Jerry Bruckheimer and the unreal: the amazing race

Jerry Bruckheimer and the unreal: the amazing race

Paul J. Venzo

In an article written on the evolution of the photographic image in the digital age, Arild Fetveit wrote that the scientific nature of early photography has a distant although resonant connection to documentary and reality TV; two modern media formats that claim to capture the ‘real’ and to produce visual evidence of it. (1)

Here I want to explore this idea further, looking first at the relationship between cinema, television and the coming of the digital age, then more specifically at Fetveit’s argument that reality is only identifiable when it is pushed to the limits, when death threatens to intervene and the body is put to the ultimate test. (2) To do this, I will make a brief study of the works of one of the titans of media convergence, American producer/director Jerry Bruckheimer.

It may have slipped by unnoticed, but for followers of the cult reality television series The Amazing Race (Seven Network, 2003) there can be no mistaking the importance of the credit: ‘Excutive Producer–Jerry Bruckheimer’. Bruckheimer is a successful film producer and director, with film credits as seemingly diverse as Top Gun (1986), Beverley Hills Cop (1984), Flashdance (1983), Armageddon (1997), Pearl Harbour (2001) and most recently, Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). (3) So what is he doing lending his name and expertise to a reality television product such as The Amazing Race? Closer inspection of Bruckheimer’s career, and the sorts of media products he has produced, reveals that The Amazing Race draws together many of the skills, narratives and opportunities for multiplatforming present in his earlier works, and is a logical evolution for this producer/director’s talents.

First it must be said that Bruckheimer is no stranger to the medium of television, with producer credits for CSI–Crime Scene Investigation (Network Nine, 2003) and his own production company, Bruckheimer Television. (4) This company works in tandem with Buena Vista to make The Amazing Race, and the relationship between Disney and Pirates of the Caribbean ties in neatly with theme park environments and merchandising.

Many of Bruckheimer’s films involve narratives of adventure that privilege the body in extreme movement–a staple theme of The Amazing Race–whether this is achieved through typical action sequences (Pirates, Con Air (1997), Days of Thunder (1995), Top Gun, Armageddon), performance ‘numbers’ (Cayote Ugly (2002), Flashdance) or scenes of military battle (Black Hawk Down (2001), Top Gun, Armageddon, Pearl Harbour). High production values seem the order of the day and stunts and complex visual effects are characteristic of his work. Across his oeuvre Bruckheimer has a penchant for seeing the human body moving through space at breakneck speeds, or performing feats in which the body is glamorized and celebrated, even when it is being put through hell.

With Pirates of the Caribbean, however, a new trend is emerging in Bruckheimer’s work. With Pirates recently released and a version of King Arthur in the pipeline, this Hollywood success story may be about to further embrace what might be termed ‘histortainment’–where the most tried and true of historical fiction scenarios and environments are repackaged for the cinema. Film can, it seems, ‘theme’ history and reduce it to the most interesting components, for as Arild Fetveit suggests:

The development of computer programs for the manipulation and generation of images has made it, at times, very hard to see whether we are looking at ordinary photographical images or images that have been digitally altered. In the latter case, iconicity is sustained, whereas indexicafity–the causal relation between the profilmic (what was in front of the camera) and the image–is partly disappearing. (5)

In this scenario, a film like Pirates of the Caribbean and King Arthur can make claims to visual and historical authenticity that rely on the presentation of iconic references supported by years of previous Hollywood genre film-making and the ability of digital technology to convince us of the ‘realness’ of the image represented on film.

Of course, this is also of central importance to reality television. On one hand, the genre tries to appropriate, from the tradition of scientific documentation in early photography, the claim of virtual non-mediation between object and representation: for example, amateur footage of major catastrophes or crime. Under this rubric, what is seen is almost ‘accidentally’ caught on camera, without the aid of editing, digital enhancement or re-enactment.

On the other hand, The Amazing Race can be understood as another beast entirely. In September 2003 it won an Emmy Award in the new ‘best reality television series’ category, and so must stake some claim to represent the generic qualities of such media products. Firstly, The Amazing Race, like many other reality television products, is a triumph of convergence and multiplatforming. (6) Not only does this generic hybrid (a combination of travel show, game show and soap opera) draw together support from media conglomerates such as Bruckheimer Television, CBS and Buena Vista, it also offers a level of interactivity for the viewer who wants to consume the show online. In many ways Bruckheimer’s role of executive producer and media ‘converger’ in relation to The Amazing Race reflects the skills required of the competitors in the race itself: resourcefulness, an ability to adapt to new and challenging environments (in his case, a globalized media environment), and an eye on the main prize–successful completion of the project or race.

The Amazing Race is not a conventional television product. It has links to other travel and lifestyle programmes, it is hosted by an American cable television star, it features aspiring models and actors, it has a vast number of Internet sites dedicated to it and is a format that has so far been repeated four times. Its capacity to showcase globetrotting makes it a saleable product to a diverse range of audiences outside the US. It is little wonder, perhaps, that the fourth series makes a pitstop in Australia, where it has recently been screened on the Seven Network.

The Amazing Race uses many of the familiar conventions of narrative film making to achieve its impact and secure its appeal. It relies heavily on editing to create pace and dynamism, producing the sense that competitors are neck and neck even when they may be miles apart. Dramatic music underscores this sense of motion and tension, as does the use of selected dialogue among the competing ‘couples’. More often than not dialogue between the couples is based on friction; common phrases are ‘You never LISTEN!’ and ‘Give ME the map!’, and couples seem to vacillate between romance, tenderness and solidarity, and outright vindictiveness, competition and abuse. The cinematography generally delivers the kind of vision normally associated with travelogues–high quality wide shots, overheads, rich colours–teamed with interior shots of planes, trains and automobiles, giving audiences the feeling that they are travelling along with the competitors.

