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REALITY RULES THE SUMMER SCREEN

While the fall will be notable for the absence of new reality series, you won't be able to turn on your TV this summer without running into someone looking for laughs, looking for love and attention or just looking for the quickest airplane out of town.

Tonight, CBS returns one of the best and fastest-paced reality series, "The Amazing Race" and gives it the 8 p.m. Thursday "Survivor" time slot.

More happens in the 90-minute premiere of the fourth edition than happened in all 13 episodes and 50 hours (at least it seemed that long) of "American Idol."

Phil Keoghan remains the host of "Race," which features 12 couples testing their relationships on a journey around the world and competing for the $1 million prize.

Part "Fear Factor," part "Survivor" and part "Around the World in 80 Days," it is often a scream in more ways than one. It can be laugh out-loud funny when the loved ones get lost and lose their tempers. And it can just as big a scream when the contestants are asked to do something frightening, often involving heights.

As always, casting is key and this group has several pairs to root for and against when the competition begins in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and heads to Milan, Italy.

* There are a couple of clowns, Jon and Al. And I mean that literally. Two circus clowns -- one of whom is a human cannonball -- hope their agility and ability to make others laugh will be an asset. At one point, they talk about the time that 25 clowns fit into a Volkswagen.

"It was so funny when somebody passed gas," said one clown.

There is a pair of models, Tian and Jaree, who hope their good looks will get them further their annoying attitudes.

There is a couple, Millie and Chuck, who have dated for 12 years and remain virgins, which suggests they may be able to handle the frustrations of travel better than anyone.

There is a gay married couple, Reichen and Chip, who discuss how long they will keep their relationship secret from anyone who doesn't know. Unknown to them, an older married couple with whom they form an alliance already know and apparently could care less.

There is a pair of NFL wives, Monica and Sheree, who don't worry about keeping any secrets. They wear Atlanta Falcon jerseys.

There is a self-deprecating older married couple, Debra and Steve, who fit the CBS demographic. "We're fat," says Steve.

"But we're fun," says Debra.

There is a Texas-New Jersey couple who describe themselves this way: "It is like the 'Sopranos' Meet the 'Dukes of Hazzard.'"

And, of course, there are the usual assortments of couples who are thinking about getting married, are related to each other or have been lifelong friends.

It is truly amazing how quickly a viewer can bond with the contestants once they figure out who is who. The competitors don't often get time to enjoy the scenery but the viewer does. And they certainly don't find the hassles of traveling as amusing as viewers do. Indeed, the series just as easily could be titled "The Amusing Race" as "The "Amazing Race."

One of the most amusing moments comes when a young male, who looks like he could be Ozzy Osbourne's son and is teamed with his own father, decides to help out the NFL wives at the expense of the modeling babes. His language is a little raw, especially by CBS standards.

All in all, the first leg of this race is, well, a "gas."

Before its onslaught of reality shows begin, including "The Last Comic Standing," "For Love or Money" or "Average Joe," NBC returns last summer's best dramatic reality series under the "Law & Order" umbrella, "Crime & Punishment" ( 10 p.m. Sunday, Channel 2).

Once again, it follows real criminal cases tried in San Diego and goes behind-the-scenes to humanize the prosecutors who are the victims' advocates. The series has been criticized in some quarters for emphasizing the prosecution and ignoring the defense to the point of being unfair to defendants. But there's no denying how well the series plays as drama or how easily it gets viewers emotionally involved.

In Sunday's powerful opener, the "People V. Arnold," Richard Arnold is on trial for the murder of his estranged wife's brother. The defense claims self-defense. In a heartbreaking moment, the young son of the defendant and the nephew of the deceased is called by the prosecutor Stacy Running to testify against his father. His face isn't camouflaged, making one wonder if he'll later feel he was exploited for entertainment value.

In a future sexual abuse case, several young adults are called on to testify about being abused when they were much younger. Once again, you feel their pain and wonder if they will ever feel exploited.

In neither case does the defendant testify. And in the sexual abuse case, a defense lawyer unsuccessfully negotiates a plea deal for a lighter sentence before the case goes to trial.

That clearly suggests the defendant is guilty before he goes to trial. Amazingly, the hours are constructed in a way that viewers may be uncertain of the verdicts even though they know what they should be. Which, of course, is why prosecutors often make plea deals.

Ratings: "Amazing Race": 3 stars out of 4; "Crime & Punishment" 3 stars

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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