Friday, 12 February 2016

The Amazing Race 28, Episode 1

USA - Ciudad México, D.F. (Mexico) - Teotihuacan, D.F. (Mexico) - Ciudad México, D.F. (Mexico)

The Amazing Race 28 got off to an unpromising start in Mexico, no thanks to a casting decision by the producers of the reality-TV show. The teams of racers on The Amazing Race have included many aspiring models, actors, and performers, but this season at least one member of each team of racers, and both members of most of the teams, are already professional actors: “social media stars” who produce, direct, and star in their own short selfie videos on YouTube, Vine, and other online distribution platforms.

I imagine that The Amazing Race 28 still qualifies for Emmy awards in the “unscripted drama” category, even if the cast members are almost all professional actors. And the TV producers can be forgiven if they feel that, after fifteen years and 27 seasons on the air, the show needs something new to retain its viewership. Many of the shows on the Travel Channel, of course, are even more dominated by the personalities of the presenters — not the people in the places they visit — and even less realistic than The Amazing Race in their depiction of what travel around the world is like, especially on your own without a tour guide, escort, or advance reservations. Nevertheless, I’m not sure what we have to learn, other than by negative example, from watching how selfie stars travel. And I thought much of the attraction of the show was watching ordinary people audiences could identity with, and trying to imagine how we would behave if we found ourselves in similar travel situations.

It’s a good thing to be self-aware of how you appear to locals and others, but I don’t think it’s good for travellers, or good for the people and places they visit, for them to see themselves first and foremost as actors in their own selfie movies. We’ll see if this cast of racers can, despite the habits of their always-on “social media star” occupations and personas, get beyond acting to really engage with the people and places they visit.

The plot of this episode, unfortunately, wasn’t much better than the casting. The racers were sent to the “caves” at Teotihuacan, the site of the predecessor of today’s Mexico City on the outskirts of the modern metropolis. There are both natural and human-made caves under the pyramids of Teotihuacan, some of them recently rediscovered, as yet unexplored, and the subject of active archeological excavation. But the racers were given no chance to visit the pyramids themselves (as the racers did when The Amazing Race 3 visited Teotihuacan), or any of the other ancient monuments and museums around them. Instead, they were sent to one of the theme parks that have been developed on the periphery of the small protected area that includes the pyramids themselves.

To be fair, the most controversial of the commercial developments at Teotihuacan has been a Wal-Mart megastore serving residents of the surrounding region rather than anything related to tourism. Tourists bring money to Teotihuacan, and there’s a concentration of thene parks and other businesses dependent on tourist spending. But it’s not a purely tourism-driven community like Orlando or Cancúun or Grand Canyon Village, the cluster of motels and other other businesses serving tourists along the entrance road from Flagstaff just outside the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. Teotihuacan is mostly just another part of the sprawl of greater Mexico City.

Part of what’s interesting about Teobtihuacan — as with the pyramids of Giza in metropolitan Cairo — is the contrast between the ancient monuments that we tend to think of in isolation, and the modern mega-cities that have sprawled to their feet and now all but encircle them. It’s a reminder that these monuments were built by urban civilizations that occupied and concentrated wealth and power (and their symbols) in these places for some of the same reasons that the national capitals and greatest concentrations of population of Mexico and Egypt are still located in these same areas, two thousand years or more later.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 12 February 2016, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I think you're being unfair to everyone @ TAR, Ed. Phil made a point of noting that Mexico City has the most museums in the world, and that the Pit-Stop was located outside of one of them. I imagine that at least some of the racers might 'do' the museum in front of the Pit-Stop after having rested up a bit. And if they don't, well: how many times are regular travelers also "museum-ed out?"

But on to your larger point: I'm not at all disappointed in this season's casting "hook." Indeed, like the rest of America (I suspect) I'll be watching to see if these folks have meltdowns which are, perhaps, even more epic than those of non-actors when they don't get their way along the racecourse. In the end, adversity such as that which the Race tries to engineer can -- and often DOES -- strip away EVERYBODY'S veneer, no matter their occupation! Heck: I've even watch a cast of all travel professionals (agents, flight attendants and pilots, etc) go on The Amazing Race, so long as the show continues to showcase unique local spots (even a 'theme park'-style recreation of an archaeological dig qualifies here, since I didn't happen to know there even WAS such an excavation going on in that place); put the Racers in the predicament of having to cobble together a grueling schedule of world travel in economy class (the only class I think most of us could afford to travel in so extensively, as you even point out in The Practical Nomad); and require Racers to perform tasks which represent life for a large swath of the local population in the places they visit. Under THESE conditions, I don't care WHO you (or the rest of us) think you are: At the very least, I -- even as a regular traveler -- am STILL going to see parts of the world I hadn't before, and will still get to 'experience' some of their unique local colors and flavors, even if only vicariously.

