CBS's 'The Amazing Race' Returns: No Geniuses, But No Jerks (Yet) : Monkey See The award-winning Amazing Race is back Sunday night for its sixteenth run, and it looks like it could be a good season.
NPR logo CBS's 'The Amazing Race' Returns: No Geniuses, But No Jerks (Yet)

CBS's 'The Amazing Race' Returns: No Geniuses, But No Jerks (Yet)

The Amazing Race kicks off on Sunday night. Sonja Flemming/CBS hide caption

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Sonja Flemming/CBS

CBS's multiple-Emmy-winning The Amazing Race returns this Sunday for its sixteenth season. (As someone who watched and loved it from the first go-round and watched it barely get renewals in the early going, it's a real surprise to hear myself saying "sixteenth season," but there you are.)

The premiere on Sunday night doesn't look to feature one of the stronger fields of racers they've ever offered, but that may wind up being beside the point.

General comments, but no real spoilers, after the jump.

One of the teams this season features a person who's specifically famous for coming off as not terribly bright. This year's "Dating Models" (believe it or not, a category they've had before) are Brent and Caite, and you may not have seen him before, but she's the Miss Teen South Carolina who gave that famous answer about how many Americans don't have maps, and talked about "the Iraq" and "like such as" -- a clip that has been seen 40 million times on YouTube.

Another team features Jeff and Jordan, who became a couple while appearing on last summer's edition of Big Brother (Jordan won). Jordan is also famous for being a non-genius who, for instance, asked some questions about telling time (!!), but Jeff is the one who, during a word game, tried to spell the alleged word "technotronics."

Frankly, watching this crew, it's hard to escape the sense that they would be knocked off with absolutely no difficulty by the kinds of teams that ran the race in the early seasons. The show seems to have realized at some point that mistakes make for good television, and stopped casting teams like the top three or four pairs from the first season, each of which made perhaps one meaningful mistake in the entire month-long race. Now, people screw up regularly, penalties for not reading or following directions are common, and teams tend to be far less impressively self-sufficient. It's a battle to make fewer screw-ups rather than a battle to be crushingly efficient and physically dominant.

At the same time, while it may be light on geniuses, this group of teams seems far more genial and appealing than most. By the end of the first episode, there's almost always at least one team, usually two, that has clearly been put there for no reason except to aggravate and annoy everyone. It might be that Caite was supposed to fill this role, but she actually seems like kind of a game girl who has a pretty good sense of humor about her infamy, and while Jeff and Jordan still aren't overwhelmingly bright, they like each other a lot and are (so far) having a good time.

Honestly, it's hard to pick out any real malevolent jerks based on the first hour of the season, and that's to be celebrated. There's nobody who's been cast strictly because they scream abusively at each other, or because they're utterly unqualified idiots. When Race gets in trouble is when it casts the wrong teams and winds up with three or four teams at the end who nobody can possibly be expected to care about. Almost all of these teams seem potentially likable or at least unobjectionable, and several seem like they'll be downright root-worthy.

As for the route and the tasks, those are balanced just about right. The Roadblock is truly pretty harrowing, while another tasks allows for some on-street interaction with locals, which is always a plus. They've wisely kept up the light touch with the airport maneuvering, including it only where it matters, and they've thrown in a very good idea at the beginning of the race that I won't reveal, but that shakes up the often-formulaic opening ten minutes or so. Those opening ten minutes -- Teams Are Introduced, Teams Drive To Airport, Teams Complain About L.A. Freeways, Teams Arrive At Airport And Can't Find Parking Lot -- needed adjusting, and adjustment has been accomplished.

It's hard to predict whole seasons based on opening episodes, because much depends on how the chemistry develops and how people respond to pressure. Ugliness isn't always apparent early; sometimes it doesn't show up until somebody has gone without a shower for a few days. But most recent seasons have started with at least one team that makes me think, "I have absolutely no chance of ever liking anything about these people, and I cannot wait until they are gone, because if I wanted to watch people with this kind of stupid vehemence, I would just read YouTube comments." This opener didn't strike me that way.

Race has a few casting strengths that it doesn't always display consistently, and it seems to be on track with some of them: it's had some gay couples who aren't utter stereotypes, including this year's Carol and Brandy; it's had some older people who aren't just there to be adorable, and does so again with grandma Jody, racing with her granddaughter Shannon.

The most important element of any reality-show season is solid casting, and so far, these seem like nice enough people to spend three months with, even if their skills and focus aren't as impressive as we've seen in some casts. All in all, a promising start to the season for a show that's got its formula down pat.