Formats Unpacked: Race Across The World

How a reality race format made travel documentary a gripping watch

Hi all,

Thanks to all who read and shared the 10 Things I Learned episode of Formats Unpacked which celebrated our first birtyhday. We’ve had a load of new subscribers as a result. If you’re one of those new subscribers tell me a little bit about yourself. I’m always interested to hear more about what you do and what you’d like to hear more of.

This week I’m unpacking a format that feels like a throwback to the early days of reality TV. It’s a show that I miss hugely. Sadly, given the challenges of filming during these uncertain times, I can’t imagine we’re going to be seeing it again for a while.

What‘s it called?

What’s the format?

Five pairs of competitors race around the world to be the first to reach the final destination. The teams aren’t allowed to fly, but are given the cost of a flight to their destination in hard cash. Mobile phones are banned, so they have to make do with a paper map which, sadly for them, doesn’t come with a constantly moving blue dot. The journey is broken up into a series of checkpoints, with the last to arrive at each checkpoint eliminated. The first team to reach the final destination wins £20,000.

Race Across The World series 2 ups security – cast forced to reroute | Metro News

What’s the magic that makes it special?

The first rule of Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling is “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.” I think about this every time my partner and I nip to IKEA to pick up a pack of tea lights, and nothing else. It’s a hell of a trip that’s riddled with navigation challenges and constant temptation. It ends with us returning home, almost completely broken, but having learned something about ourselves in the process. It’s a classic hero’s journey.

In Race Across The World relationships are tested to the limit, as pairs of contestants race from London to Singapore or Mexico City to Ushuaia, by land and sea. There are no Google Maps, Google Translate, Wikipedia, or Expedia to manage logistics. Just a very small budget, a map, a guide book and the hope that GCSE Spanish will help when asking for directions.

That’s enough of a challenge for contestants thrown together on reality shows like this, but when they’re an estranged father and son, a brother and sister that don’t get along, a married couple who have recently overcome adversity, or a mother with a son prone to tantrums, there’s a hell of a lot more at stake than prize money alone. Who would put themselves through that?

The answer usually falls into two categories - one set of contestants are looking for the gap year experience they missed earlier in life, whilst the other are hoping to use the experience to fix a relationship problem. Regardless of what they’re hoping to accomplish, the format ensures that no matter how much contestants think they know what they’re letting themselves in for, the reality is always going to be a lot worse. After all, you can’t imagine the actual smell of an overflowing toilet, on a packed bus that you have to spend 24 hours on, until you’re actually there.

This show may start out sounding like the adventure of a lifetime, but it’s no holiday. In the race to finish, contestants not only have to deal with the discomfort of extreme low-budget travel, severe sunstroke and losing bumbags full of money -  political issues have a nasty habit of scuppering the best laid plans. In season one, Guatemala, Chile and Ecuador all declared states of emergency whilst the race was in progress, resulting in some serious rerouting. Then riots in Bolivia following a contentious election forced the show to leave the country immediately.

For the viewer, we’re treated to the escapism of a traditional travelogue documentary, the adrenalin of an extreme sport, the drama provided by unpredictable political landscapes, and the bonding you get in all the best buddy movies. These four elements combine in a way that really makes me care about these people and their stories. I might never follow them on Instagram, or want to see how smart they use TikTok, but for that one hour on a Sunday night, I’m taking every step of the journey with them. I may have my favourites, but I don’t really care who wins the cash, I just admire them all for trying.

Favourite Episode?

It’s difficult to pick a single episode, but the tension between father and son, Alex and Darron, had me on edge all through season one.

Similar Formats:

I fell in love with travelogue documentary watching Michael Palin’s Around The World in 80 Days.

Season 2 of Race Across The World aired in Spring 2020, just as the world was locking down for the first time. Watching people bonding as they traveled the globe, just as our own worlds were shrinking and disconnecting, could have been a discombobulating experience. But for me, it wasn’t. It was a welcome break from the news of the day, and a chance to venture beyond the familiar four walls of my home, even if it was through the experiences of others. I really miss it.

This week someone got in touch and asked if they could unpack a magic trick format. Of course they can. I’d love to read that. Great magic is all about brilliant storytelling structures, which is why we are a little bit obsessed with it at Storythings - here’s a five part series on magic and attention that we wrote for Medium a few years ago. There are a bunch of formats that I’d love to see unpacked. Do you have a favourite comic or video game format you’d like to unpack?

Finally, I’d love to build on what we have done in the first year. Is there anything else you’d be interested in regarding formats? What would be really useful? Let me know if you have any thoughts.

Till next time,


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