CBS kicked off the 26th edition of its Emmy-winning compeition, “The Amazing Race,” on Wednesday. And TheWrap was on-set at the starting line.
Allow us to set the scene. Helicopter rotors replaced music swells, hot blind daters and a “New Kid” elbowed out parent-child frumps of the past, and the husband-and-wife creators/executive producers produced and directed the season opening segment without a wall of monitors.
“The Amazing Race” took off from Castaic Lake north of Los Angeles at 2:46 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 12, two weeks before Thanksgiving. (Fun fact: NBC’s generation 1.0 reality show “Fear Factor” used to shoot at that same lake.)
After meeting the cast for exclusive pre-race interviews, I went to watch five blind date couples meet for the first time on the starting line and head off for Tokyo. Here’s what I learned:
1. “Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh”
The first thing you notice at the starting line is how different it sounds without music. Without the thumping score, you also hear the helicopters shooting aerials of the start from above. “Left behind” at the starting line after the teams departed, you could track the progress of the teams towards the airport for a bit by the helicopters flying south.
There are also “chase vehicles” on the ground, cars without teams in them that presumably are shooting exteriors and relaying real time tracking information to producers and production coordinators trying to time out what is going to happen next.
Producers kept the existing couples and the single guys (except for Kurt) in one clump of 17 people. Kurt and the single girls were the other grouping.
For all pre-starting line meetings, press interviews, and orientation, the groups remained separate. Keep an eye on Kurt. As one guy with four single girls, he correctly deduced the season’s mechanics ahead of time. He told me he suspected that there was another group of people including the other half of the blind date couples and existing couples that they would be meeting up with. He was right.
A few days before the race started, they had an orientation in a hotel ballroom where a physical partition divided the room so the separate groups could not see each other. If you’ve ever been to or seen pictures of the “Western Wall” in Jerusalem or been in an Orthodox temple, you’ve seen similar physical separations.
The cast buys and brings their own backpacks. Contrary to the popularity of Northface and REI-type gear on the show, there are no deals. Some of the stuff to put in the B.Y.O.-Backpacks does come from the production. In addition to medicines, there were some condoms in the handouts, according to north Florida nurse Hayley, a blind dater.
4. Cram session
Many of the cast members I talked to told me they spent their last Friday night before going on the show watching “The Amazing Race” on TV. This season started shooting while the previous season was still airing.
5. Photographers will be shot “on site”
“The Amazing Race” set is a camera-free zone, except for the 17 professional lenses on site.
An adjunct crew member who took his cell phone out got lashed by an executive producer and watched while he deleted a photo. As a visiting press member, I was allowed to shoot these photos and videos, under embargo until the night of the premiere.
The cast had not had their own cell phones on them for days, though they would be given technology to shoot their own photos and video along the race route, one innovation of the “Blind Date” season.
6. “The Claw”
Phil’s raised eyebrow and hand in the air iconic starting portrait has a name – “the claw.” In the video above, watch him shoot “clean singles” (isolated shots of just Phil delivering his lines) before the actual start. At this moment, the cast was getting outfitted with Fitbits to wear on the race on the other side of the hill.
7. Phil Keoghan could be in the Costume Designers’ Guild
Phil does his own hair and makeup on the road. He has to do makeup now, “because of HD,” he told me. He also carries his own wardrobe with him and “can’t afford” to pack duplicates — “afford” in terms of weight/volume, not cost.
He does have a “Barry.”
Barry is Phil’s producer/lighting/audio guy who has been with him for 23 “Races” around the world, and serves an analogous purpose to what the President’s “body man” does, or what Chip Sullivan does at every industry event around town – metaphorically glue a scene in place.
8. Emmy winners don’t need a “Video Village”
There is a 20 year relationship between the show’s creators and executive producers. “Same title, different roles on the road,” Elise Doganieri says of her shorthand with husband Bertram van Munster.
Production peers from the reality industry take note: van Munster, who directs the “Race,” did not use a “video village” at the starting line, just looked at the monitor on the jib. (A “video village” is production jargon for a bank of monitors that the director and producers usually huddle around, like a mobile control room. Most sets I’ve ever been to use one.)
9. The running crew
As the teams get ready to race, the so-called “running crew,” the two-man camera/sound crews that follow teams, is simultaneously gearing up for their own three-week adventure around the world. At first glance, they appear to be all male. There are a lot of lenses at that starting line.
10. The “Second Heat”
“Survivor” (which also premiered on Wednesday) has a well known team of hungry, young, stunt testers called “The Dream Team.” At the “Race,” it’s the press.
Along with CBS.com reality host/two-time Big Brother alum/”Amazing Race” alum Jeff Schroeder, his fiancee Jordan Lloyd, People magazine’s Patrick Gomez, and a young “Make a Wish” grantee (to whom we treated as we would any other competitor – ruthlessly), I ran the starting line tough-mudder minutes after the contestants had blazed away heading south on the interstate 5 towards LAX.
Patrick from People makes the good point that unlike the contestants, we knew what was coming. When the contestants first came running down the hill and saw the course, they paused. The course said “START” at the starting line. I have been told that the best advice on the “Race” is just “read the clue.” In the heat of the moment, this bunch could not “read the sand.”
11. “Race” stalkers were ready to start
After shuffling timeslots over the years, Van Munster told me that “Race” fans will follow the show anywhere on CBS’s programing schedule. On the start day, I learned they would also follow them to the airport too.
A few hours after the start, I went looking on twitter and google to see if there had been any “sightings.”
I found a borderline stalker site with detailed real-time information.
First, the stalker site had identified 10 of the 11 teams with a slug (something like “Purple guy/girl) around the time it got dark that night and even had grainy photos shot inside the LAX terminal. They mistakenly thought two random women traveling with backpacks were part of the race. They are not.
Second, somebody riding a parking shuttle noticed Barry’s Boot Camp trainer Harley Rodriguez and posted a photo of him with his partner. Then, someone else looking at that photo recognized “New Kid” Jonathan Knight from “New Kids on the Block” sitting next to him. Within a few hours, NKTOB fan twitters had spilled the news that Knight would be “Hanging Tough” on this season.
Takeaway No. 1: I’m fairly certain the internet recognized a “New Kid” on the TV show before the cast did.
Takeaway No. 2: Moral of the story to any fan who has read this far down in this detail-obsessed fan’s trip to the starting line: Don’t go looking for spoilers. You may find them.
The second episode of “The Amazing Race: 26” premieres in the Race’s usual timeslot, Friday nights at 8 p.m.