Phil Keoghan says new Amazing Race is a 'mystery tour' due to COVID
Lots of television shows shut down shop once COVID broke out in the early days of 2020 and then eventually restarted with new safety protocols in place. But no production had a steeper hill to climb to resume filming than The Amazing Race. The globe-trotting CBS reality competition series had just finished its third leg of season 33 in Glasgow, Scotland on Feb. 28, 2020 when it made the decision to hit pause on filming.
Little did they know it would be 19 months — and with significant new measures in place — before the show could resume, with seven of the then nine remaining teams able to return for their shot at the million dollars. Now, a season almost two full years in the making is finally coming to our TV screens tonight. We spoke to host Phil Keoghan about how the program will handle that extended pause and what will be different once things pick up on screen, including a new mystery element for the contestants thanks to some fancy new travel arrangements.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You all shut down after the third leg of the race on Feb. 28, 2020. Before we get into picking things back up, what was the shutdown like?
PHIL KEOGHAN: I do remember saying to the teams, "Listen, I'm not sure how long we're going to be stopped down for, but for goodness sake, use your time wisely and maybe go get some driving lessons, because replacing these clutches is very expensive. Come back and you could be like Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton."
I think the hardest part of it was that it's easy with hindsight to say, yeah, we did the right thing and we stopped it down, but at the time you could understand why there were some doubts from some of the cast, like: "Is this really necessary? Do we really have to stop? We're really enjoying this race." And it was difficult as well because people have made sacrifices taking time off work. Some people are in a transition. It's a big deal to say, "Hey, I'm going to give up a month or so of my life and go around the world and be on a television show like the Amazing Race." So it was tough. There were some emotions behind stopping, but our number one priority is always safety, and nobody knew at that point the extent of what would happen.
In hindsight, yes, we did make the right decision. And then the reason it took as long as it took to come back was: Can we get everybody to go on this race around the world and get them home safely to their families? That's our number one priority, not just the cast, but people who make the show. Can we guarantee that we are going to get them home safely?
Since these teams all met and then had so much time off together, was there alliance building going on during the down time?
There was a lot of feedback about what happened in season 32 with alliances and people worrying that that was going to become a thing on Race. Alliances in general have not been a thing on our show. That was a real anomaly what happened in season 32. And it's not for us to dictate how those alliances work, who's going to work together with who. But, for the most part, you just don't get that. And this season they got to see what happened on season 32, and it was not an alliance season. People were fighting to just keep up to stay in the race and not get eliminated, just like most races.
But I think the big difference was that they were in a long, extended pit stop and they're technically on ice and technically not really meant to talk to each other because we're in the middle of this race. But hey, we've all been through a challenging time, you know what I'm saying? So yeah, of course they connected. And, if anything, what's different about this season is that the teams are closer maybe than they've ever been on any season because they got to know each other 19 something months ago.
They had this challenging period that they've all lived through. They've all been affected by COVID, as we all have in some way — and for some of the teams in some very challenging ways with everything turned upside down. As you know, people lost jobs and people lost people who are close to them, and everything changed. But they came back to the starting line and they were definitely closer than any other teams we've had certainly at any starting line at this restart. And it was sort of surreal. It felt so familiar and yet so foreign at the same time.
How much will the show get into what the teams were up to during the downtime?
A little bit, but at the end of the day, it is a race and we are wanting to keep on going. And so the show in its traditional form where you meet the contestants at the beginning of the season, that will still happen. And then from an audience point of view, that 19 months just gets lifted out. So it just runs on from the last episode that we did before COVID and the next episode, it just runs onto the next show. So yeah, there's an acknowledgement of what everybody has been through because we have to. I mean, everybody's being through a dramatic change, but I think after everything that so many of us have been through, there's a strong desire to get going again.
You know, the line I said from season 1, "The world is waiting for you." It wasn't waiting for us when COVID broke out anymore, it was definitely not waiting for us. So coming back to the start this time it was, "I have some great news for you. The world is waiting for you once again. And we're going to finish this race."
So how much did COVID dictate where you guys could go once you picked back up?
A lot. There are certain protocols that have to be followed and CBS has strict guidelines for what they call a return to work policy. And doing something like Amazing Race is very different from putting together a return to work policy for a show that shoots in the 30 mile zone in and around Los Angeles. And so yes, where we went, how we did things was very much dictated by where COVID was, where we felt that we could ensure the safety of everybody.
When you think about Amazing Race, you have these classic visions in your head of people running through airports and folks jumping into taxi cabs. That's a big part of the show that I'm sure you guys had to rethink. So tell me about how transportation and getting around is going to be different.
Well, I think the first and foremost, what I'm really proud of was embracing the fact that the world was different, that we had to operate different and just not fighting it. And I think one of the best things that came out of all of this is we literally got our own plane — a plane that says the Amazing Race on it. And that was for all of us. For years, we've all been talking about wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to line up in airports and wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to go through all these crazy security procedures. To get on a plane that was a bit of a game changer, I've got to be honest with you.
And it added another layer to the race that we haven't had before. So yeah, we didn't get the running through the airport, but we got these great moments where teams would get on the plane and wouldn't necessarily know where they were going. And so it was sort of like a mystery tour!
But yeah, we had to take some of the randomness out of it, just so that we could ensure that we knew where people went, what they were doing, and they weren't just get lost somewhere in the public and us not knowing who they'd been into contact with. So we just adjusted it. But at the end of the day, the Amazing Race is about all the fantastic challenges that are on the show. We put together a great course, and we ended up with a fantastic finish to the season.
Phil Keoghan hosts the globe-trotting adventure series.