June 18, 2003, 9:41AM
'Amazing Race' has become a worldwide hit
By MIKE McDANIEL
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
Part game show, part reality show, part travelogue -- The Amazing Race gets my vote as the best nonscripted series on television. If you're not watching, you're missing a phenomenal show.
Chuck, left, Millie, Chip and Reichen race for their next clue at Vienna's Schonbrunn Palace on The Amazing Race.
Race, produced by Bertram van Munster and his wife, Elise Doganieri, for Jerry Bruckheimer Television, has become something of a worldwide hit. The premise is deceptively simple: 12 couples -- of all ages, sizes, status and genders -- compete in what is literally an around-the-world race. First couple in wins $1 million.
But the race takes weeks to complete, and there are "pit stops" along the way. Last couple at a pit stop gets eliminated.
In between pit stops, the teams must complete assorted challenges, some testing their mental abilities, others testing their courage or stamina. Relationships have tightened and disintegrated under the pressure of the game.
The competition for this, the fourth edition of The Amazing Race (7 p.m. Thursdays, CBS/Channel 11) has never been more intense -- or harder to predict. Teams include circus clowns, a set of moms whose husbands play for the Atlanta Falcons, a couple who have been dating for 12 years and are still virgins, and a pair of models from Miami.
One week, the models seem to be in over their heads. The next week, they're finishing a leg of the trip in first place. A gay couple, who claim to be married, has seemed vulnerable one week, formidable the next. Alliances have been formed, some helpful, some not.
Couples have shimmied on their backs across snow-covered gorges or bungee-jumped off a needlelike, 600-foot building for the honor of continuing to play the game. They have bartered, connived and flat-out lied to get to the next stage of the game in the fastest time possible.
It's probably more fun (and definitely more grueling) to play than to watch. But it also can be fascinating for armchair travelers and game-show enthusiasts, who live vicariously through the teams, to see the sights they see, to commiserate with slowpokes and to wag a finger at those who stop at nothing to gain a few seconds' lead.
It takes, at the minimum, six months to set up the show, said Van Munster, "and that's if you're working nonstop 24 hours a day.
"It's so popular worldwide, this show. We were in Mexico, the race before this one, and there was a guy in a suit with a little briefcase who comes up to me. 'This is The Amazing Race, isn't it?' We go into so many places, and they all know the show."
Current events interfere with the game all the time, he said. This race, fortunately, was completed before the Iraq war.
"I have made changes at the last minute, only a week before a country went up in flames," said Van Munster, who can speak six languages and fake his way past three more (helpful in plotting the game and setting up station points). "We change the routing, and sometimes it's really difficult to do. It's like digging up the Titanic."
He does not believe travelers need to be extra brave to be playing the around-the-world game these days. "Whatever you do, you're running a risk nowadays," he said. "Everything is being targeted."
The show is expensive to make but is in line with other reality shows, he said. Still, it's too expensive for smaller markets, like Van Munster's native Netherlands, to make. That's one of the reasons the show is the envy of foreign TV markets. It has amazing reach and is backed by deep pockets.
Ever had a challenge that was too hard or went too far?
"Absolutely, but they do it," Van Munster said. "It's just amazing. As long as it's all done within safety guidelines. This is our biggest worry, so we are very careful."
Was there one you wouldn't do?
"I can't tell you; it's coming up. This series is one of the most exciting ones. We noticed we had people who had guts to do things. We said, 'OK, we'll give you the opportunity to show how much guts you really have.' "