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My Second Take on "5 Takes: USA"

As we're now several episodes into this season's 5 Takes on the Travel Channel, I thought it would be a perfect time to take a second look at the travel-on-a-budget reality series, which this time around has taken five diverse travel journalists from the Pacific Rim and thrust them on a cross-country tour of the United States.

While I've been enjoying this season of 5 Takes, I can't help but compare it a little to last season's 5 Takes: Pacific Rim. It's been interesting to see one's own country through the eyes of someone else from another culture, but there's just something missing this season and I can't help but sit through the episodes wondering what's not there this time around. It's certainly not the travel journalists themselves, who are still an absolute joy to watch. No, it's not them at all, but there's just something... off about the entire enterprise this time around.

Part of that problem is the editing this time around. I completely understand what sort of crunch these guys find themselves under, having to turn around a finished episode so quickly, but there's been a real sloppy repetitiveness to the episodes lately. Did we really need to hear ALL of the travel journalists say, one after another, that the fire dancer looked like Vin Diesel? And shouldn't someone have caught the fact that Jamie's line about how Little Havana was scented with cigars and the sounds of Spanish filled the air was repeated within 30 seconds of her uttering the line? (One time it was a cutaway to Jamie; the second was overlaid on scenes of them walking through Little Havana a few seconds later.) There's none of the taut, quick-cut imagery of last season and there's just this general feeling of repetition lurking through the episodes. This week's Disney excursion lasted far too long as well.

While I admitted earlier that I was happy that there were no forced designations for our travel journalists (i.e., adrenaline junkie, culture vulture, food and music guy, etc.), I feel now that the lack of such distinctions have allowed each episode to become more scattered and haphazard than before. Last season, each of them had a specific purpose or mission in each city that they visited and through these activities we got to know not only the travel journalists better but each city/culture better as well. You always knew that Gabe would be in search of some indigenous cuisine or off-the-beaten-track restaurant or that Renee would encounter some street artist or traditional dance troupe or that Josh would want to do something crazily death-defying. While I chafed against those restrictions initially, I do see that they were there for a reason: to act as route-markers each week and to push the travel journalists to explore deeper aspects of the culture in order to fulfil their individual "take" on the city in question.

Which is, I think, what's missing from this season: a real push to do more than scratch the surface of the places they're visiting. In this aspect, there's a sense that they are more tourists than travel journalists. I don't think that they are really delving deep to get a snapshot of these locations that won't be seen by the average tourist and, most of the time, they seem more content to have lunch or go shopping than pursue some wacky lead off the message boards. I want to see more involvement with local color, with local people, and cuisine and culture; I never get the sense that they're actively engaged with the people they're meeting. Shouldn't we have seen them meet up with the guy Bevis met who invited them to the Full Moon Party at the Raleigh? Or had the guy that Jamie met whilst drinking cafe con leche take them on an impromptu tour of Little Havana?

I do think it's hard because last season had our TJs (it pains me to no end to use that coinage) traveling around various Pacific Rim countries, encountering different cultures on a nearly weekly basis; here, they are traveling around the US, but I think there's still an opportunity to find those different cultures as well: like the Cuban community in Miami or the Inuit people of Alaska. But, again, it involves digging much deeper below just the quotidian.

So far, I found the Anchorage episode to be the most interesting of the season because all of the travel journalists showed a real appreciation and wonder for the location. Most of them had never seen snow before in their lives and the entire experience was something new and different and exciting. You could see that excitement in their eyes as they looked out into the unfamiliar, the unknown. The Other. Which is really the key to traveling, to push oneself out of their comfort zone completely. Miami, on the other hand, was a little too comfortable, as each of them repeatedly said how much it reminded them of home. When 5 Takes works, it's when the travelers find themselves in a wholly alien place, only to then connect with local culture in an unexpected way.

I also think that the old reward system enabled this much more effectively. Last season, the journalists were given the opportunity to win a fantastic reward way outside their $50 a day budget by completing a challenge, using the Internet, locals, or the message boards to find the answer to a challenging question about local culture. The very nature of the challenge forced them to interact more with locals and try to solve the conundrum at hand. Now, they're simply given a Chase Rewards card to purchase any experience they want, without having to work for it. It's taken away any sense of the reward aspect, as it's so freely given.

