Expedition Impossible debuts tonight on ABC at 9 p.m. Eastern.
I’ve seen a fair bit of chatter around the internet about how ABC’s Expedition Impossible seems to owe an enormous debt to The Amazing Race.
That chatter is one hundred percent accurate, in case you were wondering: It is impossible to watch any part of this show without comparing it to CBS’ long-running reality series. However, is this really that uncommon within reality competition programming? What was the last original idea that was turned into a successful reality series? Although shows are often sold on originality, like NBC’s The Voice (which, like Expedition, is from Mark Burnett), they are still a clear variation on a pre-existing type — like the singing competition — with a bunch of bells and whistles thrown in for good measure.
In other words, I don’t think that we should immediately discount a show for being influenced by a pre-existing successful show. This is especially true in the case of an aging show like The Amazing Race — although I still watch and enjoy the series, and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future if only for the travel porn of it all, there is no question that improvements could be made. The show has just sort of accepted certain problems, like bunching at airports, and has actually streamlined some of the more complicated (read: interesting) challenges to make the race easy enough that stronger teams can’t jump too far ahead to begin with. If someone intelligently considered the appeals of The Amazing Race and devised a similar show that spoke to some of these issues, I would probably welcome that show with open arms.
Expedition Impossible is not that show. Instead of taking the basic structure of The Amazing Race and building a different kind of show around it, Mark Burnett has taken the basic structure of The Amazing Race and tweaked it just enough to avoid a lawsuit. Now, don’t get me wrong: This is technically a different show. There are teams of three instead of teams of two, most importantly, and the cash prize is $150,000 (and three product-placed cars) instead of $1,000,000. The “expedition” takes place in a single country (Morocco) instead of around the world, and the “checkpoints” don’t involve a choice between two tasks, each with their own pros and cons. The show is also more physically grueling, with the first “stage” (not “leg”) involving long and challenging hikes under the Sahara Sun, hikes that prove a physical toil on a number of the competitors.
The problem is that none of these changes do anything to alter the basic formula. The checkpoints may not be Detours or Roadblocks, but they’re still the same kinds of tasks you might be asked to complete on The Amazing Race, and even if the long treks through the desert are more grueling they don’t seem to have made this “expedition” any more non-linear. Expedition Impossible isn't a fresh air for reality competition programming: It's just a race from Point A to Point B with less taxis and more mountaineering.
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And even if we consider the areas where they did make changes to the formula, some of the decisions actually create far more problems than they solve. With thirteen teams of three people each, the show has thirty-nine people to introduce, and it has no time to do any of them justice. Teams are known by embarrassing monikers, which are designed to provide shortcuts in case we didn’t know what the team was all about: some of them are purely descriptive, like “Fishermen” or “NY Firemen,” while others are inspirational, like “No Limits” (which features Erik, who is blind — subtle, no?). There are some other particularly silly examples, like “Grandpa’s Warriors” and “Mom’s Army,” but it only draws attention to the clear ‘types’ that the show was interested in casting. We never learn anything about who these people are beyond what their name already tells us, and we rarely get to learn why each individual member of a team is taking part: we know only who the show wants them to be reduced to. In fact, as far as I could tell, we actually never even meet one of the teams (The Cops) in the premiere, as the initial introductions are left incomplete for reasons I don’t entirely understand.
However, my larger issue with Expedition Impossible is that it doesn’t actually have a hook of its own. It may have made a number of changes from the Amazing Race formula, but because none of those changes altered that formula in any substantial fashion, the basic appeal remains the same: watching regular people face adverse challenges in exotic locales. Teams of three only have the same arguments as teams of two on a slightly larger — and more annoying — scale, and the reality television glossiness of it all keeps the intense conditions from seeming like a real threat (with even some exhaustion-driven vomiting seeming inconsequential). It also doesn’t help that one of the challenges in the first stage is a masterpiece of terrible challenge design, allowing all of the teams that struggled earlier in the stage to make up time by basically not even having to exert any physical or mental effort (which the first teams did for them).
What frustrates me about all of this is that Burnett actually has some experience that could have made this show into something unique within the reality competition sphere. Early in his career, Burnett produced the Eco-Challenge races for the Discovery Channel (along with a number of other networks), bringing true adventure/expedition racing to television in a documentary format. Eco-Challenge races are a nice mix between linear and non-linear, and rely on strategy and navigational skill alongside physical strength and endurance. I have fond memories of the program, just as I have fond memories of Burnett’s more recent Expedition Africa, which aired on the History Channel. That series, which detailed a group’s effort to trace the steps of Stanley’s search for Livingstone, focused on the group’s engagement with local culture and the different navigation challenges that they would face in their journey (along with some hokey, but intriguing, history lessons about what Stanley would have faced during his journey).
