Will it be Chip and Kim, the wholly likable, ever-friendly marrieds with kids back home in California? Or will vile Colin and Christie (young, pretty, dating) claw their way to the top, despite all their callous insults to the natives and general rudeness to any and everyone, including each other? Or maybe it will be an upset: Can Karen and Linda, aka "The Bowling Moms," pull it off in the end? Is there a chance for faith-professing Christians Brandon and Nicole -- who are also young, pretty and dating, only with decidedly less interpersonal bile?
Maybe those names are familiar, maybe not. No, they don't have the eyebrow-raising recognition of a Donald Trump. Nor, for that matter, the grocery-store magazine-rack exposure afforded Survivors, Bachelorettes and (American) Idols.
What they do have, though, is the cachet of being contestants on a show that just earned its second Emmy Award. "The Amazing Race," now in its fifth incarnation, is getting some long-awaited buzz and, in the process, its best ratings ever.
The show's two-hour season finale, on CBS at 9 tonight, opens with the final four two-person teams -- the competition started with 11 -- in Manila, ready to fly or skydive or parasail or walk barefoot through mud pits or eat ostrich eggs. And loyal viewers are desperate to know: Who will be first at the final "Pit Stop," the winners of the $1 million reward?
For those who are not among the 10 million-plus who regularly watch, though, the question has to be this: "What's with this show?" Surely, that has to be on the minds of the millions more viewers who tune in to "Survivor" or "The Apprentice" or "American Idol" -- each of whom has lost to "The Amazing Race" over the last two years when the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has handed out its Emmy for Best Reality-Competition Program.
Sunday, the TV academy chose, once again, to reward the reality show that, wire-to-wire, thrusts its contestants into more real-world experiences than anything else on television. This is not Trump hogging the spotlight in the boardroom. This is not a bunch of bored twenty-somethings locked in a faux house, carping at each other (hello, "Big Brother"). It doesn't have a tribal council or a snarky Simon Cowell to call out its failures. Nobody's pulling out engagement rings or handing out roses. It's not the classic example of popular reality TV.
Instead, this show puts its contestants in direct contact with people from all different cultures, in all manner of environments, and then just lets them go. There's no way to stage-manage what comes out.
"It's a wild adventure which we have little control over most of the time," says Jonathan Littman, an executive producer. "We can't control their environment. They are interacting with foreigners, and there is no control over that. There is the mystique of the travel, and where they are going, but then there is all this realism."
There are two ways to look at its Emmy success. As one network executive puts it, the academy was basically rewarding a travelogue that is masquerading as a reality show. Call it the spinach argument: Voters wanted to pick something that had the appearance of being smart and good for viewers.
But "Race" co-creator and executive producer Bertram van Munster argues back that his show is more real -- "it isn't a show created in the editing room," he says -- than most of what is on television.
The concept is deceptively simple: It's basically a journey from point A to point B, with a few detours -- and a few native tasks to be completed -- on the way. The race begins with 11 couples, be they friends or lovers, married or single, siblings, twins or whatever. Each team tries to find the fastest flight, hire the most savvy cabbie, adroitly navigate the muddy roads or sandy desert -- and figure out how to paraglide/drive an ox/decorate a Philippine jeepney in order to earn the clue to the next destination. At the end of each elimination round, the last couple to reach point B is booted from the competition.
The execution behind all of this, though, is wildly complex. In the current incarnation alone, teams have gone from Uruguay to Argentina to Russia to Egypt to Tanzania to the United Arab Emirates to India to New Zealand to the Philippines. They start their final leg there tonight, in Manila. Each location requires meticulous advance planning in terms of customs, permits and logistics. Each team needs its own camera crew, which often learns only on the fly which flights and other modes of transportation its contestants will employ.
Co-produced by Hollywood heavyweight Jerry Bruckheimer, the show was given a whirlwind of publicity leading up to its debut, then found itself airing immediately after the events of 9/11. Van Munster remembers looking at television images of the wreckage in New York and seeing city buses that were plastered with "Race" promotional posters . . . and covered in debris.
"I thought that was the end of it," van Munster says. "I had my crews all over the world. I had a crew in Morocco. Another crew in upper Egypt. I just couldn't see it happening."
The show wasn't canceled, but Americans tuned in to comfortable, familiar shows like "Friends" and "Law & Order," and showed minimal interest in test-driving a new offering, particularly one built upon the idea of international travel. Airing at 9 p.m. on Wednesdays, the first edition was a ratings disappointment. The next season had an uptick in viewership, then the show started to slide, and by the time it was in its fourth incarnation, it had been moved to summer and was dangerously close to cancellation. "Race" had a very loyal core viewership, but it was having a hard time getting new people to tune in.
Last year's Emmy appears to have helped solve that problem. In July, the latest "Race" opened in the weekly top 10 and remained there throughout the summer.
"Usually after five cycles, the show goes down," van Munster says. "Ours goes up. It is fantastic. I'm glad that people are catching on that the show is a lot of fun and it is a great show and has a tremendous variety of emotions."
Ah, yes, emotions. Like those exhibited by the easily angered Colin, who gave the series one of its tensest moments this season by refusing to pay the full cab fare, then arguing his way into trouble with the Tanzanian police. (Colin, by the way, also likes to tell Christie that he "hates" her in high-pressure situations.)
"Of course there are situations where I'm a little nervous," says van Munster, who called Colin's behavior in Tanzania "horrifying."
"I tell them to respect the culture, respect the people, and you can travel anywhere. There are certain countries where you can't run around in halter tops. Please do yourself a favor and appreciate that."
Where is "Race" heading next? All that is under wraps. Indeed, the planned sixth edition is up in the air -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Last week, CBS pulled it from its scheduled Saturday 8 p.m. time slot, where it was supposed to appear starting in early October. Kelly Kahl, CBS's head of scheduling, says that decision was based in part to put more space between the two editions.
"We wanted to have more time to promote the new characters," Kahl says, "and that's hard to do with the season finale still to come."
Kahl acknowledges, though, that the network had been pleasantly surprised by the show's strong summer numbers, and he did not disagree with the suggestion that CBS is rethinking its plan to plug the show into Saturday, which is generally the domain of movies and reruns. "Race," it seems, is ready to go back into the big leagues, the weekday lineup, should one of CBS's new fall dramas falter heading into the November sweeps period.
"Sure, I'd love to be on during the week," Littman says. "That would be phenomenal. But, hey, we're just happy to be on the air. . . . It's fairly spectacular in this day and age in television that they've stuck with us. It wasn't a smash hit. But this summer was the payoff."
In the meantime, there's a race to finish, and though Littman and van Munster offered not even the tiniest of hints who will be first to the finish tonight, they did map out one detail of the show's future: For the season finale, they're returning to North America, finishing for the first time in Canada.
Colin, it appears, is about to have a whole new country to insult.