'The Race' puts global spin on reality TV
By DUANE DUDEK
Journal Sentinel film critic
Last Updated: Aug. 18, 2003
"Could you do that?" I asked a friend as we watched people scale down the side of a building. Head first.
Her response made me realize that I will need another traveling companion if I ever compete in "The Amazing Race."
I'm not sure I could do it, either.
But I'd have to try if I were on "The Race," as the CBS reality series is known by the audience of 10 million or so fans who tune in Thursday nights on CBS. The abbreviated title - as in "Did you watch 'The Race'?" - is as succinct and familiar as the premise.
Twelve teams of two - friends, lovers, relatives, co-workers - travel the world on a route determined by executive producers Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri, looking for clues and performing complicated and physically daunting challenges, such as wall climbing, swimming under the ice of a frozen lake or eating peculiar regional cuisines.
They have nothing but the knapsacks on their backs, although the show provides credit cards to book flights and some cash for each leg of the journey. They rush through airports, harangue cab drivers, elbow one another aside and, once in a while, stop and smell the roses. The last team to finish each leg is eliminated.
Its serial and treasure-hunt qualities give the show the page-turning appeal of a beach book, while its global scale is as grandiose as a summer blockbuster; fittingly, movie mogul Jerry Bruckheimer is also an executive producer.
In a world of dating and talent reality shows, "The Race" is unique. And at a time of polarization and xenophobia, it shows Americans safely traveling through Hong Kong, India or South Korea. This season's cast included a gay married couple, two virgins, an estranged father and son, two clowns and the privileged wives of a couple of NFL players.
The ebb and flow of their friction and cooperation gives each episode a tight dramatic arc. Three teams will compete in the two-hour finale at 7 p.m. Thursday.
"It's kind of emerged as the thinking person's reality show," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"People who will not confess to watching reality TV watch 'The Amazing Race.' It carries all the fun, cheesy qualities of reality TV - people fighting and unscripted and voyeuristic material - but it's dressed up in the formal wear of a National Geographic documentary.
"This is reality TV, continental style. This is the hamburger you get at a fine French restaurant."
Doganieri was in advertising when she created the show on a dare by Van Munster, who worked on "Cops" and "Wild Things," after complaining that there was nothing good on television.
The two executive producers, who are married, talked about the show recently in separate telephone interviews.
Q. Is "The Amazing Race" "reality" television?
A. Van Munster: Absolutely. Because from the moment we say "go," they're on their own. They just have to make it to a certain location and perform these challenges. That's the only time we have input. The rest of the time they're completely their own. Their dialogue is their own. Their movements, their impressions. It's a true reality show, no question about it.
Q. The first season of "The Race" premiered the week before Sept. 11, which could have been the death knell for a show about Americans running around the world. Today, you are waiting to hear if you are renewed for a fifth season. How have world events affected production?
A. Van Munster: Things changed more drastically in the United States, because we had a very open society. But the rest of the world was versed in hijackings, people shooting the place up and this kind of stuff. So they had things in place for years. It can be sensitive. And in certain places, we discourage them from running. But in general, it's been absolutely no problem.
Doganieri: There are some countries we certainly couldn't go to that next season. On Sept. 11, I was actually scouting in Morocco. And that was a location we did want to go to. And we held it for one more season until we thought it was safe. We are very cautious about the countries we fly to and the ones we fly through. We take every precaution.
Van Munster: I'm not going to Afghanistan. I'm not going to Iraq. But there's lunatics and unbalanced and crazy people everywhere in the world.
Q. Your contestants are constantly calling attention to themselves. Isn't that dangerous?
A. Doganieri: Sometimes contestants get a little wild, but for the most part, we're in and out of a location within a matter of a half-hour. By the time attention is drawn to us, we're gone. And we have an incredible security team that travels with us, and they do advise us on locations we choose, and they are watching closely where the contestants are and where they're going.
