Before there was Survivor and The Amazing Race, there was Eco-Challenge.
The ultra-endurance race created by Mark Burnett evolved as a television format first on MTV, then on ESPN, eventually making its way to Discovery and then USA. It was great television because it was a pure competition, with dozens and dozens of teams of racers making their way across difficult and varied terrains, pushed beyond any reasonable limits in conditions that looked all the more harrowing from the comfort of your couch.
Of course, it turned out viewers loved the alliances and contrivances of Survivor and there was deep critical affection for the wide-reaching internationalism and logistical hurdles of The Amazing Race, while Eco-Challenge never quite settled on a television home or television-friendly narrative structure. It ended as both a race and a TV show after the 2002 installment.
Rebranded with the wordy title of World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, the adventure is back, premiering on Amazon this weekend and, in some ways, it’s better than ever.
It’s easy to pinpoint those ways: The original Eco-Challenge went through its various TV incarnations in a world without ubiquitous high-def equipment — I’m still sad about all of the years The Amazing Race aired in grimy standard definition — or convenient drone camera access. Soaring over some of the same Fijian reefs, jungles and islands that Burnett has made great (if repetitive) use of as a Survivor home-base, World’s Toughest Race looks consistently stunning and plunks viewers down in the middle of tasks most of us would rather avoid, offering eye candy that doesn’t quit even when the structure of the race stymies production in other ways.
For those who don’t remember, this installment of Eco-Challenge pits 66 teams of four racers from around the world against each other in an event that stretches 671 kilometers. There’s white-water rafting, lengthy swims down hypothermia-inducing rivers, bike courses on barely marked muddy trails and even the occasional gimmicky bits where the teams have to construct a bilibili raft and paddle dozens of kilometers (it’s all metric, this race).
Some of the teams include veterans of past Eco-Challenge installments and other endurance events, while some are made up of ambitious amateurs about to have their butts kicked by a course in which every second you sleep is a second you’re not spending in pursuit of a $100,000 first prize. And no, that’s not all that much money, all things considered, but most of the racers are there for the adrenaline or the pride.
You need to keep that last part in mind, because even with a 10-episode season, it’s hard for Burnett and his team to really capture Eco-Challenge as a win-or-lose event. The first episode features one solid bit of back-and-forth jostling between a team of prohibitive favorites from New Zealand and a group of fast-starting Americans determined to make an early statement. From there, though, positions barely change, and even when one team or another gains or loses ground, it’s rarely presented as some sort of thrilling endeavor in and of itself.
The teams are really competing with their own limitations, as individual racers and as a unit. Within a day or two of racing — the winners complete the course in under six days, but teams have 11-plus days to finish — the gaps between leaders, the middle tier groups and teams struggling to make it to several pre-announced, timed cutoff points can be hours and then days. And that — plus a natural affinity for teams that speak English and thus can give quotable soundbites — means that out of 66 teams at the starting gate, there are at least 30 that don’t receive even a second of screen time and at least another dozen that only become relevant when something scary or bad happens to jeopardize their participation.
Fortunately, there are spectacular storylines aplenty and those emotional connections, remote for the first episode or two, become a deep investment by the time we reach later episodes. It’s impossible not to grow attached to Team Endure, featuring Eco-Challenge veteran Mark, whose worsening Alzheimer’s symptoms mean this will be his last chance to race with his son, Travis. It’s easy to quickly warm to the familial bickering of Team Able Abels, featuring an experienced racer and his two daughters. There’s inspiration to be found in Mark’s former crew at Team Stray Dogs, all in their 60s, Team Onyx, a quartet of Black endurance racers, or Team Atenah Brasil, the only unit with three women. There are wounded military veterans and more new mothers than I can count.
Kiwis are heavily represented.
Tying the series together — and representing certainly the biggest change in the format — is Bear Grylls as host or presenter. The celebrity survivalist flies around in helicopters pointing at teams below, converses with on-camera race staffers and shows up at various points to check in on contestants who are shivering, bleeding or just nursing various aches and pains. There’s probably 10 or 15 percent too much Bear, but his presence helps remind us of the competitive and sentimental stakes, and inspires some racers to open up for the camera. As an audition to replace either Phil Keoghan or Jeff Probst if either venerable host decides to do other things, it’s impeccable.
The spacing out of the racers means that a winner is crowned with several episodes to go and that the team arcs I cared about were mostly wrapped by the conclusion of the last of eight episodes (again, out of 10) sent to critics. That just means that it’s a formula that still has room for refinement and hopefully fans won’t have to wait another 18 years for the next Eco-Challenge.
Premieres Friday, August 14 (Amazon)