Cold start for hot show
'Amazing Race' contestants go to Iceland first
November 14, 2004
Never mind the tropical climate of "Survivor" and other reality shows. For "Amazing Race 6," co-creator and executive producer Bertram van Munster likes to keep things cold.
It's one way van Munster has defied the reality genre and in doing so helped to redefine it. For the global race, which begins its sixth season at 9 p.m. Tuesday on CBS, Munster gathers the contestants in the Windy City, Chicago.
Then he sends them to Iceland.
"It's quite spectacular," van Munster said about Iceland in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
"I always send people toward the extreme hot or the extreme cold," he said. "Not every show has to be shot under a palm tree. The harder it rains, the better."
The season begins with players running from a starting line at Buckingham Fountain in Chicago. They rush to cars they drive to O'Hare Airport to catch the earliest possible flight to Iceland.
Van Munster declined to say where the contestants would go after Iceland in their race around the world for $1 million but said he picks different countries each season.
As usual, the two-person teams don't know where they're going or how they'll get there until they get written clues along the way, with further oral instructions from host Phil Keoghan. In previous seasons, they have traveled by everything from airplanes to rickshaws and camels, and van Munster makes them do aerial stunts such as one last season in which they crossed a cable between two skyscrapers in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
In the same city, it rained on the contestants as van Munster made them walk many blocks, carrying 40-pound sides of beef.
Van Munster doesn't give anyone time to lie on a beach. In each episode, the clock's ticking to catch a plane, bus, ferry, train or other form of transportation, and missing the earliest departure can mean defeat. Along the way, the last two-person team to reach particular destinations gets eliminated.
The urgent pace of the series has drawn critical acclaim. "Amazing Race" has beaten "Survivor" two years in a row for the Emmy since the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences added the best reality show category in 2003.
And after having experienced low ratings in previous seasons, "Amazing Race" consistently placed among the sixth to the 10th-highest rated shows this summer as the contestants traveled 73,000 miles in 29 days to nations ranging from Argentina to Russia.
The two-person teams this season consist of Hayden and Aaron (CBS didn't give last names), actors who are dating each other; Adam and Rebecca, who used to date; Avi and Joe, who were buddies in high school; Don and Mary Jean, grandparents; Freddy and Kendra, engaged models; Gus and Hera, a father and daughter; Jonathan and Victoria, married entrepreneurs; Kris and Jon, who are dating from across a long distance; Lena and Kristy, sisters; Lori and Bolo, married pro wrestlers; and Meredith and Maria, best friends.
Like contestants in previous seasons, the new group will experience the challenge of being in countries with limitations they wouldn't face in the United States, van Munster said. "We have a lot of luxuries -- cars, air conditioners -- that work well for us. They see how other people in other cultures solve their problems."
While Munster wouldn't list this season's challenges, he did say the series would continue its tradition of feats involving height and speed.
"It boggles my mind that people can do these things," van Munster said. He added his staff tests each stunt to make sure it can be done.
In addition to making things rougher for the contestants, there's another way that "Amazing Race" differs from other reality shows, van Munster said. While he charts the course, the contestants make many of their own strategic decisions.
"You can see we don't know the outcome," he said. "It's entirely up to them. That's what makes it so novel."
For all the pressure to get to each destination first, van Munster said he has seen contestants win by staying calm and taking time to make the right decisions on matters such as choosing paths or getting directions. Those who rush make mistakes that cost them time.
Contestants this season range in age from 24 to 58 and, while most players are young, the presence of middle-aged parents and grandparents sets "Amazing Race" apart from most reality shows.
Van Munster said he only requires that contestants be in good health. "If you're older, it's harder to keep up," he said, but he warned against making assumptions.
"Remember Charla (Faddoul), the little girl? She was phenomenal," he said. The 4-foot-tall woman in last season's "Survivor" proved to have more endurance than her taller cousin (Mirna Hindoyan) in carrying the beef in rainy Uruguay.
It's a soap opera
The rain in some countries and the chill of Iceland might all seem like a heat wave compared to the icy relationship problems that can develop during "Amazing Race." Last season, Alison Riwin, a 23-year-old Meadville, Pa., sales representative, and Donny Patrick, a 22-year-old University of Pittsburgh student from Shenandoah, Pa., broke up after seeing each other at their worst on "Amazing Race." They fought on the show.
Such soap-opera elements draw viewers to "Amazing Race," van Munster said. "I think the personalities always stand out. They have a sense of humor, they're yelling at each other or they're calmly cooperating. Many contestants are surprised (when the show airs): 'Was that really me?'
"If the behavior is bad, they'll say it's the editing. But the show is edited and filmed in chronological order. We don't manipulate it. If you act like a jerk for nine minutes, that's what we show."
He said the race can bring out the best and worst in people. He cited the two air traffic controllers in a previous season. When one was injured on a ski slope, the other stayed behind to help him, even though that meant costing them time in the race.
"When it came down to it, their friendship was more important."
-- Dave Mason can be reached at dmason@VenturaCountystar.com