The Amazing Race

Who’s out: Horatio Alger. Who’s in: Rob Mariano, the Boston-bred reality TV star currently seen circling the world with his girl on The Amazing Race. Boston Rob has half the viewing public in his corner, half screaming for his blood, and the ultimate Survivor all-star, Amber Brkich — she of the “smokin’ ass” — in his bed. He’s one lucky bastard, and viewers can’t decide whether to love him or hate him for it. And so they’ve decided to blame him for tainting The Amazing Race.

Against a landscape of dating debauchery (The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire), cutthroat castaways (Survivor), and other unscripted guilty pleasures, the relatively educational and undeniably stirring Race seems a notch above the riff-raff. The series sends everyday teams of two — friends, lovers, exes, spouses, siblings, parent and kid — on an obstacle course around the world. Along the way, they complete challenges (some together, some by one partner), meet locals both interfering and helpful, and endure the complications of getting along with traveling companions on a long, arduous journey.

In each season (we’re now on number seven), lovable favorites and enviable relationships come to the fore, but those pairs don’t always prevail in the competition. The race is lifelike in that way, which allows longtime fans to hold onto their naïvete regarding a series that is, in the end, an edited TV confection like any other.

Then again, there was nothing subtle about the producers’ decision to cast recent Us cover couple Rob and Amber in the latest edition. For those who don’t know, the pair appeared, and lost, in separate seasons of Survivor, then formed an alliance as contestants in the all-star edition last year. They didn’t trust or like each other much — hence the genius in forming a partnership — but then they fell in love. The most powerful player in the game, Rob sacrificed some votes to save Amber from being voted off; as a result, she won the jury’s favor, and the million dollars. But he won the girl.

But instead of retiring into post-fame bliss, Rob and Amber campaigned to be part of Race and agreed to let CBS tape and air their wedding (they were married 16 April) later this month. But the cruelest cut of all? They’re still having fun. Their hard-nosed eye-on-the-prize approach — Rob is shrewd and audacious, Amber cagey and tenacious — is succeeding. They have won several legs of the race, and with two episodes to go, they’re one of the final four.

“There was never as much tension at the starting line as there was when they came on the scene,” Race host Phil Keoghan told the New York Times on 26 April. (Indeed, one contestant bragged to his partner that he thought he had shoved Amber during the initial race to the team cars: “Survive that.”) And that tension has carried over into the race, or so the editing tells us. Early on, teams were shown bonding over the hope that anyone but Rob and Amber would win. Alas, they don’t have the option of voting the couple out. The great irony of this all-against-one attitude is that it calls to mind the dramatic failure of Survivor: All-Stars. That reunion-ish series was pitched as the ultimate clash of former winners (Richard, Tina, Ethan, Jenna) and charismatic also-rans, yet the first to go were the millionaires. They didn’t deserve — or need — to win again, the others agreed.

Have Rob and Amber tainted Race? For one thing, they attract too much attention from other racers. Lynn and Alex were particularly myopic, anxious to know Rob and Amber’s status at every turn. Even in their post-elimination interviews, they couldn’t stop disparaging their rivals. Contestants have also complained that Rob and Amber’s fame gave them an advantage. True, many locals recognize them and are eager to help, though some are so star-struck that they initially slow the pair down. Approached in an open market as she tried to complete a task, Amber had to prod a fan into walking along as she gushed. But she and Rob aren’t the only pair benefiting from locals’ guidance. Followed everywhere by cameras, all the teams find helpers who want to be on television.

In the end, Race is equal parts skill and luck. Teams are charged with navigating, completing tasks quickly, and making the most of the opportunities that come their way. Watching best friends Debbie and Bianca trill their Rs through South America, one couldn’t help thinking their travel experience made them front-runners — until they drove several hours in the wrong direction and were booted from the race.

On the other end of the spectrum are Gretchen and Meredith, a retired couple who have withstood elimination more times than seems believable. Likening themselves to Energizer bunnies, they have persevered in spite of 66-year-old Gretchen’s fall in a cave (she spent the remainder of the episode with a bandage wrapped around her head like a mummy) and 69-year-old Meredith’s exhausted battle to push a statue of an elephant through the streets of Lucknow, India, while Gretchen erroneously rode atop it. (Other teams pushed together.)

Gretchen doesn’t have a keen eye, and she tends to lead her husband in circles before they discover a clue box in plain sight; neither does she have much patience, demonstrated when she nearly broke down in the face of a challenge to open boxes until she found a clue. But she does have spunk, and vocal cords: her habit of making known every frustration and anxious “encouragement” implies she think she’s on radio, not TV, and must narrate exactly what she’s doing and feeling at each moment. At times, all her bemoaning is enough to make a viewer hit MUTE on the remote; but beleaguered Meredith doesn’t have that option, and trying to puzzle out his level of frustration with her is a key part of the fun.

The relationships — the good, bad and in-between — are Race‘s real draw. There’s suspense in monitoring the contest to the finish line, but there’s more in wondering how a couple will deal with adversity.

Take Uchenna and Joyce, Texans initially presented as a hard-luck couple trying to reverse a run of trouble in their marriage (laid off by Enron and Worldcom, respectively, they have also struggled with infertility). Watching them face each race obstacle with patience and mutual support, viewers are left wondering how the heck their marriage could be in any kind of trouble. In the 19 April episode, the pair faced a Fast Forward — a challenge that can be completed by only one team, allowing them to skip all other tasks on a leg and proceed directly to its finish line — that called for both to have their heads shaved, following an Indian custom. Uchenna’s head was bald already, but Joyce… Uchenna tried to stop her, to give her an out: “Honey, I’m so sorry. Do you wanna do this? We don’t have to do this.” But she was determined, shedding tears as she was shorn on camera. Hearts across the country melted for Joyce, yes, but just as many for Uchenna, who said every right thing to his wife before, during, and after.

Race is studded with such character-revealing moments. Yes, teams care whether they win or lose, but what captivates viewers is seeing how they play the game.