Why I hate The Amazing Race

I love TV travel porn. Turn on a little Rick Steves traipsing around Europe’s back doors, Ian Wright of Globetrekker getting hamstrung in a Turkish hammam, or Anthony Bourdain slurping up Pho in Vietnam on No Reservations, and I am fixated. Hell, I’ll even watch the awkwardly matched foursome of Gwyneth Paltrow, Chef Mario Batali, food writer Mark Bittman, and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols just to see them thump melons and gobble down salty pig parts as they ramble through the markets and kitchens of Spain on PBS’s Spain…on the Road Again.

As much as I adore armchair exploration, however, there is one program that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth – the wildly popular CBS reality travel show The Amazing Race. If you’ve never seen it, the show consists of 11 two-person teams that fly around the world to compete in challenges, typically based on the local culture, such as roping a llama in Peru or driving a snowplow in Siberia. Since it began in 2001, “Race” has won eight Primetime Emmy Awards and has been franchised to include versions in Asia, Australia, and Latin America. In Israel, The Amazing Race is called HaMerotz LaMillion, which translates roughly as “Race to the Million,” because teams compete to win $1 million (or, in the case of Israel, one million new Israeli shekels).

In sum, the Amazing Race is an adrenaline-fueled travel adventure show beloved by millions of TV viewers worldwide. So why do I hate it? Here are three reasons:1. Travel shouldn’t be about numbers. “Five continents, 25 cities, and more than 40,000 miles” was the tagline of the final episode of Race’s Season 7. To many travelers, the dream is to rack up visited destinations like trophies. But should travel be boiled down to just numbers? Should quantity trump quality? There’s a certain hollow materialism to counting countries and treating cities like personal stats. It reminds me of a saying that was popular in the 1980s, “He who dies with the most toys wins” and leads me to my next point…

2. Travel is best when you slow down. Were every moment not recorded, would Race’s contestants even remember the difference between Peru and Chile or South Africa and Botswana? Filming for the Amazing Race typically takes place over one month, during which time participants travel to as many as a dozen countries. One of the shortest seasons, The Amazing Race 12, had contestants traveling 30,000 miles to 10 countries within 21 days. I understand that such a breakneck speed makes for great television – it is a race, after all. But I feel that The Amazing Race sends the wrong signal to travelers that it is okay to speed through airports and train stations and villages. Travel should be one of those activities where you allow yourself to slow down and take note of the details. Travel deeply not quickly.

3. Travel should, in itself, be the reward. The $1 million prize is why The Amazing Race gets tens of thousands of applications each season. Who can fault would-be contestants for wanting to race around the world for that kind of cash? Not me. Though, what if The Amazing Race made travel the reward? There are so many quotations about the benefits of travel that I could use here, but I actually think a recent tweet from Gadling friend and Twitter’s favorite nomad Andrew Evans (@wheresandrew):

In its defense, The Amazing Race bills itself as a “reality program” and not as a “lifestyle program,” the Emmy category under which most travel shows are classified. And, I also applaud Race for shining a spotlight on destinations that many travelers may never get to see (Burkina Faso!). But I fear I will never quite understand why a show that puts personality above place and discord above discovery is so beloved by travel enthusiasts. The Amazing Race stresses me out; give me Rick Steves any day.

The 19th season of The Amazing Race premiers on Sunday, September 25.

Photo from Wikipedia