Amazing Race

TAR: How to learn from our neighbours.

It’s no secret that The Amazing Race is not just a North American phenomenon. Worldwide, there have been thirteen iterations of the show broadcast in nine languages around the world. (To be fair, Survivor/Expedition Robinson and Big Brother, with 48 international editions each at last count, kicks its ass in this department.) It’s doubtful whether normal people care about this stuff as much as I do, so to save you the trouble of tracking down and watching hours of TV, frequently in languages you might not speak, I figured I’d take that bullet over the hiatus and report back for the benefit of anybody who was ever remotely curious about what these other versions are like. To that end, I’ve watched countless hours of various Amazing Races, all recognizably awesome as the show we’ve all grown to love.

(The most common thing people ask me when I start going off about international seasons is, “where can I watch them?” The answer is: nowhere easy, usually. But if you know a few of the relevant words in the right language, Americans can often find pieces, if not whole episodes or seasons, of many versions on YouTube. Canada, Latin America, Vietnam, and Asia are a few that had full episodes up on YouTube at press time. At this point, I’ve seen at least a clip, and in most cases, at least one full episode, of every edition but one. Amazing Race: France is my great white whale. I can’t find it anywhere.)

What strikes me as most, well, amazing about these international editions is how they manage to retain the spirit of the show while adding their own unique twists to the game. While international versions of the show have frequently borrowed our new twists (from now on, I’m calling the Express Pass the “Pase Directo”), TAR:US has yet to do vice versa. But if they ever want to take a page from their foreign cousins, here are a few of the most interesting game-changing twists I’ve seen in Amazing Races from around the world.

 A team given a "handicap" has to perform a task that's just a little bit harder than everyone else's. A team given a “handicap” has to perform a task that’s just a little bit harder than everyone else’s.[/caption]

Handicap (Norway)

The Speed Bump has solved many of the more annoying complications of non-elimination legs, but it’s not perfect. It’s true that adding an extra task does allow the show to depict one more facet of a particular country, but it takes us out of the race being run to have to explain and show a task that applies to only one team.

The Amazing Race: Norge has its own problems, to my mind (can we talk about all the J.J. Abrams-style shaky cam?), but creative game design isn’t one of them. Here, they have hit upon the perfect non-elimination penalty. In the “Handikap,” the non-eliminated team does all of the tasks the other teams have to do, but one of their tasks is made just a little bit more difficult. For example, when TAR: Norge Season 1 went to India, they were faced with the same “make 50 fuel cakes out of dung” task we saw in TAR: US Season 18, TAR: Asia season 1, and TAR: Australia Season 2. However, the team who’d come in last on the previous leg had to make 75 cakes in order to complete the task. It’s brilliant in its simplicity. It saves production the trouble of having to set up an additional task, but it doesn’t force the non-eliminated team to do something game-killing, potentially offensive (e.g. begging for money), or god-awful boring (e.g. wait out a penalty).

Incidentally, TAR: Norway also figured out a new way to keep teams relatively close together without constantly resetting the order, a problem that has plagued most versions of TAR since the beginning. When teams might have been bunched due to almost all of them being on the same flight to Namibia, the difficulty of their first task increased according to the order in which they arrived at the Cape Town airport at the beginning of the leg. Teams who arrived earlier had less to do and could thus finish more quickly.

Double Battle (Israel, Norway, Latin America)

This one is used sparingly at best, lest it totally transform the spirit of the game, but once in a while it is incredibly interesting. In a Double Battle, the first team who arrives at a task must wait for the next team team to arrive. The two teams then compete against each other, and the winning team gets to move on, while the losing team must wait for the next team. Each winner moves on, and the last team remaining must wait out a 15-minute penalty. It was billed as an Intersection in Norway and Latin America (technically, “Veikryss” and “Interseccion”), but really, the Double Battle is kind of the anti-Intersection, in that it forces teams to compete head to head rather than work together. On Israel’s HaMerotz LaMillion, they coined the term Double Battle to describe this, which is far more apt, albeit lacking a road pun. (What would we call it? Roundabout? Junction? Head-on Collision?)

Whatever you call it, it’s a great opportunity to mix things up and foster drama. Rarely are teams on Original Recipe TAR called upon to compete this closely. Theoretically, you could win The Amazing Race: US without ever once seeing another team if you kept your head down and just raced really, really well. But with a Double Battle, you have to size up your competition more directly. I don’t think it needs to happen nearly every leg, like it does on HaMerotz Lamillion, but once in a while, it could be cool. Intersections in their original form, let alone a new form, are all but extinct on TAR:U.S., to my great disappointment, though they still show up with some regularity in most of the other current editions of the show.

