Sixteen years and 28 seasons in, The Amazing Race is still exploring uncharted territory: For the first time ever, the show will send pairs of complete strangers around the world instead of teams with pre-existing relationships on Season 29, which premieres on a new night and time, Thursday at 10/9c on CBS.
"It's been talked about for years," host Phil Keoghan tells TVGuide.com. "We've talked about lots of different things for years. We've talked about having all kinds of different types of people or different themes. ... This was a completely different direction and I'm really glad we did it."
The show's producers won't do the pairing themselves: The 22 racers will complete a challenge at the starting line to determine the order in which they'll select their partners based only on first impressions. (Shout-out to everyone who's been picked last in dodgeball.) And then it's off to such places like Panama City (the first destination), Tanzania, Norway and Greece — with lots of bickering in between, natch. "It's truly unlike any season we've done before, but there's always fighting," Keoghan says. "That doesn't change. It's just a different kind."
The Amazing Race 29: Meet the cast — of complete strangers
See what else Keoghan has to say about the huge twist, which racers you should keep an eye on, and how you can make a Season 30 happen. (The show was not part of CBS' early pickups last week.)
The strangers twist has always been bandied about, even in theory. Why did you guys finally decide to do it?
Phil Keoghan: We wanted to do something different. It's an idea that's been talked about for quite a while. It's something that fans have been talking about for a long time. There are a lot of fans that have said, "Look, I wanna go on the race, but I'm having difficulty tracking down somebody who can take time off work." We've identified a lot of really good people before who on their own seem perfect. One of the challenges is sometimes working out who a great character is going to go with. There are many times where we like one character but we don't necessarily like both of them. It's obviously a lot more challenging to find two people who are really incredible who happen to be on the same team than just finding an individual. It was just the idea of finding something new and different.
Why was now the right time to do it?
Keoghan: The timing seemed right to try something coming off the back of 28, which was themed around the whole idea of people in social media. It was just, let's give it a go. It felt like it was time. You're always trying to come up with new things to keep things fresh.
Was Season 26 a test since you had five teams of blind dates?
Keoghan: Not really. Not that it worked out that way because love is a much more difficult thing to pair. That was much more about people finding love, about putting people together with the potential of finding love. I don't know how good we were at that because love is pretty complicated and challenging. [Laughs] Gosh, you only have to watch The Bachelor to see that — and even after all that rigmarole a lot of those relationships don't work. We dabbled with the idea of pairing people up for love, but this gave us much more scope because we really had the opportunity to put people together who had absolutely nothing in common at all. We weren't trying to guess why they might like each other as we did in that season.
This was much more about, let's see how different we can make this cast. When you have people with a pre-existing relationship, generally speaking, those two people have something in common. ... This is 22 individuals who come from different places, who are distinctly different from each other, and who represent the fabric of America. What happens when you put those people together where they have absolutely nothing in common other than they all want to get to the finish line and win $1 million?
Some people are from the same place and some others have similar jobs. Did you purposely cast that way so some people would have something in common even when they don't know it when they're trying to figure out who they want to be partners with?
Keoghan: We really did not. We really just went to who we thought were the most interesting individuals. If there's anything that any of them have in common, that's purely a coincidence, not one of those things where we go, "Oh, we've got a great fireman. Let's find another fireman." If a plumber had been more interesting than the other person who was a fireman, then we would've gone with the plumber. We went with the most interesting mix.
How did you come up with the challenge at the starting line to decide the order to pick partners?
Keoghan: They line up. They don't know each other's names. They don't know how old they are. They don't know where they went to school, where they live, what they believe in. They don't know if they're good runners, they don't know how they cope with stress. They don't know what each other's voice sound like because they haven't spoken yet. ... So you're standing there and you're thinking, "Where do I start? That guy looks strong and fit, but how does he cope with stress? That person looks super brainy, but are they going to be able to withstand the physicality of the show?" Knowing that, we gave them a challenge that allowed them to see each other perform a challenge that tested strength, endurance, agility, problem-solving — as many of those factors as we could. ... Depending on how they perform in this challenge, that determined how those pairings were done.
How many pairings defied your expectations during the race?
Keoghan: Oh, a lot. I'm always surprised. People I thought would do better didn't and people I thought would cope better didn't. ... It really wasn't until Episode 3, which is roughly 80 hours in — we talk about episodes as if [what happens in them] is spaced out over three weeks but in reality it's maybe 80-to-90 hours — it took about 80-to-90 hours for the honeymoon period of being paired with a stranger to dissipate. It was like, "You know what? I'm sorry. I don't like the way you're dealing with this. I've got a lot at stake here. You're not gonna jeopardize this for me. We're not going to do it like that. I need you to work with me as a team member and give me the respect that I deserve."
Did you notice if these teams fought more or less than the pre-existing relationship teams?
