(Note: I wrote this before Tuesday night’s season finale, for if Rob and Amber won, I didn't think I'd be in the mood to write anything good about the show. But hallelujah, they lost, and Joyce and Uchenna, the most deserving of the final three teams, grabbed the grand prize. To what I've written below, let me add that luck, dumb or otherwise, is as important as any factor in playing this show's game.)

Often described as the classiest of reality TV series, The Amazing Race is a trip in both senses of the word. Following ten-to-twelve two-member teams as they race around the world for a million dollar prize, it entertains, sure, but it also informs and even enlightens at a level Survivor (much less faddish grotesques like The Bachelor) just can’t reach. Instead of centering on mob mentality and strategic alliances, TAR not only explores the drastically different dynamic of a team of two, but it also requires its contestants to constantly think on their feet: the goal is not merely to survive, but to persistently stay as far ahead of everyone else as possible through a tangle of physical, mental, and logistical challenges.

The show premiered in September 2001 to a public already skeptical of Survivor clones and variants (hello, Big Brother!) littering the airwaves. Ratings were abysmal, but the show managed to come back repeatedly as a summer replacement series. I started watching during the fourth season in 2003, remembered fondly by most fans as the one with Millie and Chuck. They had been dating for a dozen years, and being two good, conscientious Christians, they also both claimed to be virgins. Whenever a TAR team appears on screen, they’re ID’d with credits that give us their name and type of relationship (such as “Married”, “Best Friends”, “Father/Daughter” and the like). Inevitably, Millie and Chuck were always labeled, “Dating 12 years/Virgins”.

That chutzpah alone drew me in to the show, but I also took to the breakneck pace, exotic locales, increasingly more inventive/challenging tasks and most of all, the mounting tension at the end of each episode as teams reach “the pit stop” for that leg of the race (with the one in last place usually getting eliminated--or as some viewers like to say, “Philiminated”, referencing the show’s affable host, Phil Keoghan). Like the most effective reality shows, it felt more addictive each week as I spent time getting to know the remaining contestants.

TAR won an Emmy for Best Reality TV Show that September, which is probably what saved it from cancellation. It returned the following summer for a fifth season, and in a new Tuesday night slot, it finally acquired a sizable audience. Packed with a few new quirks (like the “Yield”, where one team can give an involuntary hour-long “time out” to another team of their choice) and a few quirkier contestants (Charla, the hell-bent midget who often accomplished twice as much work as her teammate, whiny, taller cousin Mirna), the show thrived, culminating in a season-ender that was as riveting as any suspenseful hour of 24 or CSI. The final three teams included Brandon and Nicole (bubble-headed Christian model couple), Colin and Christie (irritating, mean-spirited white couple) and Chip and Kim (goofy but decent, big-hearted black couple). Of course, you wanted perennial underdogs Chip and Kim to win, and they did in a masterfully edited and paced hour full of close-calls, cliffhangers, wise decisions and a fateful, triumphant Yield (directed at front-runners Colin and Christie, of course).

Now a genuine hit, the show won another Emmy and CBS made room for a sixth season on its fall schedule. Unfortunately, in this round, the show came perilously close jumping the shark. One glaring problem was that too many teams now consisted of impossibly good-looking interchangeable model/actor types. When all the other less photogenic teams (the most memorable being delightfully trashy pro-wrestlers Lori and Bolo) managed to get Philiminated first, it was hard to care for any of the young ciphers left standing. But another, more serious detriment to the show was a new, unwelcome fascination with what depths competitive human behavior could sink to. It began with Colin, the fifth season’s lil’ hothead, but reached an embarrassing peak with season six’s Jonathan and Victoria.

A walking (or should we say running) horror show teeming with abuse (mostly verbal but sadly, some physical), J + V’s presence seemed more appropriate for Jerry Springer than TAR. It was Oh-my-God-what-a fucking-train-wreck fascinating at first, but became unbearably painful to watch over the following weeks. Viewers across the globe breathed a collective sigh of relief when J + V were mercifully Philiminated two-thirds of the way through the race (even good ol' Phil could barely conceal his contempt for them). However, their presence left a sour aftertaste, one that lingered up until the last leg, which resulted in a big empty victory for snotty, patronizing Freddy and Kendra.

TAR returned for a seventh season weeks later, and it really felt like a fresh new start. No models, no obvious basket cases, just eleven teams of mostly average-looking people, including two best friends from a rural area (boring description, I know, but it sounds better than calling them “hillbillies”), the show’s first-ever mother/son team, a gay couple (one much funkier and realer than bland, fourth season winners/clones Chip and Reichen), and another couple consisting of a former Gulf War POW (Ron) and a former pageant queen (Kelly, who could never give the previous season’s models a run for their money). It was certainly the most diverse slate of TAR contestants to date.

But look out, here comes Rob and Amber, last year’s Survivor All-Stars contestants who fell in love and dubiously scammed their way to that show’s million-dollar prize. It’s unclear whether they approached TAR or vice-versa, but their presence initially seemed like a gimmick and a bad omen. And while I’ve been praying that scheming, slimy Boston Rob and laughably useless Amber would get Philiminated from day one (and I’m guessing/hoping a majority of TAR’s viewers are with me on this), they do serve a purpose that adds to TAR’s drama and entertainment value: They are, without a doubt, the classic bad guys, the villains you love to hate. They haven’t let us down either, lying about available flights, stealing cabs, driving right past another team who had been in an accident and not even slowing down to ask them if they were all right. They obviously add tension to an already tense, kinetic show, and they give us a reason to root for (most of) the other teams. Without them (or anyone else in the villain role), TAR would merely be a travelogue and a bore.

Season seven has had its share of neat little surprises. Last-place contestants in the three non-elimination rounds now had to not only give Phil all their cash, but also their belongings except for passports and the clothes on their backs. In one episode, teams eventually reached Phil only to find out, ha-ha!, they weren’t at the pit stop, but only halfway through that leg of the race. In another, Gretchen (abrasively voiced female half of this race’s Requisite Elderly Couple) suffered an accident (on top of the frustration of having misread a clue) that would’ve destroyed any of the show’s less physically fit contestants, but displayed tenacity of a stripe that impressively kept her and her long-suffering husband Meredith in the running until the third-to-last leg.

At its best, TAR is breathless in scope and execution, using something as grandiose as a race around the world to explore decisions big and small that often have to be made within a split second. Furthermore, it gives viewers a sense of how sound some relationships really are (whether love, friendship or family-centered) when teamwork is needed to work through stressful situations. Although not entirely without some faulty wiring (how many times can all teams easily catch up to each other before it feels predictable?), it’s the rare competitive reality series where contestants don’t have to prove to the group or a leader figure (ie--Donald Trump on The Apprentice) why they’re worthy of the grand prize; they just have to prove it to themselves (and their partners) in order to excel towards the finish line.