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TODAY

Friday, October 20

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The eighth installment of The Amazing Race kicks off tomorrow night at 8pm on CBS. The show earned its third Emmy in a row in the Outstanding Reality-Competition Program category. TAR is the only series to win the award.

The concept of the around-the-world contest is fairly simple: teams of two, each with an existing relationship, follow clues and perform various tasks — Detours and Roadblocks — before ending the leg of the Race at a Pit Stop. Detours, which have included everything from hanggliding to carrying a large side of meat, are performed by both team members. Roadblocks, however, are tackled by only one teammate, and the team must decide who will participate before the task is revealed. Walking through a temple dedicated to rat worship and eating a large amount of something most Americans consider disgusting are two examples of Roadblocks. A Fast Forward allows the first team who wins it to skip all other tasks and go directly to the Pit Stop. The last team to arrive is eliminated. The contestants must pay for everything except plane tickets; there is a stipend given at the beginning of each leg. The winners receive a million dollars.

This season, however, the teams have doubled in size and decreased in age: in TAR's "Family Edition," ten related teams of four will compete in this version of the Race. The youngest contestants are 8 and 9. The ads trumpet an 11,000 mile journey, which is impressive until you consider that Season 5 covered roughly 72,000 miles. It is rumored that none of the teams leave North America. I can't even imagine the nightmare of preplanning a global contest for healthy adults, let alone the logistics of arranging international travel with several minors in tow. If that's not enough, most of the teams have four adult players. How is a 'tween to compete realistically? And how much pride can an adult really take in defeating elementary-aged schoolchildren? Actually, I know several adults who would have no problem laughing heartily in the face of a weeping youngster, but none of them are on the show. This year.

Our fair city has been well-represented in the Race. It was both the starting and finish line for the sixth season. The final three teams had to take the Blue Line from O'Hare to the Water Tower, eat pizza at Gino's East, and cross the finish line at Ping Tom Memorial Park. Two air traffic controllers from Chicago, Dave and Steve, finished in eighth place in Season 4. (Team ATC now write recaps and reviews for the TARFlies website.) And this season, there are two teams from greater Chicagoland: the Godlewskis, four adult sisters from Des Plaines, and the Bransens, a Park Ridge father and his three daughters. There have been several major changes made to the Race over the years. In the first season, the clues given at the beginning of one leg were a small flag, a photograph of a man in a red hat standing in front of a monument and instructions to take a boat from Marseilles to find the man. That's it. The teams had to figure out which country the flag was from, which city had that monument and find their way there. That's serious thinking right there. The clues now are direct and to the point. Go here, do this.

Teams also had to scramble to arrange their own flights. Now the first legs of each series have prearranged airline tickets. This causes more instances of what has become known as "bunching": all of the teams meet up at an airport or train station and start out on a level playing field. The Pit Stops were usually spent outdoors in tents or in less-than-ideal conditions. Now, however, the accommodations are much more lush. Polo clubs, castles, wineries, resorts — beautiful places indeed in which to see the world. However, it definitely detracts from the hardscrabble feel of the early seasons.

There have been adjustments to the rules as well. Most of them began in Season 5. Fast Forwards, which used to be an option on every leg of the race, are now only available twice. Also in the fifth season and later, there are three predetermined non-elimination legs in the Race. On these legs, the last teams to reach the Pit Stop are still in the Race. However, they must relinquish all of their money and their possessions except for their passports and the clothes on their backs. This requires the last-place contestants to beg other Racers or local people for money to continue racing. The most hotly debated rule addition among fans is the Yield. This allows contestants to choose any trailing team and force those players to stop for a specified amount of time. Many feel it is unnecessary and unsportsmanlike, and it is rarely used.

Season 6 saw one rule change with which I agree: Roadblocks must be split equally between team members. In previous seasons, one contestant would participate in the majority of the Roadblocks, which put less physically adept teams at an immediate disadvantage. As Billie Jean (Helen Slater) said, "Fair's fair."

Then there's the casting. Every season has its "villains," but they've become a bigger part of the show. Team Guido of Season 1 seems absolutely mild in comparison. Season 5's Colin described himself as "intense." Several times. Jonathan from Season 6 was a proud Type-A personality. Colin often screamed at his teammate/girlfriend Christie, including the infamous statements, "I'm PACKIN' it!" and "MY OX IS BROKEN!" during two difficult tasks. However, Jonathan — who also verbally berated his wife, Victoria, at an increasingly loud volume throughout the Race — actually shoved Victoria hard, in full view of the cameras, for not running fast enough to finish first at a Pit Stop. Both men blamed their portrayals on "editing," but that didn't fly with the staff or the audience.

And you can't talk TAR without addressing "Romber." Rob and Amber, who were married on television after the Race ended, met on Survivor: All Stars. They fell in love and made it to the final two. He proposed during the live finale and she accepted before she won the million-dollar prize. This wasn't TAR's first brush with stunt casting (Allison, the runner-up on Big Brother 4, ran two legs in Season 5 with her then-fiancé Donny before they were eliminated) but it was the most obvious. Several of the teams were so annoyed that Rob and Amber were on the Race that they spent their time focusing on them rather than the game itself. They ran a good race to finish second, and took advantage of their luck and fame (which is fine with me). However, I do feel their addition has steered the show down a different path. If Rupert from Survivor and his family had been chosen for the families-of-four season, I don't know if I could manage to watch TAR.

I don't like the addition of so many charter flights (I understand it's probably "easier" for the production team, but that doesn't mean I have to like it), the Yield, the cushy pit stops, the overall ease of the "clues," the tendency of leads to evaporate at almost every leg. I know some of that is due to heightened security in a post-9/11 world. I do like the Roadblock rule change, which evens out the playing field a little. I think the negative publicity surrounding Jonathan in Season 6 — and the stunt casting of Rob and Amber the following season — camouflaged the abundance of bunching, easier clues, the loss of Fast Forwards on each leg and the Yield. These are elements that I do not enjoy and I feel have hurt the style of the race overall. Gimmicks were never necessary for TAR, and it's a shame that the producers changed what fellow reality personality Martha Stewart would call "a good thing."

TAR is still the best reality show on television. I just think it used to be better.

The Amazing Race 8, CBS, Tuesdays 8 pm (2-hour season premiere September 27)

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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