Amazing Race: Class Midst the Crass

Who says comedy is dead? True, the sitcom may be in pretty sad shape. But get a load of the wacky hijinks taking place in the garish circus of reality TV, not so much on-screen (unless you're truly tickled by the snotty escapades of that tiresome twosome Paris and Nicole) but behind the tawdry curtain.

It's hard not to laugh, or at least snicker in weary amusement, as rival network heads and reality packagers (neither species particularly renowned for original thought) snipe at each other with the ferocity, and the camp value, of a Dynasty

And over what? Derivative concepts, like a couple of boxing versions of American Idol. First, on paper anyway, came NBC's The Contender, with heavyweights Mark Burnett and Jeffrey Katzenberg attached. Then brash, scrappy—OK, shameless—Fox entered the ring with its own version, The Next Great Champ. What really steams NBC is that Fox will get its show on the air first, by several months, starting Sept. 10.

The gloves came off when Katzenberg, promoting Contender to a Los Angeles ballroom full of TV critics a month ago, declared, "If imitation is the highest form of flattery, theft is the lowest form of creativity." Ooh, them's fighting words.

But honestly, what does creativity have to do with any of this?

The fun continued as Fox ripped off ABC's Wife Swap (itself an adaptation of a British hit) with the cheesier, more money-grubbing Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy. And because ABC delayed Wife Swap's premiere until fall, Fox again got the draw on the competition.

The next battleground: dueling nanny shows. On the same day ABC announced it was adapting yet another British smash, Supernanny (about a real-life Mary Poppins who whips spineless parents into shape), Fox chimed in that it had enlisted a rival company to develop something called Nanny 911 (featuring multiple nannies).

Who will win this round? Who could possibly care? It's like a grisly farce spinning out of control, a 21st century update of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, an insanely accelerated version of TV's inevitable tendency to cannibalize its own.

It's pretty pathetic.

And yet, the program getting the last laugh this dispiriting summer is the one reality show that no one would dream of cloning—because it's too good.

CBS's The Amazing Race 5, the class act of a crass genre, has emerged from several seasons of sleeper status. Nielsen says in total viewers, it's become the top-rated reality show of the moment. If some of its newfound and much-deserved success can be attributed to following an edition of Big Brother on Tuesday nights, then I take back every nasty thing I ever said about that tacky time-wasting exercise in voyeurism.

The Emmy-winning Race rises above the surface of this scummy pond by reinforcing one of the most basic principles of the reality format—placing ordinary people in extraordinary situations—but never sullies it by adding the usual degrading elements of emotional exploitation and humiliation or by encouraging the narcissism of its participants.

The show is also sumptuously produced, dwarfing any of its peers in visual scope and ambition as it propels its teams of two from country to country, spanning entire continents within an hour.

One recent episode started on the steps of Catherine's Palace on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia, and ended at the foot of the Sphinx in Egypt. Not even the most exotic installment of Survivor can match that.

Though alliances sometimes form among the teams and most seasons offer colorful villains as well as unforgettable heroes, Race rewards achievement over scheming. No one gets voted out of this game. You lose by showing up last or (as in last Tuesday's episode) by giving up when your knees finally give out.

You can't help developing a rooting interest for some of these players. This summer, the hands-down fan favorite is a resourceful, indefatigable "little person" named Charla, who won our hearts the moment she pitched in to help her whiny cousin Mirna haul a slab of beef down an Argentinian street.

There's nothing guilty about the pleasures one derives from watching this exhilarating show. Both inside and outside the industry, this is the one reality series people confess to me they could most imagine themselves and sometimes even dream about being on.

Race's unexpected success this summer has led to speculation that CBS is rethinking its future. The original game plan was to make the reality show the linchpin of the network's little-watched Saturday lineup this fall, but why stall its momentum and bury such a sparkling, on-the-rise asset?

If The Amazing Race continues its amazing ascent, it can serve as a reminder that, even in the cutthroat world of reality, you don't always have to stoop to conquer. And that's nothing to laugh about.