Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Amazing Race: Family Edition - An Essay in Method

Actually, I'm not formulating any sort of methodology with this post -- but it sure sounds smart! In truth, I'm going to defend The Amazing Race: Family Edition, which I will do by focusing on something that I still haven't put to bed yet -- reality villains -- and a brief look back at TAR's recent history of villains, from season 5's Colin up to the Weavers.

Ignoring the limited locales of Family Edition, this season features the Weavers, who are one of the more consistent villains that I've seen since I started watching in season 4, unmatched by any other heelish team except for Colin (& Christie as well -- but far from being a heel, she's just along for the ride); the featured villains in the other seasons, if there even was a coherent team of villains over the course of the show, lacked at least one of the two crucial elements that make for a successful reality villain:

  1. A viable threat to win the competition. That is, longevity on the show.

  2. A vileness or moral defect that makes it easy for the viewer to intensely dislike the villain, but most importantly, the defects must be "safe" and "containable."

I'll admit that "safe" and "containable" are purposely vague words and potentially rife with problematic biases; more specifically, what I mean by these two words is that the villainy remain within the viewer's fundamental sense of decorum. For instance, I tend to regard Colin's verbal abuse of Christie as relatively benign compared to Jonathan's manifest physical abuse of Victoria. (Ray, of Ray & Deana infamy, is the Poor Man's Jonathan and similarly loses out on being a good villain; many observers suspected that Ray smacked Deana, judging by his willingness to throw his physical presence around, steroid-induced rages, and Deana's black eye during a Detour.) In a real, non-television context, verbal abuse can be just as harmful as physical abuse, but from the deliberately narrow scope of a TV show, actions speak louder than words. Thus, when Jonathan shoved Victoria, it proved more shocking to viewers than any number of Colin's meltdowns where he berated Christie for, let's say, being stupid.

With the Weavers, their sins, aggravating as they are, remain fundamentally innocuous. They are an insular, ignorant, and hypocritical bunch. Although they have been anointed the unofficial representatives of What's Wrong With American Culture, their faults in the context of the show are mostly limited to their own small world. They may be rude to others, but otherwise the manifestation of their heelishness comes from remarks about the blandness of Utah's otherworldly vistas, or smug martyr-posturing -- so, rather than the actively predatory behavior of Jonathan, Ray, or even Colin, the inert villainy of the Weavers is essentially victimless asshattery. (Why not Boston Rob in this list? It was too hard not to admire his willingness to play sneaky, which was a conscious effort to win the Race instead of oblivious maliciousness.) In fact, the Weavers actually contain their venomous words within the family for the most part, for instance derisively calling the Paolos "the Cleavers" well out of earshot of the other teams.

But rest assured that the Weaver's schtick is unbearable, albeit in an entertaining way. At least for me, their conceited hypocrisy is the Weavers' most maddening quality; while they flaunt their piety to distance themselves from criticism, the Weavers routinely dismiss their competition with puerile insults, and when they are called on these insults, they claim innocence and adopt the role of the victims. And so, to reiterate: the Weavers are a dubious bunch whom I love to hate, but not so heinous that we are irrevocably repulsed.

As for the first ingredient of memorable villains -- viable threats to win/longevity -- it could use some explaining as well. Even though longevity seems self-explanatory, it's hard to identify a season-defining villain before the completion of a season. In other words, a heel who is a legitimate threat to win has to go far into a season, and so for the most part, the viewer can only see who such a villain is retrospectively. The upshot of villains who stay on the show for its duration is that they are granted the opportunity to keep on threatening the chances of the good guys. Eliminate the villain, and the most effective way of building suspense and tension evaporates, and in such a scenario, the main alternative is the much harder task of developing a team for whom the viewer actively cheers.

The infamous shove aside, Jonathan had the appearance of being such a season-defining heel: he and Victoria regularly finished in the top half of the Amazing Racers, and he in particular was detestable. However, he "only" finished in sixth place, whereas Colin & Christie finished second, and the Weavers have now reached the final leg.

All things considered then, the Weavers represent an ideal villain-type, which is the primary reason that I find Family Edition to be such a compelling program. Almost every week, they make a serious bid to win that leg of the race, and every week they say or do something that induces bile.

Indie rating: Colleen - "Everything Lay Still"

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