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Fall '06 Preview: "The Amazing Race"

It's a shaky time for CBS's two major reality TV franchises, Survivor and The Amazing Race. This spring's Survivor: Exile Island was the time in the series' history where I truly felt that the format, and the contestants' reactions to it, were becoming dull. Then there's Amazing Race, which followed up a universally disastrous Family Edition with a spring season that was, while better than what came before it, definitely on the dull side.

Now both shows are fighting fatigue with format changes and gimmicks to try and wrench out the familiarity that has gradually turned them from comfort food into something I watch with one eye on the set and the other on my laptop. With Survivor, as most everyone in the nation knows by now, fatigue is being fought with a racial-segregation format. Too much ink has been spilled over this idea, which Survivor handles in typically classy fashion, right down to giving the contestants time to air their own concerns about the format twist. Frankly, although the race twist does make for some interesting changes and a welcome diversity to the cast, I'm more intrigued by the logistics and strategies inherent in a four-tribe competition.

The Amazing Race, which premieres Sunday, is also shaking things up -- although given the furor over Survivor, it's not surprising that nobody's heard a peep about it. The cast is slightly more diverse than usual for Amazing Race (which has always been a more racially and socially diverse series than Survivor). Of course, it wouldn't be The Amazing Race without a team of models (they're two recovering drug addicts), a team of cheerleaders (who choose the show's first Detour based entirely on their cheer skills), and a team of beauty queens (ladies and gentlemen, I give you Miss New York and Miss California!).

But there are also the pair of black muslims from Cleveland, the gay couple, the dad and his lesbian daughter who are trying to reconnect after the trial of her coming out, the Indian couple (he wears a COLEGE shirt in the premiere, which is priceless), the triathlete with an artificial leg and her boyfriend the prosthetics expert, and the coal miner and his wife (neither of whom have been outside of Kentucky and Tennessee, which put them at a disadvantage when they land in Beijing).

One of the problems with The Amazing Race is that if none of the teams are particularly endearing, what was once a charming travelogue can quickly become a reasonable approximation of being trapped on an around-the-world tour with a group of people you can't stand the sight of. Judging by the first episode, most of this year's contestants seem to be quite reasonable people. Sure, there's some whining when the woman with the artificial limb gets to pre-board her flight to Beijing. But generally I'm predisposed to like this bunch of people.

Except for one couple, of course.

It seems like every year, The Amazing Race casts one couple whose relationship is either dissolving or has come apart entirely, perhaps just before the race has begun. This year it's Rob and Kimberly, a self-combusting dating couple. In the show's introduction, they explain that somehow, the experience of going on The Amazing Race will either bring them together forever as a couple, or drive them apart for good. (No bets on this one, folks, it's too easy.) He yells at her for perceived slights that aren't really there. She counters by shouting, "If you yell at me again..." And this is three days in. Good luck, guys.

But enough about the casting. Like Survivor, it's easy to notice this season's Amazing Race casting without noticing the changes in the format. At the very beginning of the race (in a rainy Seattle park), host Phil Keoghan warns team members that there will be some major twists in the race's format. Without giving too much away, one team discovers the hard way that just because there's no pit stop doesn't mean you're safe from harm.

Another clever twist: the episode's final check-in involves a strenuous physical challenge. As a result, we spend the show's final minutes watching exhausted racers dig deep to cross the finish line, instead of watching a dozen couples run down a grassy hillside and jump on Phil Keoghan's Mat of Fate.

It's hard to say from a single episode if this season's Amazing Race will shrug off the show's recent stumbles and return it to its best-in-class form. But it's certainly off to a running start. And despite the format tweaks, the show's underlying joys are still there. In the first episode alone, you'll marvel at the number of teams who end up getting stranded in an airport parking structure because they're unable to properly read their clue; you'll thrill at a brief (and blessedly vomit free) trip to a Chinese restaurant to eat stomach-turning cuisine; and you'll laugh at the misfortune of several teams who completely foul up a building challenge because they aren't observant enough about their surroundings.

In other words, it's everything you've come to love about The Amazing Race. Consider me along for the ride again... assuming that Rob and Kimberly don't stick around too long, of course.


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