Remote Nomad: Encore or enough?

Feb. 25, 2011, 12:43 a.m.
Remote Nomad: Encore or enough?
Courtesy of CBS

Sunday night, the NBA shocked analysts when its annual All-Star Game, billed as a battle of LeBron vs. Kobe, drew 9.1 million viewers. The largest audience since 2003 turned out to watch their favorite athletes and sports personalities face off in a familiar arena but in unfamiliar combinations: nowhere else will you see Kobe and Carmelo playing on the same team. Perhaps the viewers’ own stake in the game, since they voted for the initial line up, compelled them to tune in.

On the same night, the newest season of CBS’s original flagship reality program, “The Amazing Race,” also pulled in 9.1 million viewers. However, that figure represents a decline of 14 percent from last year’s season opener (source: deadline.com). The decline is particularly compelling because of this season’s similarity to the All-Star Game: subtitled “Unfinished Business,” the newest installment brings back 11 couples from previous seasons to race once again for $1 million. Coincidentally, or more likely not, this comes as the reigning Emmy Award-winner for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program “Top Chef,” having broken up the seven-year “Amazing Race” monopoly, enters the latter half of its own “all-stars” season. Though the two shows are often lumped together as the best quality reality programming, their forays into the “all-star” setup have highlighted their adherence to the tropes of reality television.

“Top Chef: All-Stars” began with 18 of the most beloved contestants from the previous seven seasons of the cooking competition, from foxy Fabio to crazy Carla. With the exception of sommelier Stephen from season one, all of the contestants were unified in their indisputable talent: Marcel, despicable as he may be, was arguably more creative than line cook Elon from season two; Richard Blais’s loss to Stephanie, the first female winner in season four, remains inexplicable. Both “Top Chef” and “The Amazing Race” claim that these new seasons were designed to give second chances — to redeem Carla for suvee-ing her meat, Angelo for getting sick, Zev and Justin for losing a passport, Margie and Luke for not drinking enough water. Noble as this justification may be, the short half-life of reality television fame leaves me asking, do these “characters,” because yes, they are characters and not people, exist outside the context of their respective seasons? “Top Chef” in particular purports to be a merit-based competition having little to do with luck, but the very conceit of the “All-Star” season seems to be that merit itself, cooking talent, and a subjective barometer of merit, a panel of judges, are both fallible. The “All-Star” season will vindicate one contestant and leave 17 others all the worse for wear. For example, Jennifer, arguably the most professionally successful contestant as chef de cuisine under Eric Ripert, turned combative and cocky in the new season. Putting the final nail in her coffin on the show and as a television celebrity, Jennifer represents the inherently perverted motivations of all the returning participants.

Alternatively, “The Amazing Race: Unfinished Business” incorporates those motivations into the fabric of its show. The returning teams have been selected because their narratives as people and as former contestants can carry over to a new season. For example, Kent and Vyxsin, morbidly labeled “the Goths” on Wikipedia, bring back their literal and metaphorical splash of color after failing to operate a stick shift in season 12. Because the contestants on “The Amazing Race” offer no specific talent other than determination and enthusiasm, the “Unfinished Business” model should work well because that desire is amplified. The abstract challenges don’t change, a conceit that enables the contestants to apply knowledge from the last cycle or deepens their tragedy by repeating the same mistakes. Ron and Christina, the father-daughter pair plagued by verbal abuse in season 12, have returned to beat their second-place finish and their reputation of dysfunction. Notably, the engaged or dating couples whose relationships were in tatters at the end of the race are missing from the roster. There seems to be a contradiction in that omission — that the teams displaying the most humanity in their season are not invited back, but the teams stymied by fate are. At the same time, however, the teams are chosen for their personalities, their status as stereotypes of humanity: the Harlem Globetrotters, the old people, the cheerleaders, the Goths.

These reality shows are implementing what sports organizations like the NBA, NFL and MLB discovered decades ago: that competition needs narrative and characters to heighten its cultural power. It’s easy enough within a single season to create by editing antagonism, triumph, tragedy and suspense, but, when the audience knows the strategy, why should they come back? Now that the novelty of purist reality competition has worn off — “Fear Factor” was cancelled long ago, after all — alternative programming turns to the pre-packaged narrative of character and edges closer to scripted programming. “Jersey Shore” becomes the breakout reality TV hit; “Undercover Boss” takes a familiar company and places its episode right after the Super Bowl; “Top Chef” calls up Fabio to seduce audiences with his accent and gnocchi. The uncertainty of competition does not command an audience without a character counterpart to anchor our interest each week.

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