The Amazing Race is unashamedly character driven. The official web site reveals in-depth personal information about couples such as Millie and Chuck (more popularly known as ‘The Virgins’), Chip and Reikken, (a gay couple whose caption reads ‘Married’) and ‘The Clowns’. Many possible permutations of sexuality, gender, age and race are offered in the contestants who appear at the starting line–it is a clever device that allows a wide cross-section of audience members to find characters with whom they identify or wish eliminated.

Each episode features a beginning/ middle/end structure–a re-cap of the last episode’s events, the journey through a ‘roadblock’ or adventure situation, and the race to that episode’s finishing line and the elimination of a losing team. This is the sort of television that can be consumed both as a series overall, or as an episodic instalment that is enjoyable in its own right. Moreover, it has the sort of outward and inward flowing references and connections–with other reality TV and lifestyle shows, films and internet sites, as well as with other Amazing Race series and with prior episodes and familiar conventions–characteristic of television in the new millennium.

Perhaps what is most striking about this programme–a theme that is also present in almost all of the work with which Jerry Bruckheimer has been involved–is that the overarching concept behind the programme is competition. Competition, however, that is generally played out across the body. Here the rivalries of Top Gun, the ambitiousness of Flashdance and the downright shoot-em-up patriotism of Pearl Harbour, Black Hawk Down and even Armageddon, are taken to the limit. This is a far cry from the competition formats that quiz shows seem to promise. Where quiz and game shows rely on untried and often obscure knowledge of cultural trivia, all shot in the rarefied environment of a television studio, a programme such as The Amazing Race (and to a degree, Survivor and even Big Brother) rely on knowledge employed in ‘real’ environments that require physical and mental interaction with experiences that are ‘everyday’ possibilities when travelling.

The feats of endurance and physical endeavour the contestants are asked to perform range from seemingly innocuous bike riding, animal herding and the digestion of local cuisine to extreme sport activities such as bungy-jumping, diving under ice, swimming with sharks, feeding crocodiles and face-first absailing. These ‘extreme’ activities are of central importance to the show’s ability to capture an audience and are directly related to a perceived threat of physical harm or even death. Fetveit points out that ‘The reality depicted in these formats is most of the time one where other lives are at stake … What most powerfully conveys a sense of reality is, perhaps, the presence of death.’ (7)

Pointing to the ideas of Vivien Sobchack, Fetveit writes that death is ‘where the real ends’ and yet ‘we cannot stop representing it’. (8) Sobchack uses the footage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy to exemplify this idea, and the modern equivalent would of course be the footage of the destruction of the twin towers in New York on 11 September 2001. (9) But reality television such as The Amazing Race offers much of the kinetic spectatorship of such an event with none of the risks: it is the thrilling threat of death, rather than its representation. As Fetveit concludes, ‘reality TV comes with a unique promise of contact with reality, but at the same time it promises a secure distance’. (10)

Indeed, contestants in The Amazing Race are stunned by some of the experiences they must undertake–such as eating a plate of live octopus, being dragged though cow dung by raging heifers, and encountering the street-side poverty of nations such as India–but these experiences generally reinforce their distance from the cultures they visit and their pleasure in being Western. They are also typical contemporary tourists who gather a grab-bag of local diets, landmarks and activities as they speed across the globe. As audience members we get the sensation of having ‘done’ Europe, Asia, or wherever they land next–a sort of virtual voyeurism with all of the sights and none of the smells–where such things as ticket fiascos, missed trains and sleeping rough are kept at a safe, entertaining distance.

The illusion that The Amazing Race creates is of the real as a game, a journey as a set of obstacles, setbacks and triumphs; a script, if you like, that invigorates the body and makes it perform. This is action television at its most kinetic, for here the body doesn’t just (or only or even) have to be beautiful–it has to be run ragged, bungy jump and rock climb, do karate and be flung sideways into moving vehicles. For Jerry Bruckheimer, even leisure pursuits like international travel need to be fast–and, if at all possible, dangerous–so that the harder we fall or higher we fly the more alive and ‘real’, and the more antithetical to death, the experience appears.

The Amazing Race is the perfect Bruckheimer project: it is a bit of everything–filmic and televisual, real and unreal (in every sense of the word). It is full of action, tinged with romance and underpinned by a good old-fashioned dash-for-cash. In a digital age where technology makes any reality possible, Jerry Bruckheimer Productions seems to have found a veritable pot of gold. If history can’t be packaged into an entertaining treasure hunt, then maybe twenty-first century reality can.


(1) A. Fetveit, ‘Reality TV in the digital era: a paradox in visual culture?’, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 21, 1999; pp. 787-804.

(2) Ibid. p. 798.

(3) For a full list of Jerry Bruckheimer productions go to also ABC News interview with Jerry Bruckheimer on 4 July 2003 at

(4) Bruckheimer Television is responsible for CSI, CSI Miami and Without A Trace.

(5) Ibid. p. 791.

(6) For further discussion of the effects of digitalization, multiplatforming and convergence in contemporary media see Robert W. McChesney, ‘Media convergence and globalisation’ in Electronic Empires: Global media and local resistance, D.K. Thussu (ed,), Arnold, London, 1988, pp, 27-46.

(7) Ibid. p. 798.

(8) Vivian Sobchack, ‘Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary’, Quarterly Review of Film Studies 9 (4), 1984, p. 287 as cited in A. Fetveit., ‘Reality TV in the digital era: a paradox in visual culture?’, Media, Culture and Society vol. 21, 1999, p. 798.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

Paul J. Venzo is currently writing on the connection between reality television and globalization. He is employed as a teacher of communication studies with Deakin University, and gets away with watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy for ‘research’.

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