Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Put Another Race In The Books

There's plenty of good stuff on tonight: NCIS, the nicely rated but little discussed military criminal investigation series from the creator of Magnum PI and JAG, House, the show about the curmudgeonly doctor who would be English of only Fox would let the lead actor use his real accent, and NYPD Blue which is having a solid final season creatively if not in the ratings (only four more left). But for me the big one is the finale of the sixth Amazing Race. I love this show!

The Amazing Race has had a remarkable rocky history. Created in the wake of the surprise success of Survivor it debuted on September 5, 2001, a singularly inauspicious date for a show that was focussed on international travel to appear on given what happened six days later. The show wasn't a great success in post 9/11 America but it did pick up steam, and in an example of quality winning out it outlasted Lost which came from Conan O'Brien's production company. This piece of drek featured six randomly paired Americans left without any money at all begging and doing just about anything else to get back to the United States for some godforsaken foreign place (in the one I saw it was Mongolia). The Amazing Race did well enough to get a second series that aired in March 2002. That series did well enough that the third series was on the fall schedule opposite The West Wing. It finished a solid second opposite what was then regarded a show that was regarded as nearly invincible. The third series of The Amazing Race was set to debut in the same time slot in February 2003 but CBS panicked when faced with the juggernaut that was American Idol and pulled the show to replace it with a hastily conceived version of Star Search. The Amazing Race was delayed until the end of May 2003. A fourth series was produced for the summer of 2004 to fill Survivor's Thursday time slot, but there were open musings that there wouldn't be another one. That was until the 2002-03 Emmys. Nominated in the new "Best Reality Series" - a category that not only included Survivor and American Idol but also an AFI special and a tribute to the 100th birthday of Bob Hope - The Amazing Race 3 won. That was enough to earn the series a reprieve and a summer run in 2004 - this time on Tuesdays was produced. It performed extremely well in the ratings, and as an added bonus The Amazing Race 4 won the Emmy in the revised "Best Reality Competition" category against Survivor, American Idol, The Apprentice, and Last Comic Standing. Between the ratings success of the fifth Amazing Race, the two Emmys, and critical acclaim it was decided that the sixth Amazing Race, which had been scheduled for the Saturday night death slot was put on hold until another series from the Fall 2004 series died. That show was Tuesday's Clubhouse.

So what makes The Amazing Race into the show that Canada's National Post newspaper calls "the reality show for people who hate reality shows. It seems to be a combination of things really. One big one is that it is a trip around the world, taking viewers to places that a lot of them are likely never to visit. Like any reality show, casting is key and The Amazing Race has had superlative casting over the years. You need interesting people and this season alone has included a 70 year old doctor and his wife, a husband and wife who are professional wrestlers, a model who is a pampered princess and a bit bigoted to boot, and a father and daughter team where the daughter is a teacher and the father was a former CIA agent who was the first person to fly to the North Pole in an open cockpit airplane. Of course personality isn't the only thing - all reality shows cast based on personality (and then they manipulate those personalities based on editing - and the producers of The Amazing Race are no different on that score). In my opinion there are three things that sets The Amazing Race apart from the crowd. The first is that, despite the efforts of some of the competitors, you don't get ahead by lying and backstabbing or by allying with the other guy. Within teams, it is essential that the people work together because they have places to get to and tasks to complete, but working with another team at best gives only a temporary gain and there really aren't many opportunities to attempt to actively sabotage another team - and until the fifth Race and the addition of the Yield there weren't any. That hasn't stopped teams from trying though. A second factor is that there is a tangible reason for surviving to the next episode. Teams don't have to please their fellow players, impress a group of judges, or win a telephone poll - if you are the last team to reach the Pit Stop at the end of a stage, most of the time you will be eliminated. The goal is clear from the start and any mistakes can be fatal in terms of survival in the game. Finally I think that The Amazing Race may be the most accessible of the reality shows. You don't have to be extra fit or extraordinarily gifted to succeed on The Amazing Race. You need endurance and quick wits because you are travelling around the world in 30 days. You also need a willingness to experience new things, and a lot of patience with the person that you're going with. It is the latter which produces the best drama in the show. People come face to face with their fears. Personalities clash both between teams and within them, although the teams that do best tend to be the teams where personalities mesh rather than clash.

Tonight's final episode is two hours long. There are four teams remaining: Hayden & Aaron (dating, models from Los Angeles), Freddy & Kendra (dating, models from Miami), Adam & Rebecca (formerly dating, personal trainers from Los Angeles), and Kris & Jon (long distance dating, a Geography student and waitress from Long Beach and a restaurant owner from Scottsdale respectively). One team will be eliminated in the first hour and the three remaining teams will race for the finish line somewhere in the United States in the second hour of tonight's show. My personal favourites are Kris & Jon, because they've worked together as a team efficiently and of the remaining teams they've been the least argumentative and the least insulting to the people they've encountered along the way. The team I don't really want to win is Freddy & Kendra, largely because Kendra has behaved like a true pampered princess throughout the Race and has made some remarks which, presumably with the help of editing, make her seem like a serious bigot.

The Amazing Race airs tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern - 8 p.m. Central.

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