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msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/2/2004 5:38:34 PM ET 2004-07-02T21:38:34

Despite its legion of cultishly devoted fans and its having won the first-ever Emmy in the category of “Outstanding Reality/Competition Program,” “The Amazing Race” doesn’t rank in the upper echelon of reality-show ratings and was, until recently, in danger of cancellation. (CBS recently announced that the show, the fifth season of which premieres July 6, has been renewed through its sixth season.)

Which is a shame: though it doesn’t get as much ink as its reality colleagues “Survivor” and “American Idol,” “The Amazing Race” is one of the best reality shows on TV. In fact, “The Amazing Race” is the last multi-episode reality competition on TV where merit is the only criterion by which to determine the winners, which is one of the reasons it’s a more satisfying viewing experience than most other reality shows.

It behooves the contestants to perform well
On “Survivor,” contestants are put through all manner of challenges testing their strength, endurance, agility, and intelligence. (Well, if you consider the ability to solve a word jumble to be a reasonable test of one’s intelligence.) Winning brings them rewards and immunity from being voted out of the game. But the way the show is set up, it can sometimes be in the players’ best interest to lose.

When the contestants are still competing against each other in tribes, they are sometimes tempted to throw challenges in order to rid themselves of an annoying tribe member. And when they’re competing individually, any player who dominates the challenges puts a target on his back; if he’s too good, and hence too much of a threat to the other players, his first immunity-challenge loss runs him the risk of getting the boot.

On “The Amazing Race,” there is no advantage to faking weakness or failure selectively in order to clear the path to victory. The only strategy each two-member team has to map out is how to complete their various tasks — from bungee-jumping to breaking through a globe of solid ice to free a clue to negotiating international air travel — as quickly as possible, since the one and only measure of success is to not be last to cross the finish line.

Thus everyone is playing his or her hardest virtually all the time (puling, malingering Season 3 co-winner Flo notwithstanding), which makes for a very suspenseful hour of TV each week — much more suspenseful than seeing if a muscle-bound he-man is going to pretend he can’t lift a rock underwater.

Popularity is irrelevant
Most reality shows require their contestants to ingratiate themselves to someone.

If you’re in a competition ultimately judged by one person (like “The Apprentice” or “The Bachelor”), you have to make sure not to tick off that person with a bad or insubordinate attitude.

If you’re in a competition judged by the viewers (like “American Idol”), you have to become aware of the cameras and alter your behavior to project the very most likable version of yourself that you can. (On “AI,” you’re also supposed to sing well, but that seems to be less important in each successive season.)

If you’re in a competition where your fellow contestants determine the winner (like “Big Brother” or “Survivor”), you have to find some way both to play well — for which each juror will have his or her own arbitrary standard — and not to make enemies. As Boston Rob learned in the most recent season of “Survivor,” some jurors are unable to regard finalists’ performances objectively if they’re still holding bitter grudges.

But on “The Amazing Race,” none of that matters. Host Phil Keoghan is just there at the finish line to tell you your place in the standings. And while there are producers monitoring your performance, it’s just to make sure you don’t try to cheat on any tasks (Heather and Eve, we’re glaring in your direction). The audience, watching months after the show is filmed, aren’t really part of the process. And although you can be friendly with other teams and make alliances for your mutual benefit early on, eventually, it’s every team for itself.

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One thing that makes “The Amazing Race” such unpredictable fun is that the contestants who are least likable may still stick around for a long time — and thus earn the viewer’s grudging respect for continuing to kick ass in the challenges. By demonstrating that jerks can still be resourceful and capable in a variety of situations, the show is practically providing a public service for annoying people.

Besides which, the most deserving candidate in any contest is not always the one who is most popular, so it’s instructive to see how the contestants perform when equipped with the same tools and put to the same test. Forget democracy: officials in California should have decided the gubernatorial election with an all-candidates sack race.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and contempt breeds good TV
In the seventh season of MTV’s “The Real World,” producers altered the show’s format — “this is the story of seven strangers picked to live in a house” — by casting two housemates who already knew each other (David and Nathan, classmates at military school). This threw the normal dynamic of their Seattle house entirely off-balance; since these two didn’t have to get to know each other, everyone else had to work all the harder, in many ways, to get to know them. The reality-TV lesson we all learned was that it’s interesting to watch how people who are already in relationships — whether as friends, blood relatives, or romantic partners — interact with each other in challenging or unfamiliar settings.

“The Amazing Race” takes this notion and runs with it (no pun intended). Contestants apply to the show in teams of two, rather than being assigned, to each other in groups intended to maximize interpersonal drama (see: “Survivor”). The producers of “The Amazing Race” figured out that there’s much more potential for intra-team bickering between people who know each other than there is among strangers who are conditioned to be polite or deferential.

In times of stress — when you’re jet-lagged, dehydrated, and confronted with a gigantic pile of manure within which lies the small clue envelope you must find — you might fantasize about performing your assigned task with some dude you just met, rather than your mom, who’s going to tell you exactly how you’re doing it wrong, and also nag you to get all that hair out of your pretty face while you do it.

In short: people who know each other may know best how to collaborate to reach a common goal. They also know how to push each other’s buttons. Seeing which teams can pull together and which will get irretrievably mired in petty squabbles is one of the guilty pleasures of “The Amazing Race.”

Given the middling ratings “The Amazing Race” tends to get — tiny in comparison to its network-mate “Survivor” — CBS could have bailed on the show long ago. It’s a little surprising, in today’s cutthroat ratings environment, that it hasn’t.

Instead, the network has thrown its support behind the show and given it a two-season confidence vote. If you have yet to check it out, now’s the perfect time to see exactly what CBS has spared from execution, and why it deserves its Emmy, and its reputation as the thinking viewer’s reality contest.

Tara Ariano co-created and co-edits Fametracker.comand TelevisionWithoutPity.com.

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