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The Running of the Asses

I've felt like I've been living on borrowed time these past two weeks, and let me tell you, it's a nerve-wracking existence. The uncertainty, the sleepless nights, the anxious feelings about near misses following on the heels of close calls -- it's almost too much to bear. They say that dodging a bullet makes you stop and take stock of your life -- providing that kick in the ass you sometimes need to figure out what's really important -- and now I realize that's not just a bunch of touchy-feely psycho-babble. Now I know that nearly losing everything makes you appreciate what you have.

Because in each of the past two episodes of The Amazing Race, the team of Jon and Kelly has come within a hair's breadth of getting the boot, only to be spared at the last second. And their constant brushes with elimination -- the reality-show equivalent of the Grim Reaper -- has made me realize that life -- even the highly contrived, heavily edited reality-TV recreation of it -- is both precious and fragile.

What? Like it's somehow not as deep if your stop-and-take-stock-of-things moment occurs as the result of a reality TV show?

To recap for those folks who have shut themselves off from all reality programming lest it distract from a life of quiet contemplation and selfless charity, The Amazing Race is the show in which 12 teams consisting of two people connected through a unifying gimmick -- A father and son! A bickering married couple! A pair of chubby air traffic controllers! A brace of circus clowns! -- race around the globe at the whim of CBS. At the end of each week, after the physical challenges, plot twists and on-camera sniping we've come to expect from the reality genre, the last team to each destination gets handed their walking papers. And so it goes, until the competitors are whittled down to one last team, which takes home a valuable cash prize for mastering the art of getting from Point A to Point B without the help of Mapquest.

It's hard to put my finger on why I enjoy The Amazing Race exactly. Perhaps it's the inherent drama of watching people navigate their way through unfamiliar terrain. Maybe it's because my favorite part of travel is in figuring out which train, plane or automobile will get me to my final destination the quickest, and Amazing Race's on-the-fly travel logistics sates my inner geek. Or maybe, just maybe, it's the fact that I can backseat-drive with impunity -- no, idiot, turn right at the Champs Elysees! -- without running the normal risks associated with second-guessing, such as getting punched in the nose.

But mostly, I enjoy The Amazing Race because of Kelly and Jon. And their maddening ability to stay just one step ahead of the Reaper's scythe is driving me to drink. More than usual, I should add.

Two weeks ago, it should have been the last we saw of Kelly and Jon until the inevitable Amazing Race reunion special. The recently engaged couple -- she's a model who wants to write children's book and he's a real estate agent, according to their CBS bios -- were in dead last, the result of lousy strategy, poor communication, and halfhearted teamwork. So as Kelly and Jon trudged up the Malaysian beach long after the four other teams had finished this particular leg of the race, we prepared to bid a fond farewell to Kelly and Jon as Amazing Race's host -- the preternaturally tan and rugged Phil Keoghan -- handed them their lovely parting gifts. Instead, Keoghan announced that this was the first of three legs where no one would be eliminated, and as Kelly and Jon learned that they would live to race another day, the whoops of joy echoed throughout the Michaels homestead.

The next week, things weren't looking any brighter for Kelly and Jon. They started out well behind the other teams and pretty much stayed there through the usual combination of poor planning, comical bungling, and ill-considered impulse moves. The good news: the team of Millie and Chuck -- who, The Amazing Race producers are fond of reminding viewers, have been dating 12 years and remain virgins -- performed even worse, and Kelly and Jon wound up jumping ahead of them just before the finish line. Thus, Millie and Chuck were eliminated, just as their 12-year relationship appeared to dissolve on camera before an audience of millions. Not a very good day, not even if you're one of those glass-half-full types.

You might get the impression that I'm pulling for Kelly and Jon to win The Amazing Race. I'm not. (That distinction falls to Jon and Al, the aforementioned team of circus clowns, who, through a combination off good humor, gallantry, and good old fashioned circus moxie have reminded an otherwise cynical nation that not all clowns are remorseless, supernatural killing machines a la Tim Curry in "It" or hapless, vile drunkards like Bobcat Goldthwait in "Shakes the Clown.") In fact, of all the Amazing Race contestants -- those still in contention as well as those already dispatched to the Great Green Room in the Sky -- Kelly and Jon are my least favorite. More to the point, if there's one team I particularly don't want to capture the grand prize, it's Kelly and Jon.

Why? Quite simply, they irritate me. She's alternately bossy and whiny, rattled by the slightest setback and prone to saddling her competitors with demeaning nicknames. He's a self-assured blowhard with a talent for saying staggeringly stupid things whenever the cameras are rolling. (A loosely paraphrased sample of the wit and wisdom of The Amazing Race's Jon: "It's like a woman's orgasm: it takes a long time and it's hard to get there, but once she's had it, she's good for a week" -- which may explain why Kelly seems so agitated most of the time, come to think of it.) Together, they bicker with one another and sneer at everyone else -- during the Mumbai, India, leg of the race, Kelly made such a point of complaining about the overpowering odor emanating from the teeming masses, you were left waiting for someone in the crowd to turn to her and say, "You know, many of us here understand English perfectly well, and you're smelling a bit ripe yourself." Based on the sort of behavior frequently on display during The Amazing Race, if you ever found yourself sharing a train compartment with the two of them, I'd give you about 15 minutes -- 20, if you've got the patience of a saint -- before you've tuned out their yammering in order to silently weigh the internal injuries you'll suffer versus the mental relief you'll feel if you just fling yourself off the train at the next switchbox.

