Around the world in 80 challenges
By Ruta Kupfer
The participants in the reality television game show, "Hamerotz Lamillion" ("The Race to the Million" - known as "The Amazing Race" in its original American form) always look like extreme tourists - as if they are participating in a caricature of the travel deals where people are offered "Classical Europe in five days," but minus the shopping.
The participants in the American program, which is now being produced for Israeli audiences, are supposed to go from country to country within a short period of time, to carry out a number of tasks that are connected with the local customs and then, as speedily as possible, to reach their final destination - home. There they get to see their videotaped experiences (and drive their friends, who weren't lucky enough to go, crazy).
The local version, which is due to be aired next Thursday on Channel 2 (Reshet), is another in a series of reality show programs broadcast by the commercial channels which have come here after being viewed for years in other countries. It is entering the TV arena at a time when the second season of "Survivor" is lagging behind the hoped for ratings, and it seems that "Big Brother" has supplied little more than the annual amount of trash.
The format itself is for the most part familiar to those who four years ago saw "Sof Haderech" on Channel 2, an Israeli program that was very much influenced by the format of "The Amazing Race", in the days when the franchisees preferred impersonation over buying the format legally.
The American program has been broadcast since 2001 and is considered one of the best in this much maligned genre. Its 14th season will begin next month. It was created jointly by Bertram van Munster and his wife, Elise Doganieri and was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer ("CSI," "Cold Case"). The Israeli version is being edited by Eyal Elkabetz and Ravit Lior Mandel. The show will be adapted to Israeli standards by drawing out the competition over a longer time and highlighting relationships - and fights - as happened with "Survivor" and "Yordim Begadol."
In the original program, about a dozen pairs start every race. Their compositions are varied - sometimes they are married couples, sometimes they are engaged, sometimes a couple that has just begun seeing one another; there are homo***ual pairs, elderly people, sometimes siblings, a mother and son, a grandfather and grandson, good friends, cousins and so forth.
The race is divided into parts. In every country and at the end of every program, the participants reach an interim station where a host is waiting - Phil Keoghan, a New Zealander, and in the local version, Raz Meirman. Those who reach him last are usually disqualified (unless the production, so it seems, intervenes on their behalf).
According to estimates, $5 million was invested in the first season of the Israeli version - a considerable sum by local TV standards, though the big prize - $1 million in the American original - will be NIS 1 million here. Ten couples will compete, including two elderly kibbutznik women, a couple that is due to be married, two childhood friends, two night club owners from Tel Aviv (Shai Kahane and Guy Ossidon), and two beauty queens (Elena Ralph and Liran Kohner).
The pairs have to carry out both physically and mentally challenging tasks in every country. In Costa Rica, for example, the participants in one of the seasons of the American version had to choose between several assignments - crossing a dangerous bridge in a rain forest, looking for signs of Mayan culture, or collecting 15 banana plants and taking them in wagons to the market. In Taiwan, they had to travel in a vehicle used by stunt performers, and in Mozambique to convince people in the market to paint their fingernails.
The route itself is challenging. During one season, it started in Washington and continued to China, Vietnam, India, Kuwait, Mauritius, Madagascar, Finland, Ukraine, Morocco, France and then back to the United States. (They have never visited Israel, apparently because of the high insurance fees in a country that is often at war.) On one occasion, the last task was to remember the route and all its challenges.
The pairs fly free from country to country. once there, they get around in taxis, trains, buses or private vehicles which one of the pair drives while the other navigates from behind, (since the photographer who is with them sits in the front). Every one of the members of the pairs has the same number of tasks of the same kind in every program so that it is not possible for a grandchild, for example, to do all the physical tasks while the grandfather does all those requiring intellectual skills.
The tasks, for the most part, are for a tourist on steroids, and involve extreme situations. If there is a famous bridge in the country, the competitors will have to do a bungee jump from it. If it is accepted practice to eat snails there, they will have to swallow a kilo of them.
But despite all that, the American program is high quality for the genre. The competitors are fairly intelligent and polite and ever since there has been a reality category for the prestigious Emmy Awards, "The Amazing Race" has won it every year. It devotes little time to intrigue, even though they do show the pairs quarreling among themselves. It tends not to become a freak show (even once when a very short woman participated with her normal-height cousin, who was nasty, and the two fought with the other pairs just like two shrews from a children's fable). By the way, the only time they deviated from the series' format and got families rather than couples to compete against one another, the season failed. The finale of the Israeli program has not yet been filmed. it will take place only after the program is being broadcast and the contestants will have become familiar faces to the public. This is a significant difference from the American format and in this tiny country where everyone knows everyone else, it could have a considerable effect on the speed in which the contestants advance to their goal.
The hasty skipping from country to country that is accepted practice in the program is in bad taste. Clearly there is more to France than a croissant, but the "set design" - scenery from different parts of the world - is spectacular. Only on rare occasions do situations arise that are truly inconvenient. That is what happened during one of the seasons when the pairs visited Poland.
The anticipated discomfort could be sensed from the moment the plane touched down in Warsaw. And indeed, the most infamous site in history was made part of the program.
One minute the pairs could be seen fighting each other over the most important objective of all - to win $1 million - filled with ambition and bursting with sporting spirits, and then they were informed that they were due to take a bus to Auschwitz.
On arrival, they had to light memorial candles on the tracks of the trains that led to the gate of the camp. The program did indeed slow down its crazy speed for a few moments and the playing of a mournful violin was heard in the background.
One of the participants had a revelation and testified that the experience had led him to see the arguments between them in the correct proportions. But at the end of all this, they happily went on their way to the next task - eating Polish kielbasa sausages which they had prepared with their own hands. One of the contestants said of this particular task that it was the most difficult thing she had ever done.
"The Amazing Race," which is a play on words of the well known American hymnal "Amazing Grace," takes place all over the world, but the program has been produced only in a few versions - in Asia, Brazil and central Europe (where it has since been put on hiatus) and in Latin America. It is to be hoped that the participants in the Israeli version of the speedy tourism program will make do with learning the customs of the places they visit and will not take along with them customs of their own, such as stealing faucets and trying to inculcate the natives with songs of the Israel Defense Forces' Golani Brigade. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1059455.html