Relative Race
Formula 1 or
Crash and Burn?
A British Perspective.

Michelle Hunter

29 October 2019

On day 2 of RootsTech London, in the lull between the first talk and the keynote speech, I wandered along to the back of the auditorium; an area I hadn’t investigated the previous day. The demo theatre was situated there and as nothing seemed to be taking place, I availed myself of one of the vacant seats, more for the chance to look at the tweets on my phone than anything else. Within a couple of minutes, a turquoise t-shirted helper came along and handed me a small ticket. I felt a tiny surge of panic. I’d only plopped myself down on an end chair with a view to making a hasty exit if necessary. Now what had I let myself in for? The demo theatre program on the seat next to me gave nothing away for this slot, so it was with some surprise when a suave, suited man straight out of a toothpaste commercial stepped up to the rostrum and grinned confidently at the couple of dozen people now sitting there. He proceeded to thank us for coming along and asked if anyone had seen the American hit TV programme Relative Race. There were a few nods. I’d never heard of it. He said he knew we had something a little similar in the UK and that he was about to show us a clip of this great show.

Up popped a video on the large screen showing a young couple arriving at an elderly gentleman’s house. The older man comes down the steps to greet them. There are awkward smiles, trepidation and hesitancy on people’s faces. An off-camera voice says to the elderly man, ‘Tell us whose family you belong to.’ He says, ‘I’m Troy’s* family (forgive the name choice, I can’t recall the actual name). Troy steps forward nervously…. ‘I’m Troy’s father,’ the old man continues. Cue gasps from someone in the audience (oh – that was me…) Troy and his dad embrace and cry. I watched the rest of the clip with tear-filled eyes. This is just like Long Lost Family! My all-time favourite tv programme! I fumbled in my bag for my notebook and scribbled ‘look up Relative Race and watch all previous seasons!’

Mr Commercial (who I now know to be none other than the show’s host Dan Debenham) then went on to describe the premise of the show. Basically, four pairs of contestants compete against each other over a period of ten days, to solve some treasure hunt style puzzles by driving all across America using no electronic devices, only paper maps and healthy driver/navigator arguments! The clues lead them to various previously unknown members of their family which DNA tests (taken before the show) have revealed.

Ok, this is now starting to sound a little ‘barrel-scraping’ on the part of the TV producers. Hey, let’s take something are interested in, like finding long lost DNA relatives, and turn it into a game show! This is Long Lost Family meets Deal or no Deal! Dan then explained that the teams have to compete against the clock and at the end of each day, the slowest team gets a strike. Three strikes and that team is off the show.

Hang on. Off the show?! Isn’t that a just a little bit cruel? Surely the newly-discovered relatives would be notified and prepared for their son/daughter/niece/third cousin twice removed arriving on their doorstep, then to be told sorry, they aren’t coming. And as for the contestants, who – if they are anything like those who appeal to Long Lost Family for help – have a heavy emotional investment in hoping to find a particular relative. And then suddenly, it’s all over. Can you imagine Nicky Campbell building up the story…

‘Here’s Donna, she’s been searching for her birth mother for 46 years. Through DNA evidence we’ve managed to track her down. She’s alive and living in…. EH EHHHHHHHHH…too late! Time’s up! You’re off the show!

What happens to the people who are struck off, and the relatives they were matched with? Surely the show hands them at the very least a list of the newly found family members? (Apparently they do – phew!) Mind you, if the next two clips I saw are anything to go by, they might be grateful they didn’t make it that far!!

Cue Steve* (sorry, I don’t recall his name either). Steve has been looking for his father his whole life. He doesn’t even know his name. You can see the emotion in the man – a US air force veteran – as he wonders who his dad was, and whether he had ever known or thought about his son. His voice breaks as he describes his dream of sitting with him and talking to him one day. His longing for answers and for a father’s love flows out of every pore. The video cuts to Steve and his partner meeting a genealogist who unfurls a large scroll showing a family tree. Steve gasps with delight. The shot pans down to his fingers tracing the names on the tree.

‘There’s my name. And there’s my Mom’! he cries excitedly, ‘My mom’s name! And there’s…..there’s……my Dad? Wait…you’ve found my Dad?……My Dad! My Dad’s name is……oh…..oh…..deceased? Does that mean….?’ The genealogist nods sombrely. ‘…..that…..that means my Dad is dead….’

There’s no gentle voiceover from Davina on this show:

‘We told Steve away from the cameras that his father had passed away.’

No, we witness the actual heart-rending moment as grief and confusion flash over this poor man’s face as he learns that the dream meeting of his life is never to be. Wow, suddenly this is becoming car crash TV. This contestant isn’t racing. He has crashed and burned.

I often wonder about human psychology when I see shows like this. I, and many others, absolutely LOVE Long Lost Family. But why do we love it? What does it say about us that we sob with joy over every tearful reunion? This is something way deeper than just empathy. This is the primal desperation for love that is at the centre of us all. And yet here in the UK, we only get to see the joyful reunions. Davina’s dulcet tones censor the unpleasantness, protect us from witnessing that other human giant emotion – the searing pain of grief. We the British viewers know it is to protect the dignity and privacy of the individual. Of course it is…..isn’t it? Isn’t it perhaps also to protect us from the uncomfortable? To make us feel better about ourselves by somehow justifying our voyeurism of an intensely private moment between two lost souls by broadcasting only the ‘nice bits’. The Americans aren’t known for holding back on emotion and their shows reflect this. Long Lost Family USA is the same. We’re just not used to it here in the UK and so it can make for an awkward viewing experience. Who has it right? Is there a right? Do we really have the right to be seeing it at all?

So back to Steve and his race. Dan went on to tell us that this wasn’t the end of the story for Steve!

