The new season of The Amazing Race (Sunday, 7 p.m., CBS) begins with edge-of-the-seat excitement. Eleven pairs gather in Los Angeles to kick off the race around the world. The host reveals their first destination - Brazil - and they're off! Accompanied by a soundtrack of deafening drums and screeching brass, the pairs jump in their cars and speed off to the airport! But they're slowed by L.A. traffic! And the airline ticket lines are excruciatingly long! Then they endure the endless flight to Brazil as the soundtrack reaches a fever pitch!
Hold on. In reality, there's nothing very exciting about inching forward in traffic, waiting in line and taking a long intercontinental flight. The deafening drums and screeching brass just make us think it's exciting. With that kind of soundtrack, I bet even this blurb would be a heart-pounding thrill ride.
Friday, 8 pm
I watched the national conventions, so I have a pretty good idea of how the first presidential debate will go. Democrat Barack Obama will say that the country is in terrible shape, that the Republicans are responsible, and that we need a change. Then Republican John McCain will say the same thing.
I know there's a logical flaw in there somewhere. I just hope that, with the aid of a slide rule and blackboard, I can figure it out before the Nov. 4 election.
Sunday, 7 pm (Fox)
In the season premiere, Homer becomes a bounty hunter, armed with a Taser. "Finally," he tells his partner Flanders, "a practical use for electricity." Homer tucks the Taser into his pants, despite the fact that it keeps shocking him in a very bad place. "It looks cool," he explains to Flanders. Crackle. "D'OH!"
The economy is tanking, the war is dragging on, and the presidential election is getting uglier by the minute. At least we have The Simpsons.
Sunday, 8 pm (CBS)
There's nothing flashy about this series, in which detectives look for fresh leads on stale cases. No actor particularly stands out; none of them are babes. The director doesn't try to get our attention with zippy editing, an overbearing score or gruesome corpses. Instead, Cold Case emphasizes solid TV storytelling.
In the season premiere, a new clue comes to light in the murder of a college football star in 1973. The detectives track down the suspects one by one, looking for holes in their stories. Nothing special about that, but you have to give Cold Case credit for involving us in the mystery, and even touching our hearts by the end.
My only quibble is that the bad guys are a bit too easy to spot. We all know that checked suits and handlebar mustaches never bode well.
Sunday, 9 pm (CBS)
It's the season of political partisanship, and The Unit throws its support behind the right-wing worldview. A special-forces unit fights threats against America - a worthy goal, except that the season premiere identifies the biggest threat to America as disloyal Americans. They look and talk like real citizens, but they try to bring down the U.S. from within. "Damn this country!" they snarl.
This might come off as just a creepy fantasy if it didn't echo the conservative view that those who disagree with right-wing ideas are unpatriotic. The good guys spend the episode mowing down the America-haters, leading to more casualties than in an M-rated videogame. All the sympathetic characters exercise their Second Amendment right to pack heat, from the president-elect to the sexy blond in a black brassiere. The Unit's tough-talking chief is a dead ringer for George W. Bush, telling his men, "You're the line in the sand."
I'm drawing a line in the sand myself: No more episodes of The Unit for me.
Paris Hilton's My New BFF
Tuesday, 9 pm (MTV)
Paris Hilton lives most of her life on reality TV, so it makes sense that she'd use this MTV series as a way to search for a new best friend. But if I were the winner, I wouldn't be too smug. Paris is just as likely to drop her in a 2009 series called You Know What You Did.
Thursday, 7 pm (CBS)
Last season's Survivor was stunning, thanks to a wily group of women who blindsided all the men. Week after week, Amanda, Parvati, Natalie and Cirie seduced their teammates into a false sense of security before lowering the ax. It was wonderful to watch them spin their webs, to the point where not even dudes holding an immunity idol were safe.
The cast for this season's premiere has already been announced, but I won't be surprised if Amanda, Parvati, Natalie and Cirie blindside the producers and show up in Gabon unannounced.