‘Amazing Race’ still going strong

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/ Source: msnbc.com contributor
By By Andy Dehnart

Ten seasons, five years, 22 winners, hundreds of discarded clue envelopes, and "The Amazing Race" has two more 20-something male winners.

As friends Tyler and James crossed "The Amazing Race 10"'s finish line, they became the show's fifth team of guys in their 20s or early 30s to win the race. Models and former drug addicts, as they reminded us nearly every episode, the two weren't always in first place as teams traveled around the world to four different continents, but they came in first when it mattered most.

Close behind them were Rob and Kimberly, the couple with the relationship that everyone (except them) knows is dysfunctional. Despite screaming at each another in between quasi-tender moments, Rob and Kimberly stayed at the top of the pack, placing first twice and third seven times. But even though they were on the same flight from Paris to New York as Tyler and James, a cab driver without an E-Z Pass or an idea of where they were going ensured they couldn't beat the other team to the finish line.

Lyn and Karlyn, who made race history by being the first all-female team to make it to the final leg, were all but left behind in France, unable to get on the same flight back to the States as their four competitors. Still, they didn't give up.

"I've starved so much on this race, I'm not even the fat lady, so ain't singing," Lyn said.

World travel makes for dramaDespite being five years and 10 seasons old, "The Amazing Race" isn't singing yet, either. The competitive reality series first debuted in 2001 about one week before Sept. 11, and after that day, a reality show about often-annoying Americans racing and flying around the world didn't exactly seem like escapist fare.

However, the show's generally good-natured approach to competition, incredible cinematography, and engaging premise helped its popularity grow over time. That continued until the eighth season, when ratings began to slip. That season featured racing primarily around the United States, not around the world.

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Yet in a television world where nearly every show seems to be a copy of a copy before it, "The Amazing Race" remains the only adrenaline-fueled action/adventure reality series that television has given us. Other shows have moments of action ( has its boxing matches, for example) or thrilling locations (the Anderson Cooper-hosted "and many offer competitions for prizes (among many others).

But unlike series that leave the core of the drama to come from their casts, "The Amazing Race" is largely dramatic due to its non-stop action from start to finish. Its distinct format — the between executive producers and husband/wife team Bertram Van Munster and Elise Doganieri — leaves the drama primarily up to the locations, and the locations' effect on the teams. That produces plenty of interpersonal conflict, but the series is powered by the fact that it's a race, not a war between people.

Despite that solid premise, and even after returning to form after its eight-season stumble, much of the race feels familiar after 10 seasons: the frantic scramble for airline tickets, the bickering couples, the desperate taxi rides, the pulse-increasing music, two strong younger guys crossing the finish line first.

The cast always changes, but often the teams seem all too familiar.

Every season, the producers make small but sometimes significant changes to the race itself to try to keep things fresh. That doesn't always work, but during this 10th season, there were two major changes, and both dulled the steadily increasing interpersonal conflict-based drama in favor of the actual race.

Non-elimination legs of the race, which appear at pre-selected points, allow the last-place team to stay in the game. Starting in the fifth season, the show added penalties for coming in last, at first stripping that team of all of its saved money; in the sixth season, teams that were spared elimination also received no money at the start of the next leg of the race, forcing them to beg locals for cash. In season seven, the rules changed again, and non-eliminated teams were forced to give up their backpacks and all of their possessions.

With no more to remove from the teams — the editors probably wouldn't appreciate having to pixelate naked teams as they raced to hail taxis that wouldn't stop for them anyway — the show shifted course yet again. Instead of having to give up money or objects, the last-place team on the surprise non-elimination legs became "Marked for Elimination." Failing to arrive in first place the next leg of the race left that team with a 30-minute penalty, which is often enough to ensure a team drops from the front of the pack to last place.

The result of this was to actually encourage the teams to work harder to come in first place, and that happened at least once.

Having placed in the bottom of the pack for the entire race, David and Mary placed first on the leg immediately after being marked for elimination, a significant improvement and a thrill for both them and their fans. (The second time they were marked, the 30-minute penalty led to their elimination. Dustin and Kandice were also eliminated the leg after they were marked for elimination.)

Another addition to the race came in the form of the Intersection, which as its clever travel-inspired name suggests, caused two teams to crash into each other, at least metaphorically. Actually, instead of encouraging teams to compete, the Intersection forced two teams to join as one to complete a task. Because that collaboration was so short-lived, however, its effect was negligible, and the Intersection only appeared once.

Perhaps next season the Intersection will force , the overexposed "Survivor" couple who changed the course of "The Amazing Race" with their intense strategizing during the sixth season, to actually work together with other teams.

Yes, Rob and Amber are returning, as are other favorite and not-so-favorite teams from the "The Amazing Race"'s past. After 10 seasons with mostly unknown cast members, the show has decided to bring back its all-stars to race around the world. That race began taping in the middle of November and will air in the spring.

Returning familiar faces won't exactly inject new life into the franchise, but "The Amazing Race"'s formula still appears to have enough fuel in it to get a group of teams and camera crews around the world a few more times.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.