So, PLEASE try to forget that this season's contestants are all actors. They're not superheroes, and that's what counts for me. They are still flesh-and-blood, and they still have to travel in steerage class! And even the dressed-up version of cultural restoration still exposes the world to the real thing enough that some kid watching the Race might well be inspired to go into that area professionally.

Why can't ALL THAT (finally) be enough?

Posted by: Ben Bangs, 18 February 2016, 09:35 ( 9:35 AM)

I was also disappointed when I learned the casting criteria for this season. Perhaps, though, it will convince some of the fans of these social media stars to try watching an hour-long show on an old broadcast network.

I love Ben's idea, though. Let's see a cast of travel professionals! A few travel bloggers would also be good choices.

Posted by: Paul Higgins, 21 February 2016, 16:06 ( 4:06 PM)

I am bemused at your characterization of this season's contestants as "professional actors" -- why not professional screenwriters, professional directors, professional producers, or professional filmmakers? If you made a series of videos about different travel topics and posted them on Youtube, would you then be a professional actor?

I know that these social media "stars" may have leveraged their popularity to generate some income for themselves, but labeling them as professional actors is at best inaccurate and incomplete.

Your apparent condescension is misplaced. People don't generally watch the Amazing Race for travel tips; they watch it for entertainment. No doubt CBS and the producers are hoping that the fans of these minor celebrities will want to watch their favorites on the show and boost the ratings.

Posted by: Anon Y. Mouse, 25 February 2016, 17:07 ( 5:07 PM)

@Anon Y. Mouse - I think your criticism of my description of the cast of this season as "incomplete" is itself based on an incomplete reading what I wrote. I characterized the racers as already being professional actors. I *also* said that they, "produce, direct, and star" in their own videos.

Watching actors direct, or directors act, would have its own interest, just like watching anyone try to do someone else's job. But on "The Amazing Race", the cast members are only performers, and not directors, producers, etc. That's why, having mentioned the multiple professions the cast members have, I focused more on their being professional actors.

The producers of "The Amazing Race" made the TV show to make money, and picked the cast accordingly. I don't expect them to do otherwise. I think they've tried to communicate positive messages, when they could do so without undercutting their profits (and occasionally even when it might have cost them viewers), and I appreciate that.

As for your question, "If you made a series of videos about different travel topics and posted them on Youtube, would you then be a professional actor?" my answer is that it would depend on whether I were making those videos and publishing them on Youtube primarily to monetize them. If so, yes, absolutely, I would be a professional actor and videographer, as well as a professional writer. Many travel writers make more money from photography and video than from writing.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 27 February 2016, 20:48 ( 8:48 PM)

I guess it's the word "professional" that is sticking in my craw. Calling anyone a professional actor implies they get paid for acting, and pursue different acting roles. I seriously doubt any of this season's contestants have gotten paid for acting. They may get a cut of ad revenue from Youtube, for example, or perhaps sponsorship money or referral bonuses. But getting paid for acting? I don't think so. Brodie Smith, for instance, makes videos of himself performing trick frisbee throws. Are you really suggesting that makes him a professional actor?

Posted by: Anon Y. Mouse, 1 March 2016, 17:36 ( 5:36 PM)

@Anon Y. Mouse - I'm not sure whether you are using "professional" with a different meaning than I am, or whether you don't believe that people can make their living from advertising or sponsorship of their Youtube channels.

Most people who post original videos to Youtube (leaving out the vast number of bootlegs posted to Youtube) are amateurs who are posting for reasons other than money, just as most bloggers are amateurs who don't blog for the money. And most people who aspire to success as professional vloggers, like most wpould-be professional bloggers, fail to generate any significant revenue.

But there are professional Youtubers, just as there are professional bloggers. As you point out, professional Youtube vloggers, like professional bloggers, can generate revenue through means including advertising and sponsorships.

If someone's primary occupation and source of income is producing, directing, and acting in videos they post online (which is the impression viewers of the TV show have been given of the cast of this season of "The Amazing Race"), I would consider them a professional actor, director, and producer regardless of whether they seek or get get paid for any *other* acting jobs -- just as I would consider a professional blogger a professional writer regardless of whether they generate income through any of their writing other than their blog.

I discussed some of these definitional questions with respect to professional travel bloggers in an earlier article here:

To be clear, all of the cast members of "The Amazing Race" get paid at least the union minimum for television actors, but that's true in every season, and that was *not* the sense in which I described this cast as being composed of people who are already professional actors.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 4 March 2016, 15:18 ( 3:18 PM)
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