Any kind of television can be great television. "The Amazing Race," premiering on CBS tonight, brings new energy and respectability to the "reality" genre popularized by the same network's "Survivor" -- and surpasses it in spectacle and human drama. Great TV lives.
Ironically enough, what CBS does right tonight, NBC does wrong an hour earlier with the premiere of a series similar in concept but inferior in execution: "Lost," which like "Race" sends a group of strangers on a wild globe-trotting chase, but one that quickly becomes a taxing trip for anyone watching.
"Amazing Race," at 9 on Channel 9, pits 11 two-person teams against one another in pursuit of a top prize of $1 million. "Lost," at 8 on Channel 4, has six people paired off to race after a comparatively measly pot of 200 grand. There are many other differences between the shows, but they boil down to CBS's being sensational and NBC's being a bore.
"Amazing Race" was not produced by the alleged master of this genre, Mark Burnett, who did "Survivor" and whose greatest talent is reportedly making deals with networks that are extremely lucrative for himself. Burnett now has stiff competition in the executive-producer team of Bertram van Munster and Jerry Bruckheimer, who pack more than a thrill a minute into their dazzling and fascinating show.
Part of the key is in the casting, and "Race's" 11 teams really are a little bit of everybody: a pair of cranky baldies, a mother-and-daughter combo, a married couple who've been separated for 10 months and who think the race might bring them back together, a feisty pair of grandparents, two friends who are lawyers (one of whom spends a lot of time at the gym, clearly) and two gay men who've lived together for 14 years.
They're Team Guido, they say, named in honor of their dog. They're also, arguably, the most entertaining couple of the bunch, but nobody's dull. Some argue almost from the get-go (and what a get-go, racing madly out of Central Park to JFK Airport) while others appear to learn more about each other along the way, in contrast to the "Survivor" ethic of just learning more about yourself.
Two working moms dare to take the trip and face its myriad challenges to liven up their lives. The central challenge is to win the race around the world, but that race is broken up into sections and punctuated along the way with breathtaking challenges.
Tonight's most daunting trial faces the teams when they manage to get to Africa, their first major destination. Near awesome Victoria Falls they must first cross a gorge by hanging on to a suspended wire and then bungee-jump across another, swinging through space in terrified exhilaration. One woman is adamant about not jumping (a detour is available but will take more time), and one man says, "Are you kidding? I can't do that!"
Watching them is a vicarious hoot, a way to satisfy one's wanderlust and yearning for adventure from a safe perch in the living room. But in addition, seeing these ordinary people surmount extraordinary obstacles is honestly encouraging. There is so much more to this show than there is to most of its ilk. And that's apparent even in the first hour.
CBS withheld about five minutes of that hour from critics, however, because at various intervals, though apparently not every week, one team is eliminated, and that happens tonight. The network wanted to keep this a surprise. Not that "Amazing Race" lacks surprises anyway.
NBC, meanwhile, has asked critics not to disclose the "drop site" from which the contestants on "Lost" will have to find their way back to New York. Okay. But we can tell you it's as barren as the moon and terrifically uninteresting to look at. So are the teams, who seem a ragtag bunch of sad sacks indeed, mewling and grumping as they try to figure out where they are and how to get out of there.
One team doesn't figure out the location until the end of the first episode. Talk about dumb!
Aspects of the show are blatantly ridiculous. We see teams straggle around the desert with only small amounts of water left in their canteens and we're baited with the notion that somebody might, what, die of thirst? With a camera crew standing there videotaping them? The jeopardy seems so bogus and trumped-up.
It appears these people don't get out very often, for they are awfully easily awed. At the beginning of the journey, they're blindfolded and brought to an airplane hangar near Cleveland. In gushy narration added later, we hear a female team member melodramatically recall, "I peeled off my blindfold and there was an airplane looming right in front of me! It was such an incredible feeling!" Golly gee!
A male colleague adds: "It was just unbelievable!" What, they never saw an airplane before? That plane takes them to another and then a helicopter plops them down in that secret spot with only a few dollars and minimal travel supplies to see them through.
Here the casting seems to have depended on how demonstrative the contestants could be, for they whoop and shriek like crazy at nearly every opportunity. They also talk in trite phrases like "Let's do it," "I am psyched" and "This just freaks me out."
Let's not do it, I am not psyched, and freaked-out I can get some other way.
In fairness, previews of an upcoming episode indicate that "Lost" may pick up speed when the contestants reach civilization and have to interact with other people. The way the "Amazing Race" contestants do that is part of the charm of that show. One of the lawyers declares them all to be "impromptu diplomats for our country," and several make an effort not to perceived as Ugly Americans Abroad.
Others don't give a damn and snap at locals who don't provide them with adequate directions. Certainly every viewer who ever took a vacation can empathize with one of the baldies when he tells a South African man: "We're lost. We need a little bit of help."
The "Amazing Race" contestants, those who survive to the end, will travel nearly 35,000 miles, according to host Phil Keoghan, who mercifully stays as unobtrusive as possible, unlike that infuriating pest on "Survivor" with his silly torch-dousings and remonstrations. The producers of "Amazing Race" appear to have borrowed all the good things from the "Survivor" prototype and left the bad things behind. The fact that the show does not involve people confined to a small area helps make it much more watchable and exciting.
One surprise about "Lost" is that it comes from a production company headed by Conan O'Brien, ingratiating late-night bad boy of NBC. This is the kind of show O'Brien should be doing jokes about, not producing. It does suggest one context for the title: Has Conan O'Brien "lost" his mind?
In addition to its other virtues, "Amazing Race" presents us with what appears to be a fairly accurate cross-section of the population. Some of their remarks are funny: "These flies are like lobsters here!" Others are moving, as when the grandpa says: "My wife is an amazing lady. She can do anything she sets her mind to." A man who met his wife while both served in the Army says, "She's got a good head on her shoulders -- she never trusts my instincts."
The danger, of course, is that the most telegenic teams might be eliminated and sent home, thus hurting the show. It's a risk that viewers should be prepared to take. "The Amazing Race" is thrilling, frightening, unpredictable and sometimes joyous, just like the amazing race that is, yes, Life Itself.