing Race: Australia has come to an end; before I go on hiatus from Amazing Race recaps until the debut of the US version's season 21, I'm taking an overview of the entire season.

The Host

Let's begin with Grant Bowler, the series host. On the debut season I found did well at delivering the informative spiels (the significance of a location, the Detour details, etc.), but was stiff when it came to interacting with others. On this season I found... little had changed. In the finale, Grant did show some personality when he hugged the winners at the Finish Line, but I would like to see him unbutton his collar in the future, just as the original series' Phil Keoghan did; Phil is now beloved for clips where he tests out a Detour or Roadblock himself, raises an eyebrow for emphasis, banters with the teams and dispenses relationship advice. I hoped Grant would warm up to that this season, but... not so much. Perhaps production wants to keep him aloof, but I'd like to see him act naturally.

The Cast

Casting was decent, but skewed to younger Racers, probably to attract demographics in Australia. The "old" team (Kym & Donna) were, what, in their 50s? Their youthful attitude hardly set them up as the season's codgers. Many of the contestants seemed to be in their 20s, so that Shane & Andrew gradually became the oldest Racers on the course.

Beyond that, there was a good male-to-female ratio (4 all-male, 3 all-female, 4 mixed) and good mix of family members and friends; also, they avoided stunt-casting minor celebrities which is a minor problem with the US version. I looked for the best in each cast (albeit, Paul & Steve tasked me) and was surprised at how much I enjoyed seeing Lucy & Emilia on the screen, to the extent that their elimination killed a lot of my interest in the finale. Special props to Sticky, who didn't make a big deal about his "handicap" and outside of one challenge (milking in leg 2) didn't demonstrate any difficulty at tasks despite lacking one forearm. His quiet confidence was a real treat compared to some of the "I have to prove myself" disabled Racers of the past.

The Race Course

This season's course was far superior to the previous, in that they actually circumnavigated the globe! Even the US version sometimes struggles at creating a course which wraps around the world, so major props there; they even succeeded at visiting Cuba, a location which the US version has never visited (and perhaps never will). It's interesting to note how because the Australia variant begins down under, many of the early legs were based in unusual, challenging Asian locales and it was a few legs before the Racers arrived in places with simplified navigation and English-speaking populations. Often on the US version, it's the reverse.

It was especially nice to see Canada, which has seldom been visited on the US show (when it was brought out in season 5, it was only for half a leg on the way to the Final Destination). It's a little too much like the USA for their own version, but for Australians, it made for two great legs. I think every season needs at least one leg in snowy climes just for the those Racers who will be seeing snow for the first time.

The Detours

According to the Wikipedia article, we were denied seeing several Detours and Roadblocks; I certainly noticed the absence of Detours in some early legs, but thought production was going easy on the teams. Nope, apparently they just had more footage than they could use!

On many occasions, I felt the Detours were a little simple (like counting limes or arranging jewelry in leg 5), but some legs did make it difficult for teams to recognize which task would be easiest (like the Chinese restaurant options in leg 11); this, ideally, is how Detours should function as it allows teams with particular strengths to surge ahead by choosing the less likely option.

The Roadblocks

The Roadblocks were an interesting mix; some required no real skill (the whirling dervishes in leg 6); others demanded physical strength (the waterfall climb in leg 10); still others took a sharp mind (the stairs in leg 3).

Other Tasks

The only Intersection of this Race (leg 6) was immensely frustrating because it slowed teams down, as the Intersection always does. It's an interesting idea to have teams work together, but I don't think it's ever really gelled on any version of the show; speaking from the audience, I'm not intrigued by the sight of teams sitting around waiting for their competition to arrive. Ah well, at least there was only one, compared to last season's two Intersections.

The only Fast Forward of this Race (leg 9) had the teams pose nude; it led to a little bit of comedy, which is about all you can hope for. Still, a second Fast Forward would have been nice, just to make the legs a little less predictable.

There were a lot of additional challenges this season, from building a raft (leg 1) to selling kitchenware (leg 12). They really ran the gamut and worked well at increasing the difficulty of each leg, as teams might be able to predict one Detour and one Roadblock per leg, but have no idea how many additional tasks there could be. Some, like the Bollywood number (leg 2), actually did delay teams.

Penalties, U-Turns, Yields and Other Punishments

I have never seen a season of Amazing Race where the U-Turn was such a non-factor; because the Dubai leg (leg 4) was so challenging for teams to navigate, Paul & Steve avoided elimination by being better navigators than three other teams. The Blind U-Turn in leg 5 came immediately before an airline flight and could have upset Paul & Steve's standing, but ultimately had no effect because the Detours weren't too challenging. A for effort, D- for execution.

Surprisingly, the Yield worked well; it was never much of a factor on the US version (hence its removal), but when Paul & Steve used it to delay Michelle & Jo, the subsequent Intersection had the hilarious result of inflicting Paul & Steve's own Yield upon themselves, forcing them to wait for Michelle & Jo to catch up! Thus, the Yield didn't give anyone an advantage.

