When “The Amazing Race” Season 33 contestants hit the road in February 2020, executive producers Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri were already keeping an eye on reports of a coronavirus beginning to tear through the world. They had even mapped out alternate routes to shift the race to “Plan B” countries, and ultimately an option that would just go through South America, as parts of the world started going into lockdown.
But by Feb. 28, with just the first three legs of the competition in the can, even those alternative ideas no longer made sense. “I knew there was something really wrong here,” van Munster says. “We sent everybody home at that moment.”
With no real way to shoot “Amazing Race” in a bubble, the producers had to wait more than a year to call back the crew and contestants and resume production. Finally this fall, van Munster, Doganieri and their team had conceived a new way to return to the race.
“We had to prove that we could do the show safely,” Doganieri says. “And we went through a number of variations on how to do the show, picking locations. Where can we go that was safe? How could we fly them around?”
Among the answers viewers will see when “The Amazing Race” returns Jan. 5 on CBS: A chartered 757 jet, complete with “The Amazing Race” logo on the side, was brought in to shuttle contestants and crew from place to place without having to enter crowded airports.
“It actually opened up a whole new world for us of how to do this in a very different way, but still have the same feel and energy,” Doganieri says. “It created a close race every single time that plane landed in the next city… I think you’re going really like the way the show plays out with this plane. It might be the wave of the future, but I don’t know if it’ll be affordable for a global trip.”
And van Munster drew up an abbreviated course that took the show through Mediterranean countries where infection rates were low.
“I picked a route that was mostly in remote areas or small cities,” he says. “We looked very carefully so we could do two or three shows in a country, which we normally don’t do. These were all handpicked areas where they had the least amount of COVID, where we had freedom to go into a lot of areas where there’s nobody there.” The show, which left off in Glasgow, Scotland, instead returns via Zurich, and then Lugano, both in Switzerland, then the French island of Corsica, followed by Thessaloniki in Greece and then Lisbon, Portugal, before heading back to Los Angeles.
Once on the ground, contestants didn’t use public transportation, and only interacted with locals who had been tested and vaccinated.
“Some of the best TV we get is when these contestants self-drive,” Doganieri says. Nnothing makes these contestants more crazier than when they have to figure out how to get somewhere without a GPS device. So there will not be any taxis, there will not be any public transportation with other people. But we definitely have some buses and shuttles and different means of transportation. And we also stayed out of those places that we felt were going to be filled with people that weren’t tested. So everybody that worked on our crew, every judge, every person that you’ll see around the contestants has been tested and vaccinated. That was just part of our strict protocol rules, but it will feel and look like the ‘Amazing Race.’ You really won’t feel any different from what you’re seeing.”
Adds host Phil Keoghan: “You can’t just have people running wildly through public places, and risk exposure. The planning has to be different. But after a while, it just becomes like second nature. I’m proud to say that we didn’t have any incidents with COVID.”
When the race resumed, not all contestants could make their way back. Two pairs fell out, but seven teams managed to return. “Certain people had just extenuating circumstances that frustrated us and them and everybody really tried to make everything work so everybody could come back,” Doganieri says.
But as for those teams that could return, she adds, “A lot of them during COVID started running and working out, so some of them came back and were super buff!” And because their experience has now stretched out over more than a year, “they are probably the closest group of people we’ve ever had, because it was over so much time,” she says. “I think some of them actually stayed in touch during COVID and during the shutdown.”
Before shutting down in February 2020, van Munster had filmed a transition in Glasgow to use as a bridge for the restart. “I thought it would go on two months later, not knowing two years later,” he says. “But we shot a transitioned and that hooked in very well with the start of the next episode. So we moved from Glasgow and we started back in Zurich.”
Keoghan says he was excited to try out some different ways to restart the race: “I kept thinking about what how am I going to restart this? What am I going to say?” Keoghan says. “And then it came to me, I was gonna say, ‘Welcome back to The Amazing Race… before we were so rudely interrupted, I was saying…’ It’s almost like, if you just took the end of the where we just finished in Scotland to the start of it and just lifted out all that time.”
The host also restarted the race by first catching up on camera with the contestants. “It was one of my favorite starts to a ‘Race’ ever, if only because it just felt so good to be back,” he says. “And we had some extra time to talk to everybody at that restart and to hear their stories. We heard about family members that had been lost. We heard about challenges that they all faced in life and how excited they were to be back again. The race is a fun trip around the world. It’s not a life and death thing. And yet we’ve all been through this over the last year with some serious stuff. We wanted that to be real. Because it’s reflective of what our audience has been through in the last 19 months.”
Testing was constant on the road, and “Race” had four different COVID testing teams traveling with contestants and crew. “There were no issues in any of the countries either,” van Munster says. “It was easy in Switzerland, easy in Greece and France, and it was not a problem in in Portugal.”
Doganieri calls the process “a little nerve wracking. We did have testing around the clock… just scheduling the time for the nose swabs and the testing and then people having to only stay in their hotel rooms. So literally, you’re not going out to dinner. The crew on your down day, you’re just staying in your room.”
Van Munster, Doganieri and Keoghan say the new season of “Race” will also serve as a bit of a time capsule for this pandemic era, given the shift from the first three pre-COVID episodes to the rest of the season.
“We actually were watching the first two cuts right now and kind of taken back, because in the first episode, there’s somebody at a table waiting for them. And one of the teams goes up and hugs them,” Doganieri says. “It’s a little jarring at first, but exciting at the same time. It’s like, oh, wow, remember when? You see the streets filled with people. And they’re just running up to people, asking everybody questions.
“And then when we come back, of course, our contestants are not going to be wearing masks when they’re running around. But they’re wearing masks when they’re on the plane and different areas. It’s very different. You’re not going to see the streets crowded with people like you did before and you’re going to see them maybe standing a little further apart. They’re not running up to Phil and hugging him on the mat. There’s definitely a difference.”
With new COVID variants emerging, the producers may have to shoot future seasons with similar limitations. “The only way to really figure it out is being out there and we did,” Doganieri says. “Were we super excited when that plane landed back at the finale at the end? Yes, wheels on the ground, back in our country. Everybody came home safe. And we were just super grateful. Our system worked. All the protocols and all the procedures that we put in place… Nothing will stop us, because we know how to do it safely now.”