Saturday, June 22, 2024

Race Across the World: The Final, review: the perfect end to the perfect reality TV show

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“What a crazy adventure,” said Betty to James as together they faced the reality that their race was run in the final episode of Race Across the World (BBC One). The brother and sister who thought they had nothing in common, but now realised that they were all the other had in this lonely world, shared a hug… I’ll admit, I was blinking ’em back. 

“The question I ask myself,” said Stephen to Viv (the older couple with the life-changing health issues who still felt that they had another big adventure in them), “is do I deserve you?” And I was gone again. We all know how reality television is machine-tooled to tweak your emotional knobs, but lord alive, this was too much. 

Warning: spoilers for the series 4 finale follow

As they got their teary send-offs both Betty and James and Stephen and Viv were so far behind on the last stretch to Lombok that they stood no chance of winning. In fact both pairs (so half of the contestants) were plainly out of the race before the “finale” even began. But it is testament to the series’ brilliant casting and nimble-fingered editing that they remained a crucial part of the narrative. Their spent cause was just as enthralling as the race to the finish line. 

As for Alfie and Owen and Eugenie and Isabel, well, as we funnelled to the endgame they spent more time in the same frame, on the same boats and trains and stuck in the same dank waiting rooms than at any other time in this series. 

One of the many clever tricks that RATW manages to pull (such as turning 18-hour bus rides into prime-time television) is to maintain us vs them tension, even when you very rarely see the contestants having anything to do with one another. But here, as the final two pairs powered across Java and Bali to Lombok and the Gili islands, the competition were always in the very next lane. 

More than that, this finale added a dash of skulduggery to the mix. Early on, Isabel told the boys that she and her daughter were running low on budget – when they weren’t. It was classic reality-show dark arts, devilish and exciting precisely because RATW doesn’t usually play one pair off against another. 

The fact that only two pairs could have really won it, that success in RATW is largely arbitrary and that this is a show where you’re rooting for everyone, means that the spoiler of who did win is actually not that much of a spoiler at all. 

In the end, Alfie and Owen took the £20,000 prize because in a foot race down the beach the two younger men could run faster. Everyone was happy. Race Across the World is recommended by my children’s geography teacher for some sofa-bound travel on account of it being a lesson, a window and a distraction at the same time. 

It is the perfect antidote to an ever-shrinking world that we all fear will end up being just a screen in the palm of your hand. Without phones or the internet, without likes or subscribes or followers or fake friends it asks: “Who are you? Where are you going and how are you going to get there?” Roll on series five: my bags are packed.

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