The Amazing Race sets its participants a wide range of daunting and occasionally hilarious challenges. It's a kibbitzer's dream.
There will never be anything like doing The Amazing Race for the first time ... because nobody knew what this thing was about or how we would do this ... everything is happening in real time. There's no re-enactments, no turning back. It really was a celebration of the human spirit.
-- Bertram Van Munster, "Reliving The Race"
The first season of The Amazing Race began in Manhattan's Central Park and sent its 11 teams of two out on a 35,000 mile journey in order to end up back at Flushing Meadow Park in Queens, just 10 miles from the starting point. Such is the beauty of The Amazing Race's award-winning format. You can travel vicariously to exotic locations, spot destinations for future wish-fulfilling vacations and occasionally return to a place you think you know well. All while enjoying the fastest and most engaging soap opera on television.
As The Complete First Season, now on DVD, reminds us, the first episode set the bar high, directing the competitors to a small village in Zambia via JFK, Johannesburg, the staggering Victoria Falls and an immense bungee jump into a gorge that too many of the teams thought was called "George". An additional Roadblock challenge that had to be edited out of the original broadcast version, but which is included in the DVD package's bonus materials, was to cook (optional) and eat an ostrich egg -- roughly the size of two dozen chicken eggs. "That's a big bird, those ostrich, huh?"
Last to arrive, Matt and Ana, a newly married ex-Army couple, claimed their own small place in history. The first team ever to be eliminated from The Amazing Race, they lost because they couldn't stop arguing and because their military training obviously didn't extend to map-reading.
As typified by the bungee jump into the depths of George, The Amazing Race sets its participants a wide range of daunting and occasionally hilarious challenges. It's a kibbitzer's dream. Competitors sign up to play as teams, and their performances under pressure, the wear and tear on their relationships, are fascinating. The tensions for married couples, families, and friends are exponentially more dramatic and (I am ashamed to admit) much more fun than the interplay between other shows' gatherings of narcissistic strangers.
Initially, I worried that the casting of life-partners Bill and Joe, the self-styled Team Guido, would become a hatchet job on gay men everywhere. They named the team after their pet Chihuahua, wore matching outfits throughout the show, and spent even more time on Dick Dastardly plotting than on their personal grooming. But by the end of the series, it was clear that however bad Bill and Joe looked (and they looked B.A.D.), there were at least two things very much in their favour. First, they really did work well together. Second, they weren't a heterosexual couple.
After Matt and Ana's hasty departure, there were four straight couples left in this first season, and only Texan grandparents David and Margaretta emerged with any real credit. They were calm, capable, good-humoured and always supportive of each other; which is just what you'd like to expect from a couple with more than 40 years of marriage behind them.
Fiances Paul and Amie were looking to take their relationship to the "next level" by taking part in a reality TV show. Paul threw fits repeatedly, protesting that he didn't care about the show or the race, only the effect it was having on crybaby Amie. She needed to look up words like "transference" and "codependency" and get the flock out of Dodge while there was still time.
Lenny and Karyn were a relationship car-crash. After Zambia, the teams had to race to Paris, where one member of each team had to climb the Eiffel Tower and look for a flag flying over another famous Paris monument. Lenny failed to spot the flag over the Arc De Triomphe and lied through his teeth to the intimidating Karyn. Picking the only monument he'd ever heard off (presumably he saw the Disney version), he told his better half (and don't you forget it): "We have to go to Notre-Dame". Karyn was "very disappointed" with Lenny when she found out what he'd done. By the time Lenny and Karyn were finally eliminated at the Taj Mahal, Karyn had cracked under India's absolute foreignness and blamed everything on Lenny. She concluded that she'd done all the work, that they were "incompatible" because Lenny wasn't "competitive" enough for her, and all but dumped the poor sap on the famous Amazing Race finishing mat. As a fellow competitor pointed out during the audio commentary for that episode, Karyn really drove a knife into Lenny's heart with her exit interview. All Karyn could say in reply was that Lenny needed to learn to stand up for himself.
Still, Lenny and Karyn were at least prepared to be interviewed together (additional feature: "Reliving the Race") for this DVD box set four years on, and to provide audio commentaries for their last episode and the season opener. This was more than our final straight couple, Frank and Margarita were able to do. A Separated Couple With A Child who expected The Amazing Race to bring them back together, Frank and Margarita were fierce competitors who apparently achieved their relationship goal, but since they alone of the first four finishers fail to appear on any of the additional materials, it's hard to be sure where their marriage stands today. Either way, they were hardly a poster couple for heterosexual marriage. A typical conversation between these two ran as follows:
Frank: Because I said so.
Undoubtedly the smart one, Margarita was not smart enough to stop acting like a personal doormat for Frank, an unpleasant, bipolar, control freak given to gloating and paranoia, who probably never forgave her for outpacing him on their climb up the Great Wall of China.
The relationships shown to their best advantage in The Amazing Race - The Complete First Season are friendships. The stars were Kevin and Drew, friends since 1984. Loud-mouthed, funny, and blatantly good-hearted Noo Yawkers, they were the anti-Guidos. Sadly beaten out by their nemeses at the final elimination point in Beijing, Kevin and Drew were so popular that they recently returned to The Amazing Race for a cameo in the premiere of Season Eight.
Amazingly, the next most admirable team was the Lawyers. Belying their profession's reputation, Rob and Brennan proved to be thoroughly honest, nice guys. I cannot remember seeing them swap even a single cross word. Pleased to be in foreign parts, interested and respectful, they apparently saw themselves as impromptu U.S. ambassadors and tried to act the part.
Beyond the drama of the race and the melodrama of the relationships, the thirteen episodes of The Amazing Race - The Complete First Season allow today's regular viewers to reflect upon the evolution of the show, from something as trivial as the changing colors of the route markers to the addition of new features, to the continuing development of the rules. During this first series, these rules were not explained clearly, and at times they seemed to be made up as the show progressed. For example, when a team failed to perform a task properly in Paris, they received a minor time penalty and slipped a couple of places in the rankings. The same thing happened in a journey through Italy, but then when another team failed to complete a task in Thailand, they received a 24-hour penalty and were eliminated as a result; entirely to the benefit of the series "villains", Team Guido.
Regardless of these confusions and conspiracy theories, host Phil Keoghan took a refreshingly minimalist approach. In this first season, he barely appeared on camera at all. One reason he doesn't hog the camera is that he's essentially taking part in the race too. As he reveals in the documentary, "Creating and Coordinating The Amazing Race," Keoghan and the production team work as hard as the competitors. The logistics of the show dictate that he has to go everywhere the contestants go so he can record his explanations of the challenges, and that he must also always be waiting at the end of each leg to welcome the finishers and eliminate the losers. But don't worry. Though Keoghan, the producers, and crew were often on the same plane as the contestants, the contestants always traveled economy. This race is only amazing, not revolutionary.