Here's the idea: Five young people who have never met board a Winnebago and set off across the country. Every few days, they get a new clue -- in a pouch around a dog's neck, for example -- that presents them with a new destination and a new challenge, like working at an alligator farm or parachuting out of a plane.
Their adventures, their fights, their accomplishments and their whining -- in short their every move -- is recorded by video cameras.
This is the idea behind "Road Rules," a new MTV series on Monday nights at 10 for the next 13 weeks. The show draws most obviously on its MTV predecessor "The Real World," a series that put a group of nubile strangers together in a house for several weeks of on-air angst.
But there is also a strong allusion to a more venerable, if often underappreciated, television tradition: the road show. "Road Rules" is "Route 66" with better outfits and more sex.
Driving the lonesome highway and watching television from the couch are two quintessentially American experiences that express what it means to grow up in a country of wide open spaces and small-bore culture.
They seem antithetical, and yet as Bob Thompson, a professor of television at Syracuse University, observes, they are barely distinguishable. "Driving down the highway, you're looking through a rectangular piece of glass at ever-changing scenery," he said. "Watching TV is exactly the same thing."
By this account, the road show is a natural and should be wildly popular. But apart from "Route 66," which ran for four relatively strong seasons in the 1960s, there are surprisingly few successful shows that fall squarely into the genre.
Both "The Fugitive" and "The Incredible Hulk" had a nomadic theme that probably qualifies them as road shows. The heroes were constantly on the move, and each episode opened in a new locale with new characters.
"Three for the Road" was a short-lived adventure about a widowed photographer who traveled the country with his two teen-age sons in a mobile home, always encountering new people and often beating them up.
On the nonfiction side, "On the Road With Charles Kuralt," was, of course, a classic of the genre; until his retirement last year, Mr. Kuralt crisscrossed the country for CBS for nearly 25 years in search of the weird and quirky characters that make America great.
Beyond that, there isn't much. In the mid-1970s, Andy Griffith was briefly the host of a syndicated program called "Great Roads of America," a sort of Automobile Association of America guide of the air. Two years ago, NBC developed a new version of "Route 66," but the show never made it onto the schedule.
A main problem with the road show turns out to be the road. A television series is about stability and stasis; you tune in every week at the same time to watch the same characters do essentially the same things. The road is about instability and change; you take a road trip to get out of a rut and confront the unexpected.
"The act of getting places, affecting people while you are there and then moving on, it flies in the face of the domestic environment, which so much of television is based on," Mr. Thompson said.
MTV has staked its reputation on challenging domesticity whenever possible (see "Beavis and Butt-head"), so it may be just the right venue for the road show to stage a revival. Moreover, by stuffing five people into the Winnebago (one sometimes wonders just how they and all their Patagonia parkas fit), "Road Rules" solves, or at least tries to solve, the fundamental problem.
The five and their recurring personality disputes provide a certain all-too-realistic domestic quality that gives the series continuity. The road, meanwhile, provides enough novelty to keep their conflicts from growing too wearisome.
The technical problems of filming on the road are obvious from "Road Rules"; often the picture has the jittery, grainy quality of a home video. But here, too, MTV has an advantage. The cable channel has made jittery, grainy camera work something to be celebrated rather than edited out. It's not a slip-up; it's a style.
The technical challenge of the road, combined with television's strict budget constraints, also helps explain why so few shows take to the highway.
Grant Tinker, the former chairman of NBC, said that even back in the mid-1960s, when network budgets were comparatively bigger, traveling shows were considered too costly.
When the network put on "I Spy," the idea originally was to film every episode in a new place. But because of the price tag, soon the show was filming four or five episodes in the same area. "It's just inordinately expensive to go riding around," Mr. Tinker said.
Bill Geist, the CBS reporter who has taken up some of Mr. Kuralt's traveling ways, describes the process of putting together a road trip for television as "very cumbersome." Often, he flies in from one city and meets up with a camera crew that has come from somewhere else entirely.
"It's like organizing the D-Day invasion just to go interview someone," he said.
Still, satellite and cellular technology have made the road trip somewhat less stressful for television, which is why one often turns on the network news these days to find Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather or Peter Jennings in some utterly unexpected locale such as Sacramento, Calif., or Tehran.
Mr. Jennings, the ABC anchor, said he liked to take the newscast on the road to "heighten a big story," or sometimes just to help out an affiliate. Nowadays, though, he said, it has become so common for the anchors to travel that too often it results in the embarrassing spectacle of all three anchors standing more or less side by side on some remote shore.
"When the Berlin Wall came down," Mr. Jennings said, "there we all were, each with our own little patch of freedom."
By strict standards, the traveling newscasts do not really count as road shows because the emphasis is on being somewhere, rather than on getting there.
For a real road show, you need a lot of scenes shot through a window while the sage hills roll by. You need pink sunrises and purple twilights.
"Road Rules" has them all, proving, if nothing else, that while everyone is inside watching television, there is a big, beautiful country out there.