Although expedition may be in the title, and although blind contestant Erik Weihenmayer has participated in Eco-Challenges, none of this comes through in the way the show has been structured. Expedition Impossible uses some of the rhetoric of real adventure racing, with eliminated teams being “evacuated” by helicopter and racing towards “checkpoints,” but none of the competitive elements of that sport remain beyond basic physical endurance. Navigation doesn’t seem particularly important based on a small handful of shots of people using compasses, and there’s no room for any type of strategy given that the “stage” was completely linear. Although members of the local tribes appear, their culture is vaguely drawn, and used as a sideshow with no direct interaction (outside of a subtitled quip that feels incredibly staged). Despite taking place in the wilds of nature, there is nothing wild about this at all, which is disappointing given that Burnett obviously knows how to take that feeling and communicate it to audiences.
On some level, Expedition Impossible reminds me of another Burnett series, Pirate Master. That show, which debuted to large ratings before falling off a cliff (or, if you would really prefer, walking the plank) in subsequent weeks, was Burnett ripping off himself instead of someone else: He took the basic blueprints of Survivor, made everything more Pirate-y (perhaps inspired by Rupert’s appearance on the Pirate-themed Survivor: Pearl Islands), and called it a day. However, unlike Expedition Impossible, Pirate Master felt like it was going for something. It was unfathomably silly, and the pirate theme went way over the top, but it was committed to a certain tone and it was trying to do something new even when it was failing miserably. By comparison, Expedition Impossible is joyless, with none of the personality that could allow it to become a fun summer series.
A show like Expedition Impossible needs a hook. Given the fact that they basically stole their premise from The Amazing Race, with regular people thrown into a difficult situation and forced to adapt to new experiences, that isn’t going to set them apart. The cast, while not the worst reality cast I’ve ever seen, is too large to make an impact, with most teams ending up muddled together with nothing to distinguish them beyond their awful nicknames. Host Dave Salmoni, while not terrible, seems awkward when interacting with the teams personally and suffers through an overbearing and unnecessarily descriptive voiceover. And while the show’s visuals will surely look stunning in high-definition, there is a certain amateurish quality to the editing of the episode which is a far cry from the clever and stylish work done by the production teams on The Amazing Race and even Burnett’s own Survivor.
A reality show being similar to another reality show is not one of television’s greatest sins. It is very possible that during the busy summer months when The Amazing Race isn’t airing, fans of that show might find this a decent alternative, especially if beautiful vistas are the reason you watch that series. However, I have nothing else to recommend about this series because it has given me nothing else to recommend: There are no memorable characters, no novel challenges, and no innovation which keeps one from spending the episode comparing every part of the show to the one it emulates.
And that is not how you make a successful reality competition series.
- I’ll admit my final judgment about the show won’t be rendered until I see how they handle the transition into the second episode: This is both because there seems to be a vaguely Indiana Jones-inspired challenge (which this show is begging for) in the preview for next week’s installment, and because I am intrigued to see how they handle the departures and the leads that have been built. If they avoid bunching entirely, the grade might jump up a bit, but that’s something that can only be seen over time.
- I don’t want to be the guy who gets overly literal, but I can’t help it: This expedition is many things, but it is certainly not impossible. In fact, despite the show citing the rules regarding quitting, everyone makes it to the end of the stage, which was honestly a bit disappointing — I would have loved some of these teams to get lost in the desert in the dead of night, frankly.
- As far as Amazing Race comparisons go, I think the clear connection between this show’s “Gypsies” and the Amazing Race’s “Hippies” is the most blatant. Also, I really hope the show doesn’t think that “Gypsies” are just hipsters with mustaches, although that’s certainly the impression that their broad naming strategy has created.
- The single most annoying part of this show is one of the members of The Football Players, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, whose interview segments are always focused on comparing his experience in Morocco to football. For example, at one point he measures the height of a sand dune in football fields. It’s obnoxious.
- In terms of odd editing decisions, watch for a moment where one team member worries about the fate of another, and yet we never hear from the team member who is in jeopardy. It’s so strange, as what should have been a triumphant moment for the person who overcomes their fear is entirely wasted on the person who just survived watching them struggle, the poor thing.
- I didn't want to be too mean to the show, as this really is an unforgivable insult, but I definitely got some Amazing Race: Family Edition vibes from this show, as the Twitter link suggested. Please forgive me the low blow.