Television gets back to real reality via “The Amazing Race.” With this thrilling trip around the world, CBS blows away the Summer of Rats — thank you “Fear Factor” — while creating a terrific companion piece to the net’s comparatively tranquil “Survivor.” Exec producer Jerry Bruckheimer has assembled 24 people who hop from country to country in order to bungee jump, drive, dive, kayak, swim and run all in the name of greed; with a $1 million prize, the Eye has kickstarted the fall sked with more excitement than an Indiana Jones pic and more disagreements than a bad marriage.
The finish-line concept has already taken shape to some degree this year. USA’s “Eco-Challenge: Borneo” and “Cannonball Run 2001” have tried to generate heat around this subgenre, but neither hit critical mass. “Race” rocks them both, mainly because it’s extremely user-friendly. The participants seem more “normal,” the execution is technically flawless and the rules are simple — get directions and beat everyone else. It’s “Road Rules” with grownups.
Twelve two-person teams travel to remote locations week after week. When they arrive — South Africa is the first destination — there are instructions telling them where to go. Getting there, however, is up to them: They can ask for help, they can rent drivers (with a limited stipend) and they can find shortcuts.
Show, which bows right after NBC’s similar-but-not-really “Lost,” starts off in Central Park, where host Phil Keoghan makes introductions and explains the game. Then they’re off — they get flight details and a backpack, then have to make it to the airport for one of three planes to Johannesburg. That’s the first hurdle: The ones who leave early are obviously “in the lead,” while the others who get stuck in traffic or take the subway start to worry before they even leave the U.S.
Bruckheimer has assembled the right people for this. There’s a mother-daughter team, a newlywed team and a best-friend team. But without question the most entertaining of the bunch are Kevin and Drew, two bald, fat fraternity brothers who admit at the beginning that they are Ugly Americans … and prove it with their abrasive behavior and crude comments. There has to be a sitcom out there for these guys.
Also intriguing are controlling Frank and passive-aggressive Margarita, divorced parents who are trying to reconcile. And while spelunking may not be the best way to become friends again, their resiliency and commitment are often put to the test via trust, support and physical endurance. It’s a very watchable soap opera.
“The Amazing Race” really is a race. There’s no elimination based on personality conflicts and no strategy for staying popular. The last duo to arrive at a particular destination is out — despite what it accomplished the previous week — and that’s a big part of the drama. The only gimmick is a Fast Forward ticket that allows the players who find it to skip to the next round without having to compete in the main event.
This type of programming is often knocked for being on-the-cheap; it doesn’t take much to videotape people screaming and whining. But that’s the main difference here: Lush locales are in abundance and no expense has been spared.
Like his litter of action films, Bruckheimer has revved up the editing and has made this as much about the look as it is about the stunts. Interviews are thankfully kept to a minimum and, based on the first hour alone, viewers will probably feel as if they’ve globe-trotted along with the contestants when the show ends after 13 episodes. It’s that exhausting.