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Amazing 'Amazing Race' Nears Finish Line, in More Ways Than One
November 24, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

There have been both better seasons and worse seasons of The Amazing Race (Wednesdays at 8 p.m ET), but watching this season — the Emmy perennial's 32nd Race overall — has been an odd, strangely disorienting experience.

By now, the format is familiar, even down to the carefully chosen Race participants who are cast for personality type and not for individual personalities. Reality-competition series are cast for competitiveness and conflict: Survivor is an old master at the game. And yet somehow, thanks to COVID lockdowns, upheaval in the airline industry, and mass tourism facing an uncertain future, the mere act of watching this Amazing Race season is an experience unlike any other.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course. The madcap around-the-world dash is just past the midway point — the season (and possible series) finale is Dec. 16. It was filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to international travel and placed it on the shelf, in case CBS needed to pencil in a last-minute replacement. Little did they know. Survivor, now in its 42nd cycle and still one of CBS's stronger ratings performers, was supposed to start filming in March and be finished in time for its traditional fall premiere in late September. The COVID pandemic hit hard in March, though, and filming never began. The Amazing Race, traditionally a Wednesday show, in any event, was dropped into Survivor's slot, and it has proven to be a resilient pinch hitter off the bench, if nowhere near the heavy hitter Survivor is.

So far, this season has been surprisingly perky, upbeat, and brimming with the positive vibe that has always made Amazing Race entertainment, as the saying goes, the whole family can enjoy. The scenery, even in the brief glimpses Amazing Race affords, has been flashy: Asunción in Paraguay, the Amazon Basin in Brazil, Kazakhstan – Borat's country – all Amazing Race firsts, not to mention unfamiliar challenges in familiar cities like Paris and Berlin.

Through it all, host Phil Keoghan has been his familiar irrepressible, cheerful self, a cheerleader for the Race participants, and a calming, welcome presence for those of us watching at home. The Amazing Race is a constant reminder of what's good in the world — Keoghan begins each Race with the catchphrase, "The world is waiting" — and yet watching this season has been bittersweet. Nostalgic even.

Those who know the travel industry from the inside have accepted by now that mass tourism will take a long time to recover. If it ever does. Just this past week, executives at a low-budget airline in Europe, the continent's largest carrier by passenger load, predicted airline travel wouldn't be "back to normal" — whatever that is — until 2022. Executives at a rival low-budget airline, also one of Europe's largest, said that was more likely to be 2023.

There are those who say the very idea of mass tourism is finished. The well-heeled will continue to travel, they say, and travel well. The rest of us, not so much.

And that spells trouble for The Amazing Race going forward because "the rest of us" are its prime audience. The Amazing Race not only shows its viewers the world, albeit at a frenzied pace and in brief flashes, it's also the kind of show that urges the audience to play along, vicariously. If you had to rappel facedown from an 18-story skyscraper — at night — and unscramble lit up on the street below, how would you perform? (Not well, would be my personal answer, since I couldn't trust my glasses to stay on.)

The Amazing Race is rooted in escapism, especially today. It's pre-COVID, but it also hints at the world we may return to, post-COVID. (The science suggests the current pandemic may not be the temporary roadblock many travelers hope it is.)

Keoghan, in an interview last month with the Canadian website The Lede, opined that, as a society, we've become complacent about airline travel. We've become used to the idea of easy travel, in a time when one can fly literally halfway around the world in just 24 hours. (The irony, of course, is that this was one of the epidemiologists' worst fears all along; the idea that a pandemic can spread worldwide in a matter of hours when so many people are taking long-distance flights from one continent to another.)

Keoghan, a New Zealander, recalled his grandparents saved their entire lives to take one trip, to visit his parents in Canada, and then take a quick break in the Caribbean before returning home.

"I often tell my daughter, who is in her early 20s and has been to probably 30 countries," Keoghan told The Lede, "'Don't take this for granted, because your great-grandparents had one trip — the trip of a lifetime, they called it — and they saved up their entire lives to do it.'"

It's hard to imagine The Amazing Race will return after this season. Even if vaccines prove to be effective — as of this writing, there are now three separate vaccines that are showing to be 90% effective in late-stage trials — the logistics alone will prove daunting. Survivor is different because, with a bit of pre-planning, much testing, and a format that is tailor-made for small groups of people to interact in an isolated location for 39 days, it's actually quite suited for filming in the aftermath of a pandemic in ways The Amazing Race never can be.

The season finale is Dec. 16. Those who've grown to know and love The Amazing Race over the years can only hope it won't be a series finale. The odds don't look good, though. The smart money this season is on "The Beard Brothers," former USC volleyball players Riley and Maddison McKibbin (top), who have finished first in several legs already and were runners-up in last week's seventh leg.

It may not matter for the Race itself, though. COVID may yet prove to be one hurdle this amazing series couldn't climb.

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I came to this site with the introduction of a friend around me and
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Jan 27, 2023   |  Reply
Scott Atkinson
We started watching this with our kids on the series premiere September 5, 2001, six days before the world changed. The Race survived that...maybe there's hope for a post pandemic comeback. Whether or not it happens, we applaud Phil, the producers, and all the contestants who brought us entertainment for the whole family!
Nov 25, 2020   |  Reply
I was going to write the same thing, Scott. It premiered during September 2001. It was birthed during a terrible time. Will it return next year? Maybe not. But it clearly has legs. I'm guessing there will be future seasons, even if the future seasons don't look quite the same as they do now (let's just hope they don't return the debacle that was the family season).
Nov 27, 2020
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