(Basic fairness along with a gnawing fear of fielding angry e-mails from Kelly and Jon's friends and relations compels me to point out the duo I've formed an instant chemical dislike for is the one presented to me courtesy of television's editing tricks. In real life, Kelly and Jon are doubtlessly pleasant people who pay their fair share of taxes and volunteer their time and energy toward community improvements. On The Amazing Race, however, they are at the mercy of the show's producers as to how they are presented. Neither you nor I would likely fare any better in a similar situation. Imagine for a second that a camera crew followed you around 24-7. That footage of you yielding to oncoming traffic or cleaning up after yourself or complimenting your next-door-neighbor on how her gardenias are coming in this year will probably never see the light of day -- not when that same camera crew has clips of you picking your nose and cursing like a longshoreman and trying to sneak through the 10-items-or-less line with 12 items. Now imagine how well you'd comport yourself if you were whisked off to a faraway land where none of the locals had the courtesy to speak English and you were asked to function on little sleep while Phil Keoghan messes with your mind. You'd probably be snappish and curt and prone to making disparaging comments about Millie's mole, too. Reality TV producers call that "the good stuff," and, as entertaining it may be for the home audience, it doesn't necessarily provide an accurate depiction of the people debasing themselves for our amusement. So, in all fairness, I recognize that Kelly and Jon -- or indeed, any of the Amazing Race contestants -- are probably just peachy human beings, no better or worse than you and me. But they're the ones on TV, and I'm the one with computer keyboard and the mean streak, and who said life was fair?)

So I spend a good portion of every Amazing Race episode taking perverse enjoyment whenever something unpleasant happens to Kelly and Jon. They have to handle eels at an Amsterdam fishery? Better them than me. They're packed like sardines onto a crowded train as it putters its way across India? Them's the breaks. They're reduced to sniping at one another as they get more and more lost on some Malaysian backroad? Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of kids. I revel in their miseries. I curse their successes. I await their weekly Old Testament-style beat-down for offenses both real and imagined.

And yet, every episode when it looks like the bill for their blundering will finally come due, I'm struck dumb with fear that Kelly and Jon will get eliminated from The Amazing Race. If they're sent away, who will be left for me to actively root against? Where will I get my socially acceptable weekly dose of schadenfreude?

>From the clowns? Hardly.

It is the great paradox of reality television -- every now and again, the shows are populated with people we instantly condemn as contemptible and amoral and, therefore, deserving of the worst punishments God (or, failing His intervention, Mark Burnett) can devise. And yet, without these people -- who we claim to despise so much that we beat feet to the nearest water-cooler or online bulletin board in order to say vile, possibly defamatory things about them -- reality shows are infinitely less interesting.

Think back to Joe Millionaire, quite possibly the most brilliant reality show ever conceived or executed. Most likely, of all the gold-digging hussies vying for Joe Millionaire's hand, you probably most remember Heidi, a frizzy-haired covetous blonde who had neither the artifice nor the inclination to hide her open lust for our hero's fake millions. So how satisfying it was to watch Heidi get her just desserts, whether it was watching her wrinkle her nose as she mucked out a stable or bugging out her eyes as Joe Millionaire gave her the ol' heave-ho. And how empty it felt the week after Heidi departed the chateau in a huff of ungracious behavior and broken French when she was no longer there to liven up the proceedings.

Or consider the granddaddy of all reality programming, MTV's The Real World. In the decade-plus that show has been on the air, who made the biggest impression? The unending parade of milquetoast young people who arrived at the house, made bland, forgettable pronouncements about embarking on an adventure of self-discovery, and then took up space and oxygen until it was time to leave? No -- you remember the jerks, the misfits, the borderline sociopaths who ate other people's food and violated everyone's personal space and generally made every occupant in the house feel both uncomfortable and murderous. Or, to put it another way, you remember Puck.

That's right -- Puck. The dirty, filthy reprobate who so terrorized the cast of the San Francisco edition of The Real World that he was asked to leave, either by his fellow housemates or the producers or quite possibly the Board of Health. But before his untimely demise, you didn't dare miss an episode of The Real World, on the off chance that you'd tune in to discover the Puck had been murdered -- his body riddled with six gunshot wounds from six different weapons while his six former roommates concocted six flimsy alibis. (Sensing the importance of having this sort of dynamic on the show, MTV has gradually upped the casting ante of The Real World in subsequent installments, taking the radical step of picking seven different Pucks to live in the same house. So we may see that on-air murder yet, is what I'm saying.)

Add to that proud history Amazing Race's Kelly and Jon. Like other reality TV participants before them, they may never gain the acclaim of the masses, but they still serve an important purpose. They are the Wile E. Coyote to the other teams' Roadrunner -- we don't want to see the Coyote ever catch the Roadrunner, but we sure are delighted whenever the Coyote runs off a cliff or crashes head-first into a train or accidentally triggers the Acme weapon of mass destruction and gets singed in the blast. With every wrong turn and catty comment and hissy fit, Kelly and Jon brighten up The Amazing Race immeasurably, giving us something far more important than someone to root for -- we have someone to root against. And so as the circus clowns continue their relentless march toward victory, Kelly and Jon have won a prize that's just as important if not as lucrative -- our admiration for a job of villainy well done.


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