Tonight finally seems to be the end of the beginning of the new Fall television season. Fox premieres their new medical investigation series House (not to be confused with NBC's Medical Investigation) while CBS finally unveils the new version of the best reality show of them all: The Amazing Race.
I've mentioned several times how damn good The Amazing Race is. If you've never given it a try, I enthusiastically encourage you to do so this time, and starting from the beginning is always best. If you can't watch the 2-hour premiere tonight starting at 9 PM and you won't have an opportunity to record it, CBS will be replaying it this Saturday at 8 PM which gives you plenty of time to find a sitter or set your DiVo/VCR.
TAR, as those who love it call it, has never failed to disappoint in five previous outings. It is the only reality show that has had such longevity. Yes, there have been more seasons of Survivor, but many of them have been relatively boring, including the current one. TAR manages to avoid the pitfalls of other reality shows, I think, in part because it's not constructed like the other shows. While most reality shows are completely dependent on successful casting – picking good personalities and hoping that the interact (read: clash) with each other in entertaining ways – TAR seems relatively cast-proof. I don't mean to say that 22 boring people would make for a good season, but TAR is the only show that by design has teams competing against each other, and those teams are composed of people with pre-existing relationships. Those relationships create their own dynamic – whether involving arguments or hugs – that bring their own conflict to the show that will always be different (and often better?) than the conflicts of strangers. Yet, fireworks between strangers are there too because throughout the race teams find it is beneficial to work with, or they have major disagreements, with other teams. Even the "nice" teams will usually at some point have to screw-over another; last season was a perfect example when the eventual (yay!) winners Chip and Kim became the only team in the entire race to use the "Yield" in order to hold-up Colin and Christie. Doing so at a relatively crucial time helped Chip and Kim win the entire race.
The "Yield" – when a team can tell another team behind them to basically stop racing for a determined amount of time – is another example of why TAR is the best show of them all. The producers have managed to add interesting new elements to the actual race each season. TAR possesses variables inherent simply to its format – the racers can't completely control the airline and train schedules, for example, and many a team often loses position because of one small bad decision or an unlucky moment. Unlike Survivor where you're stuck in one place, TAR literally travels the globe, and the constant variation in locale and stunts adds to the excitement.
There is a more important reason why I say TAR is more like a conventional TV series than other reality shows. My favorite series are ones that best maneuver the balance between individual episode stories and season arcs. For a long time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was best at this. The X-Files always claimed to be, but in separating monster-of-the-week from mythology stories, it was actually awful. Smallville has been somewhat successful, and of new series, Desperate Housewives and especially Veronica Mars are doing a great job so far. Even Lost, which is by design more like an old movie serial, manages to do this by focusing a bit on one character in each episode.
What I'm describing is the ability to tell an individual story in one episode while still always advancing the season-long arc. That way, even though you'll get more out of the continuing story and know more about the characters by catching every week, if you miss one episode, you won't necessarily be completely lost as to the season's progress. At the same time, if every episode has some self-contained element, you'll always feel satisfied with that 30-60 minutes of television with its own conclusion. Shows like CSI and Law & Order – procedural dramas that are mostly self-contained – are successful in part because people don't feel obligated to come back every week. In fact, the spin-offs have been successful for the exact same reason. In each CSI and L&O, you get more of the same but with the twist of slightly different characters so you feel like you're watching something a little different even though overall, you're not. You get your fill in 60 minutes, and if you miss the following week, well that's just something you can catch on A&E later. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's a little bit of a cop-out. The best television shows are the ones that keep you coming back for more without ever feeling like they're repeating themselves. They involve change in the story and evolution in the characters.
Well, TAR is actually a bit like that. Even down to the element that a team finishing one leg in first place, regardless of how far ahead, can still just as easily be eliminated on the next leg. At one point last season, Colin and Christie had one seemed to be an insurmountable lead. That is, until they had to wait for a flight giving everyone time to catch-up. Every episode of TAR moves you slightly closer to the ultimate finish line, and you learn to love – and hate – the various team members. But each episode is an action-packed, tension-filled race in its own right. Other reality shows, particularly competitive ones, obviously have some sort of elimination at the end of every hour, but those who are ahead usually stay ahead, and the results are relatively predictable. TAR most certainly is never predictable. In fact, after participating in a Survivor pool for a few seasons, someone asked me to play in a TAR one over the summer. Considering that really every episode is one-step above a total crap shoot, I declined. In TAR, some of the seemingly "stronger" teams will go right away, while the "weaker" ones sometimes get to the end.
After years of being on CBS's renewal bubble, TAR finally attracted a large (and demographically important) audience this past summer. But now it really is stepping up to the big leagues: premiering during November sweeps in a prime Tuesday night spot. Hopefully, the audience that found it over the summer will follow it again. And for the rest of you, even if reality shows aren't your favorites, try this one for an episode or two. Unlike the others where everyone is trying to beat their opponents down, there's an element of TAR that is very uplifting, with people working together, doing things they never imaged they could and overcoming obstacles they never thought they would have to.
The lead-in to Fox's House is the new Richard Branson show The Rebel Billionaire, which is kind of The Amazing Race meets The Apprentice, but if you watch it, you'll see why it's not as good as either (although it is infinitely better than the thankfully now-departed The Benefactor). That's a subject for another post, as is whether or not House is worth watching. I haven't seen it yet, so I don't know. It has a great pedigree though, from Executive Producer Paul Attanasio (coc-reator of the brilliant Homicide: Life on the Streets and screenwriter of Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco) with a pilot directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men)and an absolutely fantastic cast led by British actor Hugh Laurie and including Omar Epps, Robert Sean Leonard, Lisa Edelstein and, in an apparently somewhat recurring role, Robin Tunney. Definitely sounds like it's worth checking out