Hearts pound as fans await "The Amazing Race"
By Gail Pennington
In the vast category of unscripted TV, there's ordinary reality, and then there's the race.
That's race as in "The Amazing Race," the breathlessly exciting CBS series that finally begins its fourth season tonight.
The faithful - and except for "American Idol," no unscripted series has fans as faithful as "The Amazing Race" - have been panting for news of its return for months. That's because the last round-the-world edition didn't exactly set the ratings on fire, and fans feared the worst.
Instead, CBS appeared to learn an important lesson after throwing away the third edition in fall 2002, slotting the show in a terrible time period, 8 p.m. Wednesdays, that had it competing with NBC's "West Wing" (then still at a Nielsen peak) and ABC's "Bachelor."
"The Amazing Race" didn't slink home with its tail between its legs. Instead, it brought CBS younger and more upscale audiences than almost any series on the network. But the fact was, the race never belonged in the regular network season. It's a show tailor-made for summer, and now it's right where it belongs, taking over the "Survivor" time slot as of tonight.
Just the theme music is enough to start a fan's heart pounding. "The Amazing Race" comes from action-movie maven Jerry Bruckheimer, and there's a lot of Bruckheimer here - hyped-up action, super-fast pacing, everything but gratuitous explosions (and who knows, that could be still to come).
But the race is about more than racing around the world in a quest for $1 million. It's a series of psychodramas, played out by partners under stress.
The drill has 12 teams of two, each with a previous relationship, setting out to see which pair can be the first to the finish line. The teams can be ordinary - Debra and Steve Carmody of Louisville, Ky., are described simply as middle-age parents - or extraordinary.
This season, among the extraordinary are virgins and clowns, air-traffic controllers and NFL wives. All will find their relationships tested, sometimes to the breaking point, by the stress of travel combined with the stress of competition. Even for those who don't last to the end, the test is so effective that states wishing to cut the divorce rate ought to consider building some version of it into the marriage-licensing requirements.
Not just married couples but anyone who has ever traveled can identify. Even if you've never been forced to walk a high-wire ladder or jog through knee-deep snow, as teams find themselves doing in tonight's opener, you've chosen the wrong route, taken the wrong bus, missed out on the last hotel room, maybe even wanted to kill your traveling companion in his or her sleep.
"The Amazing Race 4," taped in January and February, kicks off at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. First stop: Milan. Phil Keoghan returns as host.