In TAR: Australia 2, Ross and Tarryn used their Salvage Pass to save Lucy and Emilia.

In TAR: Australia 2, Ross and Tarryn used their Salvage Pass to save Lucy and Emilia.

Salvage Pass (Australia, Israel, and Philippines)

Like the Double Battle, the Salvage Pass requires a sort of complex explanation, which is probably the main reason we haven’t seen it Stateside. The Salvage Pass is given to the team who finishes first on the first leg of the Race. After all of the teams have checked in, the first-place team is called back to the mat and given the opportunity to either save the last-place team from elimination or take an additional 60-minute head start at the beginning of the next leg.

As with all good twists, the Salvage Pass adds a dash of social strategy without tipping too far toward Survivor or Big Brother levels of drama. And it can also provide some truly heartwarming moments. In TAR:Australia Season 2, father/daughter team Ross and Tarryn were visibly choked up when they elected to save (equally choked-up) Lucy and Emilia, noting that they couldn’t do anything but save a team who so obviously wanted to run the race.

Paul and Steve were almost unanimously U-Turned.

Paul and Steve were almost unanimously U-Turned.

The Democratic U-Turn/Yield (Australia, Israel, and Philippines)

Once again, if TAR: U.S. is looking to inject some additional social strategy, they could take a cue from Australia, Israel, and the Philippines. In some seasons of these versions, before teams embark on a particular leg, they are called upon to vote for the team they’d most like to penalize.

This generally has the Survivor: Marquesas coconut-chop effect of showing us who the teams consider to be the real villains and the biggest threats, and it also frequently ends up causing tension. In Season 2 of TAR:Australia, obnoxious meathead Paul and his reasonably okay dude of a teammate, Steve, were nearly unanimously chosen to receive this penalty, and it cemented their outsider status as well as highlighted their particular rivalry with cheerleader twins Michelle and Jo. But don’t feel too sorry for Paul and Steve—they got U-Turned every time one came up and still managed to stay at the front of the pack throughout most of the race. What’s more, they kind of loved being the bad guys.

In Israel, this twist, like the Double Battle, now appears nearly every leg, but since Israel’s seasons contain about three times as many episodes as other countries’ seasons, they can pack all kinds of crap into their show without missing a thing, which I definitely do not recommend. Once per season would probably be plenty for us.

 Toya Montoya does all right as host of The Amazing Race: Latin America Season 5.

Toya Montoya does all right as host of The Amazing Race: Latin America Season 5.

Ex-Contestants Stepping up as Hosts (Latin America)

Let’s be real, nobody wants Phil to go anywhere. Without Phil, there probably is no Amazing Race: US. Before I embarked on the adventure of watching international seasons, I’d have maybe even said without Phil, there is no Amazing Race, period, but most of the hosts do okay. Jon Montgomery’s goofy willingness to try every task, Allan Wu’s affability, and Grant Bowler’s debonair detachment all bring something different and interesting to their respective seasons.

For years, Survivor fans have speculated about what would happen if Jeff Probst ever decided to quit. The most frequent possible replacements bandied about by the fans—Colby Donaldson, Rob Mariano, Parvati Shallow, some other dude named Rob—have been former contestants. At TAR, the pool of hypothetical Phil-successor veterans is just as rich: Brook and/or Claire, Kevin and/or Drew, Mike White, Mallory Ervin, or even recent winners Jason and/or Amy, just to name a few prospects. Hell, throw Rob Mariano into that mix too, while we’re at it, since it’s too much to hope for that we’ve seen the last of that guy on CBS.

Anyway, if we want to get some idea of whether that’s possible and what that might look like, we need only look to The Amazing Race: Latin America, where Season 3 standout “Toya” Montoya was tapped as host for Season 5, replacing Harris Whitbeck, who hosted the first three seasons, and Paulo Zulu, who hosted the all-Brazilian fourth season. The verdict: not bad! Toya is sort of Kim Spradlin-esque in both looks and demeanor, and the fact that she’s been out there herself enables her to relate to the contestants in a new way.

It’s also nice to see a woman hosting. That’s something else we could learn from here in the States!

