A place to indulge an affliction

Shape Shifters


My favorite TV show is The Amazing Race. Although it is supposed to be reality TV,  unscripted, and unpredictable,  each episode is edited to tell a compelling story of the contestants’ adventures.

Below is a graphical depiction of the typical shape of The Amazing Race stories:
TAR story shape
Each of the line graphs represent a competing team as they go through the challenges on their way to the finish line. There is not always a smooth upward trajectory to their paths; often, those that finish at the top on one challenge may finish in the bottom during the following challenge. The shape of the story is dynamic and constantly shifts. However, in the end, there is a clear winner of the $1M prize.

I reference the first of Pixar’s 22 Rules in what makes The Amazing Race episodes compelling:

“You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.”  

In the show,there is always the underdog, who is agoraphobic or cannot swim or drive manual transmission, who gets the most film time, because the show producers know that the viewers want to know how that particular story ends. Teasers for the upcoming episode always include clips of when contestants are facing challenges. These teasers hook the viewer into watching the show the following week in order to find out whether the contestant triumphed over these challenges. Real-time is compressed in the episodes, so that the viewers are kept guessing until the end which contestants were successful. Often, the most memorable contestants are those who worked hard to finish the challenge even if it meant finishing last.

Story Spine format elements found in one team’s Amazing Race episode story is below:

Once upon a time…

A mother and son team that joined 10 other teams of two to begin their race around the world

Every day…

They competed against the other teams to finish the challenges and not be the last team on the Finish Mat

But, one day…

The taxi the mother and son team were riding got lost on the way to the travel agency, where the teams were supposed to buy airline tickets from Malaysia to Sri Lanka, the location of the next set of challenges.

Because of that…

The mother directed the taxi driver to take them directly to the airport instead, where she intended for her team to buy the tickets directly from the airline

Because of that…

They arrived at the airport behind other teams and were told by the airline that the direct flight was full. However, there was a connecting flight that still had seats.

Because of that…

(and previous negative experience with connecting flights) The mother opted for the team to standby on the direct flight, in hopes that a couple of passengers would not show up

Because of that…

The team had to wait for the next flight to Sri Lanka the following morning, when the team was unsuccessful in getting seats on the direct flight

Because of that…

The team arrived in Sri Lanka 10 hours after the other teams

Until finally…

The team finished last on the Finish Mat and were subsequently eliminated from the race.

Until this course, I never thought much about how The Amazing Race producers had shaped each episode to be effective storytelling. I like The Amazing Race for the opportunity to see different countries and cultures. What makes these stories compelling is that they are constantly shifting shapes. The unpredictability is the “bait” that draws the viewers in.


2 thoughts on “Shape Shifters

  1. Pingback: Week 1 Summary | chronicwnderlst

  2. I like this effort to map a reality show, and the multiple shapes for participants. Very clever. What intrigues me is that we enter these shows knowing for sure that one team will get all that good fortune, yet everyone does end up above the line… So we live for the ups and downs, right?

    I might quibble with the placement at the end, but that is the fun of this, no right answers- I would think every team gains some good fortune from the experience.

    For the story spine, I would place what you have as the Once Upon a time more at the “One day”… level. The beginning (which technically takes place before what we see on the show, I assume) is really the every day life of the Mother and son, that they have their regular tasks if job, school etc. Getting to be on the show is the event that changes their world.

    Great work on the analysis. You have any desired to race?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s