YOU don’t have to look too far to see where the producers of The Amazing Race Australia derive their inspiration for putting contestants on the reality adventure series through the wringer: Channel Seven started this year by putting the show’s second season on at 9pm on Wednesday nights, forcing it to compete in the ratings game at a distinct disadvantage.
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The move didn’t make sense, given that when it was introduced last year the show drew critical praise and strong audience figures at 8.30pm on Monday nights. Anyone who harboured memories of Channel Nine’s dire effort to transplant Survivor to this country would have been more than pleasantly surprised. The remake was exceptionally well cast, it didn’t look like a cheap knock-off and it had a distinctly Australian ethos.

Several weeks ago, with the local edition’s popularity starting to fade, Seven moved it back to Monday nights. In the 7.30pm slot it started adding viewers, even though the season was all but half over. Last Monday the show – in which teams criss-cross the globe undertaking challenges – drew just more than 1 million watchers in the capital cities, achieving a pass mark that appeared unlikely as recently as June.

Seven is holding the final three episodes of this season, including a 90-minute finale, and will screen them on consecutive nights, from Monday, August 13, to Wednesday, August 15, after the London Olympics. If you haven’t been watching until now, catch up during the next 10 days and be ready for the final burst because this is a standout production.

There’s always been a fear that Australian editions of successful American shows would suffer because we lacked the necessary egotists and fame whores willing to debase themselves in the pursuit of money and/or celebrity. But while The Amazing Race Australia has a smattering of those types, it proves there’s enough in our national psyche – competitiveness, hope, self-deprecating humour – to make for entertaining viewing.

At the start of the show, for example, it appeared that Victorian alpha male Paul, who was partnered with workmate Steve, was to be the season’s villain. Pumping himself up with comical self-belief – if you put that much air into a tyre it would burst – he was soon rubbing other teams the wrong way and engaging in skirmishes. But the episodes, which are carefully edited, soon let you see that sometimes Paul was just hoping to convince himself he was OK and he was trying to compensate for insecurities from the past.

It’s become apparent that another duo, New South Wales siblings Joseph and Grace, are acting appallingly, having been caught cheating. Grace has acted with myopic disdain towards certain teams while asserting that she hopes to be a deferential wife and that her brother should naturally take charge. It’s as if one of the destinations were 1957.

The Amazing Race Australia has also benefited from taxing contests along the way in challenges that have been unexpectedly hard to complete. One memory-based Roadblock in Istanbul stumped two teams, both of which had to take a four-hour penalty in lieu of successful completion, while another episode finished with a spiky Queensland couple, Kym and Donna, giving up and sleeping in their car.

If the simple lesson of good reality television is not to judge those involved on simplistic first impressions, then this year the series has hit the mark. Blonde cheerleaders are a staple of both the American and Australian versions but NSW twins Michelle and Jo have been front-runners for much of the year.

The most enjoyable teams, however, are garrulous Victorian police officers Shane and Andrew, who can’t quite shake the shadow of Inspector Clouseau, and NSW sisters Lucy and Emilia, who are slightly hopeless at nearly everything but completely charming thanks to their pluck and perpetual banter. Somehow, both teams are in the final five.

At a time when the dull fakery of Being Lara Bingle and The Shire have been vomited on our screens, The Amazing Race Australia has proved to be great fun and culturally authentic. That’s a rare, but welcome, double bill.

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