November 08, 2005,
Losing The Amazing Race
Sometimes families just ruin family TV.
The Amazing Race CBS’s plucky, intercontinental reality-show race was going to struggle no matter what when it premiered this September. This was season eight and reality TV does not age gracefully. After its umpteenth bungee-jump challenge last season the show’s complexion was sagging badly. Something fundamental had to change. This is not to excuse what producers Jonathan Littman and Bertram Van Munster did, just to put it in tragic context.
What they did was make a play for the wholesome demographic by making The Amazing Race 8 a special “family edition.” They only made one minor change instead of eleven teams of two (fraternity brothers, fiancées, clowns, etc.) they cast ten teams of four family members (parents, kids, in-laws, etc.) but it was just the right change to paralyze everything that worked.
Instead of 22 characters there were now 40, all jostling for the same 45 minutes of air time, all jumbling into a tepid Caucasian blur of personality. Race’s former glories watching completely incompatible couples going to pieces in Marrakech and anticipating delicious inter-team betrayals in Berlin just evaporated. The kids, like the Gaghan family’s twelve-year-old, Billy (who bears an investigation-worthy resemblance to the kid on CBS’s Two and a Half Men) weren’t at all telegenic, but still managed to pose platitudes like “quitters never win, winners never quit” when something underhanded really would have hit the spot. The regular menu of challengers rappelling down cliff faces, ice climbing, spelunking through bat-infested caves was replaced by child-friendly fare: pitching tents and carrying banana bunches. It flopped as an incidental travelogue too. On the first episode of season seven, racers landed in Cuzco, Peru. But 14 hours in coach with a nine-year-old? On episode one of season eight, everyone just drove to Middleburg, Virginia.
Now this is to excuse what Littman and Van Munster did: When they got high on decency and totaled their show, they were just subscribing to the same turgidly misguided conceptions of family-friendly TV that have plagued America for decades.
Today the Parents Television Council is leading the effort for pro-family airwaves. Its mission summarizes a too-popular opinion about family TV: Encourage programming for the whole family by “discourag[ing] the increasingly graphic sexual themes and dialogue, depictions of gratuitous violence, and profane / obscene language.”
Kudos and huzzah a laudable goal. The problem is that neither the PTC nor any of the groups that share its aims have settled what constitutes “graphic,” “gratuitous,” and / or “profane,” so the lowest common denominator carries the day. The result is that when people speak of family TV, they don’t mean programming with a reasonable number of graphic stabbings. They mean programming with no violence, sexual themes, or f-words.
Witness the PTC’s take on Fox’s breakout pulp drama Prison Break. Trying to capture some of the intensity of 24, the so-so show takes place in a prison, as a brilliant loner tries to break his wrongfully-convicted brother out of death row. Not for families cautions the Council: “Hell” and “damn” are used frequently (such language, those inmates).
Reflexively holding TV to the “damn” standard effectively damns any decently realistic show set in a prison or a hospital, or anyplace other than a church picnic. What stainless standards like this create isn’t family TV, it’s children’s TV. And there’s already plenty of that. You can watch Nickelodeon for days straight and not hear a single double entendre.
At root, family shows should be those that break the isolating, stupefying spell that TV casts over everyone who watches it, parents and kids. They should bring everyone in a family out of their bedrooms and home offices and onto the same couch to share the same experience for an hour. When they’re really good they should give families something to talk about. They should be fodder for bonding. This means they should be modest (forget HBO, and most of FOX). But more than that it means family television has to be intelligent television. Family television should tell a compelling story, replete with characters that struggle with important, complicated issues, characters that may on occasion say “hell.”
Family-friendly TV, in the traditional sense, isn’t worth much if everyone in your family is desperately wishing they could be watching something else. Take the short list of shows the PTC has rated as 2005’s most family friendly. It includes ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and CBS’s The Ghost Whisperer. One is a purgatory of endless identical kitchen renovations. The other features Jennifer Love Hewitt talking to amiable ghosts. Unless you believe that the family that gags together stays together, you and your kids would be better off in separate rooms, with separate TVs.
Ironically, before it went family, The Amazing Race was one of the few really solid, parent-tested, kid-approved shows out there. Watching teams dash onto departing planes at the last possible second was effective enough for fortysomethings and accessible to fourth-graders. Contestants visibly matured, or they fell apart spectacularly. There were openly gay contestants, but never any innuendo.
Viewers with enough residual series loyalty to make it to the end of The Amazing Race 8 will likely appreciate how much harder it is to make good TV than to make family TV. The more audiences expect cleanliness at the expense of quality, the harder it gets.
Louis Wittig is a writer living in New York City.