Two of the three best (and the only really good) competitive reality shows on television, “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” (the other being “Top Chef”) have recently kicked off their 20th and 16th cycles, respectively. A decade now since “Survivor” premiered (and nine years since “The Amazing Race” began its run), the two shows are, surprisingly, as strong as ever. Indeed, both of these shows (which air on CBS) have little in common with the proliferation of terrible competitive reality shows that have pock-marked our TV schedules in the wake of the success of “Survivor”: They aren’t about talent, they aren’t about singing, dancing, modeling, cooking, sewing, or weight loss. More than anything, they are about human drama, and during the seasons in which these two shows have cast the right humans, the drama is unparalleled on competitive reality television.
“Survivor” more or less kicked off the competitive reality genre back in 2000 (when it was the highest-rated summer program of all time) and has found ways since to the stay fresh despite a premise that’s remained fairly static: 16 to 20 people are marooned on an isolated island, and one player is voted off each week until there’s only one left. The challenges are usually creative, and the game play is sometimes fierce, but what it comes down to are the players, and no one does a better job of casting than “Survivor.”
“Survivor’s” 20th cycle is another edition of its All Stars, this time pitting the Heroes against the Villains, bringing back 20 of the most notable participants of the last decade and putting the viewers in a strange position of not knowing who among our favorites for whom to root. Boston Rob, who kind of inexplicably was put on the Villains team, still remains perhaps the biggest fan favorite — he’s returning for his third stint, a more mature version of his former self. Last year’s villain, Russell — who may have played one of the best games in “Survivor” history, also returns, and so far, he’s being outmatched by Boston Rob, despite Rob’s fainting spell in the second episode. Coach, the doofus villain from two cycles ago, also returns, still lacking in self-awareness, but relatively tame in comparison to some of the rest of Villains.
On the “Heroes” side, James — also making his third appearance — is the early stand-out, and unlike the mellowing Rob, losing the first two times seems to have brought out the aggression in the once reserved player. He’s the stand-out so far, though Rupert — with his broken toe, compliments of a brutal first challenge of the season — is making waves, having helped to engineer the ouster of three-timer, Stephanie, probably the most physical female to ever play the game. It’s been enjoyable, too, in these first two episodes to see the Heroes, who lost the first two immunity challenges, turn Villain on each other so quickly. J.T., as he did two seasons ago, has already over-allied himself, and while he garnered him $1 million then, it’s the sort of thing that will probably bite him in the ass with players of this caliber.
It’s still too early to tell, obviously, but my guess is that — if they can remain relatively under the radar — Parvati, Amanda, and Cirie may again form that female triumvirate and methodically pick off the stronger players, as they have in their past season together. In either respect, the show is still in top form, and we still haven’t even reached the best part of the season: The inevitable blindsides, which always seem to hit those who most deserve them, proving that the most debilitating weakness in “Survivor” will always be arrogance.
Meanwhile, the worldwide Cannonball Run competition, “The Amazing Race,” has done a fine job of casting this season. In past years, “The Amazing Race,” has been a bit more hit and miss (remember The Family Edition? Ugh) — it’s not for lack of trying, it’s often because the most interesting characters are voted out too soon. They usually build a safeguard into this by at least casting a sweet old couple (as they did this year with one grandmother eliminated early) so that the nimwits survive longer. And boy howdy, have they found the ultimate nitwits this season, starting with the Miss Teen South Carolina contest better known as like, um, USAmerica:
She and her vapid model boyfriend have been trying to demonstrate since the first minutes of the race just how unfairly they’ve been labeled as dumb, while amply demonstrating exactly why they’ve been labeled as such. They join a couple from last season’s “Big Brother” as the two teams to laugh at during the course of the season.
There aren’t any early favorites, though I’m always a sucker for the Southerners, whose ignorance in foreign cultures always seems more wide-eyed and endearing than the brattish California twenty-somethings who always seem to complain that cab drivers in other countries don’t speak English (it’s because it’s not their language, you entitled little shits). The Southerners this season are represented by two “lone ranger” cowboys, who are just pleased as pie to be a part of the race.
I don’t normally like the way that “The Amazing Race” casts its token homosexuals, however, seemingly always picking the bitchiest, most flamboyant gay guys they can dig up in an effort to reinforce stereotypes, but it does usually make for good drama. The lesbian couple this season may turn into the token abusive couple that always seems to do well in the race, proving that a good spousal berating may be more effective than we’d like.
All of which is to say, there’s not a real good way of reviewing two shows deep into their runs, except to say this: They’re still great. And as long as they’re on the air, I can’t imagine not watching them.