Has ‘The Amazing Race’ Lost Its Way For Good?

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

The seventh episode of the 29th edition of The Amazing Race will air on Thursday night with a jog through Venice, Italy, and what CBS describes as “a frantic search for a water taxi.” (“Tax-i! Tax-i! Tax-glub, glub, glub. …”) And, as has been true for nearly every round of every edition, I will be watching it, because — well, not because The Amazing Race is still as exciting and funny as it once was, but because I just can’t quit it.

The Race is one of the very few reality/competition shows I watch. For me, it’s held up longer than Survivor, which I jettisoned from my viewing diet a while ago as being meager fare filled with puffed-up, egomaniacal contestants — the people equivalent of empty carbohydrates. I’ve always liked The Amazing Race‘s pairings of different sorts of people in different relationships: couples who are dating; workplace pals, and senior citizens looking to repair a relationship with an adult child by being forced to work together to build a replica of the Eiffel Tower out of croissants.

Witnessing the stressful physical and mental challenges, combined with the armchair-traveler pleasure of sightseeing, give the Race a built-in depth of pleasure. If at any point you don’t care who’s going to scale that mountain cliff the fastest, you can always just look at the pretty sky framing the competition, or marvel at the way host Phil Keoghan’s New Zealand accent continues to render his English incoherent to American ears at least a few times every episode.

In recent seasons, however, the Race has lost much of its charm and momentum. Gimmick pairings have been introduced, such as an all-dating-couples season, or 2015’s dreadful all-social-media-personalities season. (I never want to hear Tyler Oakley’s gigantic, gulping laugh — hee-yuk-yuk-yuk! — again.) There has also been a shift away from generational diversity and toward an emphasis on youth and beauty; I feel strongly that a granny with shin splints ought to have a place in the Race.

The result of this tinkering can be seen in the dire current season, whose gimmick theme is 22 contestants who met for the first time and divided into teams at the starting line. In theory, this might have been intriguing — strangers being forced to work together — but in practice, it has turned out this way: either a couple gets along and powers through the show’s Detour and Roadblock challenges, or they really despise each other and constantly threaten to leave the show. Both extremes get boring fast. With no shared history, there is little interesting conversation when a team is taking a long taxi ride or one person is applying a Band-Aid to a teammate’s bleeding bunions. We are now exactly halfway through the season, and for the first time in my Race history, I’m not rooting for anyone to win. The constantly grinning, googley-eyed #TeamFun of Becca and Floyd? Urgh. Burly bearded bully Michael and his verbally abused partner Liz? Appalling. No thanks. I’ll watch through the end of the season, but mostly out of habit, and will reconsider putting a season pass on the next go-’round.

The Race’s lowered status in the CBS family can be discerned by the fact that the current edition was the first one since Season 12 that didn’t premiere during the fall season, and the show was slapped into its Thursdays-at-10 slot only after the ratings failure of Training Day. 10 p.m.? The show’s real-time audience is probably nodding off even as competitors are screaming down a waterfall in a gorgeous South Sea lagoon. (I do not exclude myself from the snoozers.) I hate to say this, but it may be time for old Phil to hand in his passport, gather up all those red-yellow-white route-marker boxes, and declare The Amazing Race won and done.

The Amazing Race airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on CBS.

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