Commentary

Road Blocked: A Detour Through Fear Factor

With each passing season of TAR, the extreme swings in quality that marked the first couple of seasons have lessened considerably. I believe that this is chiefly due to the Amazing Editors, who seem to be getting better and better the longer the show goes on. In comparison to TAR1, the past two seasons have definitely looked glossier, felt somewhat faster, and have generally held together as a cohesive whole much better than the looser, more laidback approach of the first races.
But if that much is true, why is TAR4 widely considered the worst season of them all, and TAR5 well-regarded but not considered the best?
But if that much is true, why is TAR4 widely considered the worst season of them all, and TAR5 well-regarded but not considered the best? Certainly the casting choices of late have been less than perfect (something that does not appear to have improved for TAR6) and the failure of certain teams to catch on and be entertaining has not helped. However, after having watched all 65 episodes of TAR again recently, this is only part of the problem. There has been a growing and glaring deficiency in a crucial area of the show that has dragged many episodes down during the last two seasons. And that is the Detours and Roadblocks.

Really, the yellow and red envelopes and what is contained within them are absolutely critical ingredients of the show. Detours and Roadblocks make up most of the challenges and tasks the racers have to perform, and the stress and pressure they are supposed to induce have given us the greatest insight into the teams' personalities on many occasions. It's always been that way - remember Lenny and Karyn at the Eiffel Tower? Nancy's breakdown at the strange Indian marketplace? Peach's self-confident descent into the bat cave? Flo at just about everything?

In addition, they often impart the strongest local flavour to the show, forcing racers to interact with locals and often participate in traditional customs. When the producers get them right, the show is at its best. Sadly, the ability to create consistently memorable and interesting Detours and Roadblocks has apparently deserted the production crew of late. My major concerns are twofold.

Firstly, there is now a gross reliance on either eating something exotic or performing a physically arduous task in the Roadblocks. In TAR5, just four of the 10 Roadblocks we saw did not fall into this category - the ribbon roping, descending into the Egyptian tomb, digging for the scarab, and making mud bricks. Otherwise, you had to eat hundreds of chocolates, a kilo of caviar, or an entire ostrich egg - or endure a ride in a zorb ball [I didn't see this task this way it wasn't that physical and it is an activity invented in the area, so it passes for me miri], walk across a steel girder, or ascend an enormous cliff. As if that weren't enough, very few of these gave much insight into the local culture at all. TAR is not Fear Factor, for that reason if nothing else. They should stop trying to make it such.

As for the Detours, they have long since lost sight of the basic principle "Each with their own pros and cons", where you couldn't be sure which was the better option. Nowadays it seems to be all about the producers getting maximum bang for the bucks they shell out to the various adventure companies who provide the exhilarating option, and therefore making the other choice absolutely ridiculous. The peak of this was the final three legs of TAR4, where the second Detour choice always seemed to be wasting a lot of time doing something silly. This repeated itself very often in TAR5, although in that case there were more than a few examples of stupid teams swallowing the bait! If there is no other practical choice than what the producers really want you to do, that is not a Detour.
The remedy is simple. It's impossible to create outstanding choices for every single leg, but there are a few basic rules to follow.
The remedy is simple. It's impossible to create outstanding choices for every single leg, but there are a few basic rules to follow. A Roadblock should always show off a part of the culture specific to the location. It should only be an eating challenge when strictly appropriate. It should be something that anyone can do quite quickly with either willpower or creative thinking, and not just a physical task farmed off to the men with monotonous regularity. Above all, there should be variety from leg to leg so that the Roadblock responsibility can be reasonably alternated within each team.

As for Detours, they should be genuinely challenging for a team, with no option obviously the better and faster one, and calling on the teams to use judgment. They should also involve something culturally specific, or at least show off a lot of the location. If there is something extreme, at least make the other option something a cowardly team could opt for without committing Race suicide. Above all, keep them interesting without reverting to something lame or cliched - there were a number of TAR5 tasks that were either uninteresting and perfunctory, or too similar to others that had gone before. Keeping the show fresh is a difficult task, but if the actual locations visited can still be new and different, I see no reason why the task producers can't rise to the challenge as well.

Let's hope that TAR6 produces some classic Roadblocks and Detours to finally get a season that matches the skills of the editors to the quality of the tasks involved. It's still the best reality show out there, but there should always be room for improvement, especially when it comes to something so fundamental to the uniqueness and success of the race format.