Penalties were mostly dealt with in a fair fashion; Adam & Dane were penalized 30 minutes for selling possessions and it was enough to eliminate them because teams were that close together (leg 2). The four hour penalties which James/Sarah & Ross/Tarryn suffered in leg 5 didn't eliminate them on the spot, but the resulting "Marked for Elimination" penalty Ross & Tarryn received coupled with leg 6's Intersection ensured their doom.

The one penalty I object to is Joseph & Grace's 2 hour penalty for stealing a taxi from James & Sarah; the time penalty was fair, but it was unfair to apply it at the mid-point of the leg - it should have been administered at the Pit Stop, just as Vyxsin & Kent's penalty during season 18 of the US version was in a similar situation. Let's see some consistency amongst all the iterations of the show, yeah?

Last season, Grant had to eliminate one team before they reached the Pit Stop; this season, it happened twice (legs 4 & 11). It probably speaks to the difficulty of those legs, but coupled with two teams quitting the Roadblock on leg 5... boy, a lot of teams wore themselves out of commission.

Bunching

There's no other word for it than the one used in the fan community. "Bunching" helps out production by artificially ensuring the teams don't race too far apart from each other. There is some natural "bunching," as when teams catch up to each other at an airport and take the same flight. When fans complain about bunching they usually mean things like charter flights (which control what time teams can exit an airport) and hours of operation signs (which control when teams can begin a task).

The real disappointment of bunching is that it drains the intensity of the Race. So many times during this season, I would be impressed at how a team had outpaced their competition (ie, Michelle & Jo getting to the Guilin airport with a massive lead in leg 12), only to see every other team catch up. It's one thing for teams to luck out at the airport or take a better taxi ride, it's another to see teams saved by the "hours of operation" sign, which has placed teams up to six hours behind the leaders neck-and-neck with the pack.

It makes for better TV to see the teams running side-by-side, increasing their intensity by knowing where the competition is, but I like to see teams given as much of a free hand as possible to choose their fate. I felt this season had too much bunching; not enough to ruin the season, but enough that I sighed at several points when the "hours of operation" sign reared its face.

Money

Let's recap how often teams ran out of money:

  1. Leg 1: Sticky & Sam overpay on their taxi
  2. Leg 2: Adam & Dane run out of money (eliminated)
  3. Leg 4: Kym & Donna overpay on their taxi (eliminated)
  4. Leg 9: Joseph & Grace run out of money
  5. Leg 9: James & Sarah also run out of money (eliminated)
  6. Leg 11: Joseph & Grace run out of money again (eliminated)

It suggests either the teams are being very free with their spending, or production isn't giving them enough to endure. Some of these were definitely avoidable, notably Sticky/Sam & Kym/Donna getting the prices wrong; Joseph & Grace were also undone by choosing the most expensive kind of taxi. It's strange to see money as one of the most important factors of the Race, but there you go: keep this in mind, future Amazing Race: Australia contestants!

Editing

I suppose I have more complaints about editing than anything else. It felt as though some of the information which made it to the screen didn't belong there; taking time to develop the rivalry between Kym & Donna with Paul & Steve was needless as there was no payoff; by contrast, we didn't learn about Shane & Andrew's alliance with Michelle & Jo until nearly the end of the Race but it had been going on for a long time. I would appreciate it if time spent on developing rivalries built towards future confrontations and time spent on alliances built towards future co-operations.

Then there's the "villain edit" term which fans throw about and certainly seems to describe Paul. On the one hand, he gave the editors plenty of ammunition by mouthing off about his superiority and how he'd crush the "inferior" teams. We all love a little schadenfreude, such as Paul boasting of his skiing prowess followed by clips of him slipping up (leg 10). But sometimes the editors recycled Paul's quips just to remind us, "ah, yes, he's the one we're supposed to root against!" We were also omitted seeing the friendship develop between Lucy/Emilia and Paul/Steve, something which only came out on the former team's blog. Because this friendship didn't match the "villain edit," we were denied seeing it play out on television (removing the context from some scenes where the two teams are being friendly). I would have preferred a balanced look at Paul, rather than just his most hastily-uttered soundbites. Regardless of whether his ego has its own country (it's large, you see?), he's a human being and thus a little more complex than a TV "villain."

Then there's the way the camera lingered on the female form... one couldn't help but notice the upskirt shot of Sarah (leg 1), the low shots of Sarah being lathered at the Turkish bath and close-ups of Michelle & Jo lathering (both leg 6) and the focus on Grace's jiggling posterior (leg 7). Is Australian prime-time TV just a little more (openly) perverted than US TV? Of course, when Paul & Steve went nude (leg 9), the camera backed off.

What did I like about the editing? Well, there was one improvement I noticed: last season, the editors pulled "Sweet Georgia Brown" from the US version's audio library and used it as the theme song for Racers Mo & Mos, seemingly forgetting it's the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters and was used for Racers Flight Time & Big Easy because they play for the Globetrotters! I didn't make a double take at any of the musical cues this season and enjoyed the Shane/Andrew & Lucy/Emilia themes. Good work!

Thus, the curtain comes down on my Amazing Race: Australia recaps until 2013; however, I'll be back in September for recaps of Amazing Race season 21!

No comments: