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''Survivor: Cook Islands''/''Amazing Race''

By RD Heldenfels Published: September 15, 2006

I was out of the house and on the job last night, covering a local appearance by Leonard Nimoy. (You can find the story here.) Then I watched a preview copy of Sunday's premiere of ''The Amazing Race,'' because it has a team of Cleveland guys in it and I wanted to see if there was anything I should write about over the weekend.


Then, this morning, I finally got to Thursday's season premiere of ''Survivor'' -- you know, the one that generated all the talk because the four tribes were divided along ethnic lines.


Anyone watching the hour may have wondered what all the fuss has been about. Yes, ''Survivor'' can be insensitive, such as in its assigning stereotypical music to the different tribes. But the telecast underscored a point that host Jeff Probst made in a teleconference last week -- that when you have a genuinely diverse cast, one player doesn't have to represent an ethnic group alone.


In this show, when an African-American player decided to take a seemingly unnecessary break, there were four other African-Americans to appear critical of it. And when an Asian-American player starts telling ethnic jokes, there are others to disapprove.


I also liked the way the show implicitly admitted that its categories are too broad -- specifically in noting the specific backgrounds of the lumped-together Asian players. And, when it came time to vote someone off, ''Survivor'' was still ''Survivor'' -- with scheming, backstabbing and alliances. And the key alliance formed along gender lines, reminding us of another way the culture divides.


Still, ''Survivor's'' gesture toward diversity is a contrived one, loaded up with significance that provokes more than it instructs. If you really want people to think about diversity, you do what ''Amazing Race'' has done -- and still does in the new season. You take people of different ages, ethnicity, faiths, ability and sexual preference and then send them off on the race. Nobody has to carry the weight of representing his or her people; they just have to win the doggone race.


The new season is deliberately diverse -- including with the Cleveland guys, who are devout Muslims -- but the drama in the show comes from how people handle eating fish eyes, climbing a wall or navigating traffic. They also emerge as individuals, with all the complexity that comes with being a thinking, active human being.


I'll keep watching both ''Survivor'' and ''Amazing Race'' this season, and not just for professional reasons. But I'll continue to believe that ''Amazing Race'' is the better, smarter and more socially wise show. (And I'll have more to say about it after Sunday's telecast.)

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