The TV Room: The Amazing Race Season 27, by David Bax
Since the series began back in 2001, the best seasons of The Amazing Race have always been those with a clear villain. The machinations and ticking clocks that already make the show fun to watch are heightened when unified behind a single, compelling question. Will the bad guys make it through to another leg? While this season’s antagonists don’t hold a candle to the show’s all-time great dastardly pair of former Survivor contestants Rob and Amber (who assumed the scheming villain role knowingly and gleefully), they did offer a twist on the archetype that makes season 27 one of the all-time greats.
Over the previous 26 seasons, the show has changed. The challenges with built-in wait times designed to bunch up the teams, the occasional surprise of a non-elimination leg, the devious U-Turn; these have mostly succeeded in keeping the competition intense and adding excitement (though the purist in me has never come around to the U-Turn and the maliciousness it inspires). The nuances of these additions and the outcomes they create are difficult to predict. There have been a number of contestants in the past who have studied previous seasons to help their own gameplay but none has been so prepared – and with such successful results – as this season’s Justin who, along with his fiancée, Diana, ran the board for episodes at a time and tied the record for most wins in a season.
Hypothetically, Justin should have been our hero, not the bad guy. After all, he’s us, sitting at home, yelling at the people onscreen for not reading their clue properly or boasting that we would have finished a task in half the time. But that’s just what earned him the heel status. When you’re sitting on the couch with close relations or by yourself, there’s little call for humility or tact. Justin failed to remember to add those ingredients to the mix once surrounded by other people vying for the same million dollar prize as he and Diana were. And so he became one of the most obnoxious Amazing Race players in the show’s history, braggadociously taunting other teams when things were going his way and shamelessly pouting and/or browbeating Diana when they weren’t.
This is not to imply that Justin was the only reason season 27 was so watchable. Yet, to some extent, the other elements that created excitement still stemmed from him and the other teams’ reactions to him. Strategizing has never been as fruitful on The Amazing Race as on Survivor but a good scheme can be great television in the way it falls apart just as much as in the way it works. Tanner and Josh attempted to leverage their Express Pass and the unprecedented alliance of every single team except for Justin and Diana into a manipulation of the Double U-Turn that seemed almost certain to knock the couple out. It seemed Justin had accounted for every twist and turn of the race except for the fact that he would be so hated. The other teams, though, didn’t account for the unpredictability of any given leg, resulting in Tanner and Josh wasting their precious Express Pass and Tiffany and Krista blowing their one chance all season to use the U-Turn. Justin and Diana were essentially unscathed. The rest of the field was bloodied. And it was deliciously thrilling TV.
Of course, we can’t be sure it all played out exactly as we saw it. That’s part of the bargain of reality television. You still have to suspend your disbelief while trying to ignore the fact that you’re doing so. Luckily, The Amazing Race’s editors – the show’s secret weapon since the beginning – make it very easy, even enjoyable, to do so. In the season’s penultimate episode, which will go down as one of the series’ best ever installments, the editing team gave us two teams on the mat, secure in their moving on to the final leg, while a third waited out a penalty and a fourth struggled to complete the final task and then make their way across Macau to the finish line before the penalty expired and one team would be eliminated. We the viewers will never know the actual temporal and geographic specifics of that leg’s final hour but it was expertly cut together to make us believe it was down to the wire.
We may have cursed the results of that particular showdown at first but the truth is, just like with Rob & Amber all those years ago, the seasons with great villains only become great seasons when those villains make it to the end. A final showdown on a Hamptons beach between our hated foes and the unassuming good guys who emerged slowly but steadily from the pack proved that, after 27 go-arounds, The Amazing Race is still capable of producing some of the best drama on television.