The Pandemic Race

‘Travel safe’ has a whole new meaning

When we last left The Amazing Race, it was late February 2020, and Phil Keoghan was telling the nine remaining teams in Glasgow that the show was suspending the race because of the coronavirus. One minute the teams were wearing kilts and doing funny Scottish dances, and the next, the pandemic was destroying their hopes and dreams, like it did to all of us.

Nineteen months later (and one week later in TV time), the race resumed in the Swiss Alps. Four of the nine teams were no longer with the race. Why did they leave? The show didn’t say. We can assume they all survived, given that they were all young and healthy. Maybe they broke up or got divorced, or maybe they did get sick, or maybe they just couldn’t get the time off from work. Possibly, the pandemic sucked away all their drive.

Regardless, five teams did make it back, and The Amazing Race allowed two very poor teams, eliminated early from the race, to rejoin them. They shared some pandemic experiences. The New York radio twins had been broadcasting from their basement and had lost their dear grandmother to COVID-19, the flight attendants lost their jobs for a year, the privileged YouTube couple had really enjoyed “quarantining” with their family, the young Indian woman had gone through with her wedding, and the unjustly imprisoned bro had trained by hiking in the Rockies. We didn’t learn much about what had happened to the Black “stand and deliver” couple, but they were as out of shape and surly as ever. Phil, as always, looked like the show had kept him in cold storage, no worse for the wear.

The pandemic Amazing Race will feature no public transportation and lots of self-driving. The contestants will travel from country to country by charter plane. They mask whenever they’re in public. In the first episode, at least, the streets of the world will be eerily deserted. To be fair, they spent the episode doing traditional Amazing Race things: climbing an alp, designing a folksy farm belt, and waving the Swiss flag around, all in small towns. Will they go to cities at all, or will this truncated race feature mostly small towns that the producers can clear of most human life before shooting?

The Amazing Race
‘The Amazing Race,’ in happier times. (photo credit CBS)

Part of the magic of The Amazing Race is that in between all the hokey ring-tossing and bridge-jumping tasks, the contestants have to do all kinds of crazy urban stuff, like assembling a motorcycle in the middle of Phnom Penh or hauling cardboard around Dar es Saalam. This seems fundamentally impossible for a show that they shot during the pandemic, even a late-stage, fully-vaccinated pandemic. I highly doubt they’ll risk flying their teams to India. Australia is out of the question. A trip to China would be hilarious but is highly unlikely. Canada has sealed its borders tighter than a vat of 100-year-old maple syrup.

What does that leave the race, given that dozens of countries still won’t allow Americans to enter? They will gallivant around the Cinque Terre. Maybe they can go to Greece. Or Croatia. Judging from where most Americans from my Instagram feed are going, maybe they’ll spend time in Mexico or Florida. But it’s not going to be the adventure that fans of the show usually get.

And then there’s the factor of the diminished gameplay. The four teams that dropped out may not have been prohibitive favorites, but they were all competitive middle-of-the-pack (or better) squads that had a chance to make it to the latter stages of the race. After last night’s elimination of the singing Buffalo cops, who now have the dubious distinction of being first out of the race twice in the same season, six teams remain. The middle-aged Black couple, who have trouble climbing a flight of stairs, have absolutely no chance. Neither do the bumbling Indian dad and daughter.

That leaves the unjustly imprisoned bro and his buddy, who are smart enough and super-fit and will definitely make the finals. The YouTube couple, though middle-aged, are very intelligent, in good shape, and have a wide range of skills. They are also a lock. The other two teams, the flight attendants and the radio twins, are both totally competent, young, fit, and completely interchangeable. Both of them have a shot.

But the show has lost its midseason tension, where occasionally a contending team collapses or sprains an ankle, or their cabbie takes a wrong turn into an alleyway. The Amazing Race still will have its puzzles and its dance routines, and its sprint to the mat, and it will be amusing enough. Like the Dodgers’ 2020 World Series ring, it will crown a legitimate million-dollar winner under unfortunate circumstance. But like so much else during this godforsaken time in human history, it’s mostly just a bungee jump into the abyss.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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