ASTONISHINGLY resilient and successful, "The Amazing Race" has won the Emmy for outstanding reality competition for five years running, beating out sometimes better competition such as "Project Runway" and "American Idol." What it has that its rivals lack is a sense of wonder, an almost naive ambition to widen the perspectives of its participants and its viewers too. Its scope is far broader than that of any other reality competition or, for that matter, most scripted shows. Like much great art, it feels bigger than it actually is.
" 'The Amazing Race' is a love letter to the planet," says Kate, one-half of a married lesbian minister duo competing on the 12th season of "The Amazing Race" (Sundays at 8 p.m.), the second installment of which is tonight. "The beauty of this Earth comes from God, and we get a chance to sort of hopscotch around it and love it. What a gift."
But darned if "The Amazing Race" doesn't strike a blow against tourism. It's an imperialist fantasy in which other countries, and cultures, are but stomping grounds for Americans to tear through while chasing the prize of returning home $1 million richer. Though in previous seasons contestants have traveled widely -- to Botswana, South Korea, Oman, Italy, New Zealand and dozens of other locales -- actual engagement with other cultures is minimal at best. As tourists, the contestants are by and large casual, with responses to their spectacular locales typically variations on "It doesn't get any better than this!" There is little, if any, discussion of the visited countries. And so "Race" offers Americans the chance to go somewhere, while really not having to go anywhere at all.
(There are a couple of international versions of "The Amazing Race," though, notably, none has traveled through the United States -- perhaps entertainment tourism is a one-way street.)
Besides, actual engagement with the other has its bumps, and travel has its indignities. In Season 6, Jonathan and Victoria at one point were seemingly on the verge of getting robbed (no thanks to Jonathan's mouth). In the Season 7 finale, Uchenna and Joyce had to beg for cab money before they could cross the finish line. It was in Miami, but still.
(More glorious role models were Oswald and Danny, who blithely used hotel concierges as personal assistants on Season 2. When in Hong Kong. . . .)
And so the "Race" has become a stand-in for totemic and presumptuous American arrogance. But it is particularly American in other ways, especially in its Alger-esque commitment to hard work over privilege. On any day, any team can pull ahead of any other team (on "Race," victory often turns on banal things). Last week, the first three teams to complete the initial leg -- which traveled through the Irish countryside -- were black siblings, Azaria and Hendekea, from New Orleans and Torrance, respectively; an aggressively made-up goth couple from Louisville, Ky., Kynt and Vyxsin; and a hippie couple from Southern California, T.K. and Rachel.
Such are the wonders of participatory democracy, to say nothing of calculated casting. A key part of the "Race" is soap opera, preying upon fragile relationships. In the past, Nathan cheated on Jennifer, and last week they cycled between proclamations of love and sharp bickering. Ronald was largely absent from his daughter Christina's life -- tonight, their long-standing issues threaten their position in the game.
Mostly, though, "Race" seems interested in putting forth a unifying view of our country -- namely, that folks from all walks of life are drawn to becoming reality-TV stars. This season, the goths and the ministers are like demographic manna.
There are also the requisite pairs of bionically attractive women -- Shana and Jennifer, two Los Angeles blonds; and Marianna and Julia, sisters from Miami. Last week, both teams were among the last to complete the leg, a reminder of another charm of "Race" -- the perverse schadenfreude of watching pretty people suffer. No one looks good trying to coax a stubborn donkey into going where it doesn't want to go.
But there was ugliness near the front of the pack too. When, at a key juncture, some harsh words rang out -- "The freaks just got there!" -- it wasn't a malicious Irishman throwing verbal stones at Kynt and Vyxsin. It was Nathan, proving you don't need a passport to put your intolerance on display.