Q. Does the contestants' behavior reinforce the image of the Ugly American?
A. Doganieri: Once in a while, the Ugly American rears its head. Unfortunately, these people are under so much stress. It's 30 days of travel with very little sleep. They're cranky, they're tired, and I think they behave quite well for what we put them through. For every bad moment, there are 10 wonderful moments where we can be proud of ourselves.
Van Munster: I actually think, overall, Americans are extremely well-behaved when they go around the world. Are we loud and enthusiastic and go-getters? Yeah, no question about it. But that's the spirit I'm counting on.
Q. Each team travels with a camera and sound person, which is why one contestant sits in the front seat and one in back while driving. But does a security team also travel with them?
A. Doganieri: Not in the vehicle, but sometimes following the vehicles. We have a general security team. Sometimes they're set up at the airport. Sometimes they're on the roads where they might be traveling. We'll have a security person that might be ahead of teams and then behind.
Q. You seemed to be tempting fate by visiting South Korea in a recent episode.
A. Doganieri: I went to Korea by myself scouting first, and I felt completely safe there. I was in Seoul for 10 days. I went to the DMZ. You have to be careful. But if you're smart and you watch what you do, you'll be fine.
A lot of it is luck, too. You never know when something is going to happen. But the people in South Korea were wonderful. I really enjoyed it there.
Q. You filmed in January and February. Something that could happen, the SARS epidemic, did occur in the region shortly after you were done filming. Did that give you pause?
A. Doganieri: You can't live your life worrying that something like that could happen. I was in the twin towers in 1993 when the (car) bomb went off. You can't predict these things. And you can't stop your life. You can't lock yourself up in a room and never do anything.
Q. On to practical matters. What items can contestants bring with them?
A. Van Munster: They can bring whatever they want in terms of clothing but not anything else.
Q. Can they bring a compass?
A. Van Munster: They can, but it's not going to help them.
Q. They are always using their hands on tasks. Can they bring a pair of gloves?
A. Van Munster: They can have gloves. They can bring suitcases full of gloves.
Doganieri: They're not allowed to bring a map but can purchase them along the way. They are not allowed to bring a cell phone. They are not allowed to bring personal credit cards.
Q. For one task, they ran through a manure pile. Do they bring extra outfits?
A. Van Munster: On the manure pile, we had some overalls for them.
Q. Do contestants act for the camera?
A. Van Munster: Not at all. For 30 days, 24 hours a day? It's impossible.
Q. Has a camera crew ever inadvertently slowed or affected the race?
A. Van Munster: No, I don't think so. We rotate camera crews between teams. So nobody can say they had a slow crew. In the first race, a team lost some time because the cameraman waited for batteries and waited too long. And they got that time back.
Q. How has the show been influenced by the rash of other reality shows that have since sprung up? I thought having the contestants eat a live octopus was similar to stunts on "Fear Factor," and that shooting blow darts at targets was right out of "Survivor."
A. Doganieri: They ("Fear Factor") do the gross-out factor. What we like are things people in the country (the show is visiting) do. In Seoul, there are many many restaurants where octopus is (served). I went to that restaurant several times . . . and that restaurant is packed every day. It's not something we made up. It's something people really eat there. And with the blow darts and spears, that is something they do on that island and was part of that culture. We don't make up stuff that doesn't belong in the country.
Q. Are the show's interviews with contestants done post-race or during the competition? I would think they would be too busy or too exhausted to talk.
A. Van Munster: That's exactly what we do because we want all that stuff in the moment. You can't do it the next day. You have to get the emotions in the moment.
Q. How do they abandon their lives for 30 days to run the race?
A. Van Munster: They take vacations or a leave of absence, or are at a crossroad in their life.
Q. There are three teams left - a bickering engaged couple, the gay married men and two male best friends. What can you reveal about the finale?
A. Van Munster: Our agreement with CBS is that I can't tell you anything. All I can tell you is (what happens) is very exciting and unexpected.