For the past two television seasons, it has topped the category of Best Reality Competition in the Primetime Emmy Awards, beating out such high-profile series as Survivor and American Idol, as well as Donald Trump's unintentionally hilarious boardroom knife fight and ego-fest, The Apprentice.
It's The Amazing Race, and the seventh and newest installment of the show premieres with a two-hour episode at 9 tonight on CBS.
For those who aren't familiar with TAR's format, it pits two-member teams against each other in a race around the world, with instructions and clues given at several checkpoints along the way. Unlike some "reality" programs, nobody gets voted off this show; elimination is the booby prize given to teams that finish last in various segments of the race. The winning team picks up a $1 million prize.
Though earlier installments of The Amazing Race have featured their fair share of pretty faces, buff bods, and empty heads, not to mention the requisite scheming and plotting, they've generally been entertaining in a more wholesome way than most of their reality TV counterparts.
That's primarily because there's not as much scheming and back-stabbing. It's tough to be Machiavellian when you're sprinting to catch a rickshaw.
This time out, the 11 teams begin their race around the world in Long Beach, Calif., with the first destination being Lima, Peru. Teams include the series' first-ever mother-son duo, as well as the oldest combo ever to participate. But in the best example of stunt casting, one team consists of a pair of reality-show veterans, Rob and Amber of Survivor All-Stars fame.
Amber Brkich, 26, won the top prize of $1 million on CBS's Survivor All-Stars last year, and Rob Mariano, 29, took the runner-up prize of $250,000. Now the two are engaged and back on TV looking to fatten their bank accounts even more.
Some of their competitors aren't thrilled that this wealthy young couple has been given another shot at riches, but both of them - particularly Rob - are worthy opponents who react well under pressure and don't waste time dithering or arguing over strategy. More important, they've already shown that they're fun to watch, which doesn't do anything to hurt the show's potential ratings.
As Rob says early on in TAR's premiere show, "We've experienced the sleep deprivation, the malnutrition [on Survivor] any problem that's going to arise is not going to be a physical problem for us."
Other pairs who look as if they might be interesting:
● Lifelong friends Debbie and Bianca: "Debbie and I are both fearless, we're tough, we're intelligent, we're strong, and we CAN win this thing," says Bianca.
● Mother and son Susan and Patrick, from Hamilton, Ohio: "Patrick and I certainly have a devious side to us, and yes, we are willing to lie to get ahead," says the somewhat frightening Susan, who works at Miami University.
● Chuck and Ryan, buddies from South Carolina: "Everybody's goin' to think we're just two plain ol' hillbillies 'til we open up and show 'em what we're made of," says Ryan, who sounds just like, well, a hillbilly.
● Gay male couple Lynn and Alex: "We have pretty sharp claws," says Lynn. "But we only use them if you tick us off," adds Alex.
● Retired couple Meredith and Gretchen, both in their late 60s: "Our key strategy from the beginning is that old age and treachery can outperform youth and experience," says Meredith.
● "On-again, off-again couple" Ray and Deanna, from Youngstown, Ohio: "If it's not Ray's way, it's the highway, and that's where we butt heads," says Deanna, whose testy relationship with Ray seems destined to implode by episode 3, if not before.
Based on tonight's premiere episode, it's going to take a combination of brains, brawn, teamwork, and plain dumb luck to win the race. It doesn't take long to see which teams appear best equipped for the grueling journey - or at least which ones are destined to be left in the dust.
A hint: Bluster and bravado count for little in the overall strategy of a competition like this.
OK, so the challenges faced by competitors on The Amazing Race are not much more "realistic" than those encountered on a tropical island or a set made up to look like Donald Trump's office. But watching people deal with unexpected setbacks - or turn on each other like vipers in the middle of nowhere - can be entertaining, and even kind of inspiring, in a way.
And if it inspires you enough, here's a bit of interesting information for you:
CBS is already accepting applications for the next installment of The Amazing Race, which for the first time will feature four-member "family teams" instead of duos. The teams could consist of parents and kids, in-laws, extended family members, or lots of other combinations. Details can be seen online at www.cbs.com.
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