This week, I had to rewind the episode because I thought that their Disney World excursion was the reward, only to realize that their "tour" of the Magic Kingdom (a.k.a. a ten-minute long commercial for Disney World) had in fact been provided for FREE by Disney itself. I felt really betrayed by this: no tourist operating on $50 a day would have been able to have this experience (handed to them, no less) and it seemed so disingenuous in a program like this, especially as it wasn't even their weekly "reward" activity. It threw the whole notion of a budget right out of the window and seeing them explore a theme park, even one as exciting as Disney World must have been to them, didn't make for fascinating travel television. Sorry, producers, but this is one product placement scenario I wish I hadn't seen.

Don't get me wrong. 5 Takes is still fun to watch and Bevis & Co. are great characters, but I just miss the old format and depth of last season's 5 Takes: Pacific Rim. Fortunately, given that the show is literally produced a week ahead of airing, I'm hoping that the producers can tweak the format a bit and push our favorite journos to get off the beaten path a little more and take us to a side of these cities that we haven't seen before.

"5 Takes: USA" airs Saturday nights at 10 pm ET/PT on the Travel Channel.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: NCIS (CBS); Tony Bennett: An American Classic (NBC); Gilmore Girls (CW); 2006 American Music Awards (ABC; 8-11 pm); Standoff (FOX); Desire (MyNet)

9 pm: The Unit (CBS); Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC); Veronica Mars (CW); House (FOX); Fashion House (MyNet)

10 pm: 3 LBS. (CBS); Law & Order: SVU (NBC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Gilmore Girls*.

I'm really ready to give up on this show now. I miss the old Gilmore Girls, and, no, I am not talking about last season. On tonight's episode ("Introducing Lorelai Planetarium"), it's all about the invitations this week as Lorelai invites Rory to dinner to tell her that she and Chris tied the knot in Paris, while Logan invites Rory to the launch party for his new Internet company. That Rory, such a popular gal.

9 pm: Veronica Mars*.

On tonight's episode ("Lord of the Pi's"), Veronica investigates the disappearance of Selma Rose Hearst (guest star Patricia Hearst), the wealthy granddaughter of Hearst College's founder, who conveniently vanishes the very night before she is to cast a swing vote to determine the fate of the Greek system. Meanwhile, more problems ahead for Veronica and Logan and Veronica is terrified after her near-attack by the Hearst College rapist.

*Of course, if you live in LA (like yours truly), we're out of luck tonight as KTLA has decided to preempt this very important November sweeps episode of Veronica Mars (and Gilmore Girls) for the Clippers-Lakers game tonight and shunt it over to Saturday night, so we're forced to wait four days to watch the latest installment the rest of the country got to watch tonight.

10 pm: Doctor Who on BBC America.

While Sci Fi might be airing Season Two of the newest incarnation of Doctor Who (complete with another new Doctor, played by David Tennant), catch up on Season One, beginning anew tonight on BBC America as the Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston) first meets Rose Tyler for the first time. On tonight's episode ("Rose"), shopgirl Rose meets the Doctor and discovers that Earth is in grave danger... from living mannequins. Yes, you read that correctly.


Anonymous said…
Although I really like all of the "TJs" this season I agree that they have approached this experience as tourists rather than Travel Journalists. It's difficult, though, as last season they had many different cultures to explore and this season it is just focusing on the United States. It's still fun but not as engaging. And that Disney World romp was horrible! It was like watching a ten minute commercial for the Disney Empire.
Blobby said…
I'm so into ABC Family reruns of the older Gilmore Girls. The last two seasons have been best. I'd like to be thru w/them, but I figure I have only have to ride through 14 or more episodes.
storm said…
I personally never got to catch any of Season 1 or 2's episodes. The shows air on a special channel in the Philippines, so I never really got to see them. We've still got a few more shows to make up for the high expectations, though! I hope we follow through. Thanks for watching, and thanks even more for the constructive criticism!

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