 Ukrainian Amazing Racers send a postcard home on each leg.

Ukrainian Amazing Racers send a postcard home on each leg.

Postcards (Ukraine)

Okay, this one is kind of a cheat because it really had very little to do with the actual game at hand. In each city visited over the course of Velyki Perehony, teams had to retrieve a postcard (usually by completing a photo-scavenger-hunt type challenge) and mail it back to themselves in Kiev. At the end of the trip, they had to go to the central post office in Kiev and pick up all of their postcards before heading for the final mat. It was a cute little nod to the fact that they were on a global adventure, and it let teams step back from the competition for a moment to savor the experience. If they’d found a way to give it a bigger role in the game, like maybe involving it in a memory task, that would be pretty cool, though counting on all of the actual postcards to have arrived in Kiev via ten different postal systems by the time they returned for the final leg would be kind of a crapshoot. I’m pretty sure some or all of those cards had to be prop cards. (Last summer, my parents received a postcard we’d sent them from Rio de Janeiro…awesome, except I mailed that postcard in November 2009.)

Speaking of Velyki Perehony, Ukraine’s race also featured one of the most awesome prizes for leg winners ever: a case of beer. (Unlike most TAR: US prizes, they did not appear to have to wait to enjoy it until after the race.)

 Tania and Ida represented Malaysia on Amazing Race: Asia 3. Around the World (in more ways than one!)

Tania and Ida represented Malaysia on Amazing Race: Asia 3. Around the World (in more ways than one!)

International Teams (Asia, China Rush, and Latin America)

Nine countries have put their own unique nation-specific spin on The Amazing Race, but to my mind, some of the most fun iterations of the show are the versions that involve not only multi-national locations, but a multi-national contestant pool: Amazing Race: AsiaAmazing Race: Latin America, and China Rush. (With a recent casting call inviting Kiwis to apply, TAR: Australia has just technically joined this club as well.) Not only does having a bunch of different countries represented give you an additional identifier when you’re trying to keep 10+ teams straight during early legs, it’s rife with unique opportunities for cultural exchange.

And obviously you have to be at least a little bit interested in cultural exchange if you’re an Amazing Race fan. The only Big Brother season that has ever unequivocally hooked me was Big Brother Africa Season 1, which featured contestants representing 12 different African nations (it ran on the Africa Channel in the U.S. a few years after it originally aired). And of course there was also World Idol, in which winners of various Pop Idol iterations from around the world got together for a one-off Eurovision-esque competition. I promise you, watching a truly international cast on The Amazing Race is even better.

There are a lot of reasons why American teams will never wind up in the mix on such a show, and why we wouldn’t see it here even if they did: to name a couple, apart from the legal gymnastics required to straighten out contracts and prizes, getting everybody through Customs would be just that much harder. Also, while American shows are frequently exported to other countries, bringing shows from other countries (or multi-national programming) to America has always been kind of a hard sell. Most of it winds up on PBS or random cable channels way up in the 200s, like the Africa Channel. Never on a network. Granted,World Idol did okay Stateside, but that was because a) it aired on Christmas Day, when there wasn’t much else on; and b) it was at the height of American Idol-mania. TAR in its heyday never came close to those numbers, let alone TAR now.

Also, if the American teams were eliminated early, I think everyone Stateside would just stop watching, and that’s not a risk World Race Productions would want to take when the vast majority of viewers are likely to come from here. It’s the same reason we’ve only ever seen Olympic curling in prime time that one year when the U.S. men’s team was in contention for a medal, and the reason the World Cup has never gained much traction in the U.S.—if Americans can’t root for the home team on some level, they usually aren’t interested.

Still, mentally building one’s ideal international cast for Amazing Race II: The World Warrior that includes the likes of, say:

  • Tim and Marie
  • Jet and Dave
  • Catherine and Michelle from TAR: Norge season 1
  • Lucy and Emilia from TAR: Australia season 2
  • The cowboys from TAR: Australia season 1
  • Mardy and Marsio (and/or Howard and Sahran) from TAR:Asia Season 1

…well, that’s a pretty fun way to kill time on line at the DMV. A girl can dream…

While the upcoming U.S. season of The Amazing Race will undoubtedly be depressingly devoid of new twists like this, it’s probably still going to be pretty great, because TAR, like pizza and sex, is usually still good even when it’s bad. I will see you in three weeks to recap and analyze all of the All-American action in season 24!

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