Back in January, we included reality TV warhorses Survivor and The Amazing Race on our list of reality franchises that needed to be benched. At the time, both shows deserved to make that list as they were each coming off career-worst seasons filled with boring characters (Brandon Hantz anybody?), unimaginative challenges (setting up beach umbrellas... really?!) and a general lack of tension. Rather than watch these once-great shows continue to stumble downhill, we felt it best for all concerned that they take a prolonged break and return when they had some fresh ideas up their sleeves. But surprise, surprise: ever since Survivor: One World and the 20th Amazing Race premiered in February, both shows have been back on their game. In fact, we actually find ourselves anticipating -- rather than dreading -- each new episode (for now, at least -- there's still plenty of time life for these seasons to go south, after all). Here are the notable changes we think have improved both shows:
We Actually Enjoy Watching (and/or Hating) the Contestants
We're not sure who deserves credit for lighting the fire under the CBS casting department, but a hearty thank you is owed to that person or persons because this new crop of Survivors and Racers has yielded some great characters. Over on Survivor, you've obviously got to go with Colton as the season's breakout star, even if his presence on the show was just cut short due an appendectomy scare. Granted, we'd never argue he was a likable personality, but his behavior generated plenty of drama around camp, drama that was largely absent last season amidst all the praying and whining. And even with Colton now out of the equation, Alicia is still around to make trouble, Tarzan and Kat are reliable sources for baffling/dumb utterances, that immunity idol discovery has made Kim and Chelsea a potentially dangerous duo and Christina is a fascinating contradiction -- a contestant who is probably smart enough to win it all, but can't quite seem to get her act together. And sure, there's still some dead weight around (sushi chef Jonah is entirely useless, while Troyzan is just a younger, duller version of Tarzan) but at least none of them is another Hantz relative. Depending on how the post-merge dynamics shake out, we could be looking at one of the most competitive endgames in a while.
While The Amazing Race doesn't have a Colton-sized villain, Big Brother vet Rachel is an easy person to root against (could she be the most irritating TAR contestant since Season 3's Flo?) as is her Mean Girl nemesis (and Kardashian clone) Vanessa. (We're also glad that those two clowns got eliminated early on. Sorry David and Cherie, you can't replace Jon and Al in our hearts.) And surrounding those two are some truly entertaining personalities, like good ol' boys Mark and Bopper and federal agents Nary and Jamie (though we still aren't sure why they thought that pretending to be teachers was a good strategy). Heck, we can even tolerate Rachel's teammate Brendon, whose only real flaw seems to be his taste in girlfriends. Good casting is the lifeblood of all TV shows and reality programming in particular. This time around, both series got it right.
Better Challenges, Better Locations
Okay, so the second half of this category applies more to TAR than Survivor, which returned to the same Samoan location they've already used for three of the past five editions. But the challenges have absolutely been more fun this season, maybe because none of them take place on Redemption Island, which has thankfully been relegated to the dustbin of Survivor history along with Jonny Fairplay and that Thailand season. The return of reward challenges has been a boon as well -- how good did that Survivor ice cream parlor look last week?
Meanwhile, last night's TAR had a particularly good Roadblock; while they were in Azerbaijan, contestants had to participate in a helicopter crash simulation, requiring them to escape from a submerged copter and swim to the surface. How do we know that's a great TAR challenge? Because we'd never in a million years want to pay to do it ourselves (ditto for the crude oil scrape at the subsequent Detour and that beard styling challenge on last week's episode). The destinations have been well-chosen as well, from Santa Bárbara, Argentina to Bavaria, Germany (home to that resplendent castle that inspired Sleeping Beauty's Disneyland abode) to Baku, Azerbaijan. We feel like we've really been seeing the world again instead of following the usual itinerary.
More Involved Hosts
Look, doing two of these shows a year can be tiring, we're sure. But TAR and Survivor always benefit when their longtime emcees Phil Keoghan and Jeff Probst actually seem invested in what's going on. Granted, Probst took a bit too much pleasure in needling the women during their losing streak, but the look on his face when Manono marched into Tribal Council instead of Salani was priceless and he handled the season's two medical emergencies nicely. The nature of the competition in TAR means that Keoghan doesn't get to mix it up with the contestants quite as much as his Survivor counterpart, but he seems genuinely invested in Bopper and Mark's success (given Bopper's sick daughter and all) and is almost as visibly put-off by Rachel as the rest of us. We knew he was a good judge of character.
All-Around Better Gameplay
As satisfying as it was to see Boston Rob finally win Survivor after a gazillion tries, bringing back old contestants proved to be a mistake because they too easily manipulated the new guard, throwing the game out of whack. Casting only first-timers and recycling the boys vs. girls twist has made the various inter-tribal strategies more fluid and interesting. Especially now that Colton is gone, nobody is clearly in charge of the game anymore and that always results lots of great (and boneheaded) moves. As for TAR, while Art and J.J. have been leading the pack in recent weeks, somehow all of the remaining teams feel evenly matched in their ability to tackle the challenges and clues they've been presented with. At this point, we could honestly see any one of them winning -- even Rachel and Brendon. (Hey, we didn't say we wanted them to win...)
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