The last clip showed Steve meeting his paternal uncle for the first time. His father’s brother. He has a pile of memorabilia to show Steve, including his father’s old leather wallet and various military photos. But that wasn’t it, the voiceover told us, there was one final surprise in store for Steve. The uncle walks into the room ceremoniously carrying a largish object with a brass motorbike on top. I think the realisation hit me at the same time as it hit Steve. This was an urn. It was actually Steve’s Dad. ‘Here was my Dad.’ Steve’s voiceover said.

I snorted with laughter, turning it hastily into a cough as I glanced around to see others dabbing their tears. This really took the biscuit! They’ve dragged this poor man across the States and then they wheel out his dead father! I could feel myself starting to shake with suppressed laughter or horror, one of the two. Don’t get the giggles. Don’t get the giggles. I had to look across at the coffee queue and think about war, famine and dead pets in order to bring myself back under control. What a 15-minute demo theatre experience this was turning out to be! From tears to disbelief to horror to hysteria. Was this actually for real?

Dan ended his talk by expressing the hope that Relative Race might come to the UK one day. Hmmm. I’m not sure the UK is quite ready for it yet!

Now it was mystery ticket time. God forbid that it was a ticket to appear on the show. Thankfully no. It was a raffle ticket to win a Relative Race t-shirt. I was actually torn for a while between really wanting to win one (I like winning things) and thinking truthfully that I really didn’t want one! Needless to say, I didn’t win one.

As it is a little unfair to review a programme based on three clips, I decided to stream a couple of episodes when I got home from RootsTech. I fully expected to eat my words somewhat, to admit to actually enjoying it and to end my blog on a positive note, saying I would look out for it if the show came to the UK. Sadly this won’t be the case.

I picked Season 4 and watched the first two episodes with a growing sense of unease. Firstly, what I’d understood during the 15 minute demo to be ‘treasure hunt’ style questions (I pictured Anneka Rice running up a street and breathlessly reading out a cryptic clue – it was pretty cool!), actually turned out to be some pretty challenging physical tasks. Examples from the first two shows were: using a variety of sports equipment to get a ball down a football pitch to score a field goal; bungee jumping out of a watch tower after a 9 hour drive across two states; constructing a catapult to fling balloons filled with water into a bucket on someone’s head and then measuring the liquid caught. All good family fun, and reminiscent of the good old days of It’s a Knockout (I’m going for an 80s game show theme here). But not, just NOT, really appropriate for a show about people searching for their birth families.

Secondly, three of the teams had at least one member who was desperately seeking a biological parent. Two were adoptees. Now I get that in most states of America, adoption records are permanently sealed. For most adoptees, a DNA test is the only route to answers and I’m absolutely in favour of DNA testing. Indeed, I’m making it my life’s work to reunite people with both relatives and ancestors through genetic testing and paper research. But there has to be some element of control in making this as ethical a process as possible.

In episode 1 then, we meet a genuinely nice guy Mike and his daughter, as ‘Team Red’. Mike never knew his father and is full of the same intense emotion as Steve, full of the same intense emotion as everyone I’ve ever met, known or seen on programmes like Long Lost Family who are desperate to find a parent. After completing the challenge for the day, he comes face to face with his paternal first cousin. The joy! The reunion! The realisation that this lady holds the answers to his 56-year-old quest to find his dad, to identify his heritage and therefore complete his sense of identity and being! This is huge. This is life-changing. This should NOT be a prize for hurling the most water-filled balloons into a hat. To make people jump through hoops and behave like circus entertainers for the benefit of a popcorn-munching audience is not just crass, it’s – in my opinion – morally wrong.

It doesn’t end there. Mike sits down with his cousin and looks at photographs of his father for the first time. The familial resemblance is uncanny and it’s a beautiful moment. He is clearly shaking with anticipation as he stumbles over the words to ask his cousin if his father is still alive. But sadly he isn’t. He has passed away. Mike tries to put on a brave face, but you can see him crumbling inside. However, Relative Race had a final surprise in store for Mike. His cousin then goes on to tell him that not only has his father died, but the circumstances were that he had murdered his own wife and then killed himself. Mike is now speechless with shock and grief. People, this is not entertainment. This is no more entertainment than a Victorian freak show.

Episode two did not improve. A young adoptee meets her mother’s sister, who soon after the meeting, sits her down and tells her that her mother died of a massive heart attack ten years ago. The girl sobbed. I switched it off.

“I feel like I’ve just walked into a steakhouse for a meal and walked out a vegan.”

This is wrong on so many levels. There’s a reason why there are such things as specialist intermediary social workers and counsellors for adoptees. To get this wrong could lead to further trauma for both parties and irreparable relationship damage. Nervous people communicating life-impacting information to a stranger is not best practice. Whilst I have no doubt that Relative Race have counsellors in place for support at every step of the way, to turn it into a game show is just shocking. Why not plough the cost of this TV production into setting up a scheme to promote genetic research into locating biological relatives, to help people interpret their results, provide counselling, facilitate meetings and all in a way that upholds the dignity and privacy of the families and protects their mental health.

This show has made me question my own motives for watching stuff like Long Lost Family. Should any of this be classed as entertainment – even the happy outcomes? I’m now not so sure. Can I even watch my all-time favourite TV show ever again? If I do, it will be with different eyes. I feel like I’ve just walked into a steakhouse for a meal and walked out a vegan.

I won’t be watching Relative Race if it comes to our shores and I question a society that thinks it is OK to broadcast this as ‘wholesome family entertainment’. It may not contain sex, violence and swearing, but it is morally ambiguous at best.

Unfortunately, Relative Race scores ‘nul points’ from me.

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