Keoghan: In the end, it was ultimately the same. ... You got some that got on and you got some that didn't get on. I think the ones that did not work, it's just a little more extreme because these are people you would choose not to be with. Even teams that don't get on that would come on The Amazing Race, even when they're at their worst, they did choose to be with that person at the starting line. They do have some pre-existing relationship that got them there in the first place.
Which racers should we keep an eye out for?
Keoghan: We have an Army officer who is on active duty in Tara. There are a lot of strong women. I just don't mean physically, but people who are mentally strong too. Tara is somebody who is a big fan of the show and she is being deployed and is used to dealing with tremendous pressure. She's also a mother and that has its own challenges as well.
You contrast her with someone like Sara, a single woman who's a realtor who's quite a bit younger. Her life is totally different, but the realty market is also incredibly competitive. Jessica is a K-9 officer and is an absolutely dominating presence and quite intimidating physically to a lot of guys. She'll be the first to tell you that a lot of guys don't know how to cope with her being 6-foot-3 and ripped and strong and determined and focused and skilled.
Then you have people who can't stop laughing, like Becca. She's an outreach coordinator so she's used to being in the great outdoors. We have Matt, who's a snowboarder. ... Being a professional athlete doesn't get you that ticket to getting $1 million. We've had a lot of professional athletes over the years, but only one team has won, if I'm not mistaken, and that was the hockey players.
CBS sets season finale dates — find out when your favorite shows end
The snowboarders fell short in fourth place.
Keoghan: Right. And the cowboys, who were on three times. You want to talk about competitive, they were competitive. We have somebody like Brooke, who's a criminal attorney. She's really smart and obviously good at negotiating and going through details. We have a drill sergeant in Francesca, who's also a dominant beast, and Joey, who's a police sergeant. We have a lot of people who coincidentally take the lead in their job, if you like, and are used to working in pressure jobs. It's just that they ended up being the best characters. Joey walked in with his Boston accent, talking about, "Don't tread on me," and we were like, "Oh my God, we've got to have this guy."
Liz, who's an auctioneer, had us in hysterics when she walked in. I remember I asked her, "Could you sell" — whoever had walked in before us — "could you sell them to us?" And she launched into a whole thing: "You got your big thighs. Looking good with the big thighs. We got 30, anybody with 40? Forty for the big thighs." We just thought, "This is too good."
Kevin is with the USA rugby team. He works with as an athletic trainer. He's got the long hair, he's totally chill. He's like the Jack Johnson of racers. He's like on island time. His hair was certainly the envy of many racers.
Was there a hair-shaving Fast Forward?
Keoghan: [Laughs] That's a good question. What would happen if he had to shave those beautiful locks off? Beautiful hair! Gosh, I wish I had that much hair.
How bad were your predictions this time? It's a total crapshoot with these pairings.
Keoghan: Terrible. Wrong. Terrible. Horrible. No better than I've ever been before. I think a big part of it is just because there are more variables than we've ever had. The contrast of all of these people is greater than we've ever had before.
Are there any other twists besides this one?
Keoghan: It's not big enough for you? You sound disappointed! [Laughs]
I'm not. I'm just trying to find out what the people want to know.
Keoghan: This is what you need to say: I am so blown away by this interesting twist that nothing else could interest me. Twenty-two strangers lining up at the starting line of The Amazing Race is all I need. Print it. Boom!
Keoghan: [Laughs] Good! Look, the show really starts to kick into gear for me around Episode 3 and then by Episode 5, it just launches into the end. The beginning is really interesting because everybody is trying to tiptoe around each other trying to be nice. ... Then it gets to, "You're really annoying me with how we're checking in at the airport. I don't know how you normally operate, but we're a team." On any other season you don't see that because people have gone through that in their pre-existing relationships, not that they don't have disagreements, but they're not starting from scratch.
What's the status on Season 30?
Keoghan: That's a good question. I think that depends a lot on how many people turn up to watch 29. I think it's an incredibly competitive television market. I think the reason we didn't get on [earlier this season] was they were trying new things, new shows. A lot of fans have said, "Why Thursday? Why 10 o'clock? Why can't it be this? Why can't it be that?" I've just said the same thing to all of them: "Let's focus on what we do have and what we can do and not what we don't have and what we can't do." This is an opportunity for us to go on a new night — a big night for CBS ... and let's focus on what's right about this. People keep asking me, "Is there going be 30?" And I say, "If an audience turns up and they watch the show" — and I do believe we'll get a big plus-3 [in DVR playback] because a lot of families are not going to be watching at 10 o'clock on Thursday, but hopefully we'll get new viewers too who may have missed us before — "then we'll be back." It's as simple as that.
I'm going out on the road to do a film tour [for Le Ride, about the 1928 Tour de France], which is motivated by cross-promoting Amazing Race. I just got back from SXSW. It's going to be the opening film at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs. And we're doing screenings all over. ... It's motivated by getting out to CBS affiliates, getting out to Amazing Race fans. And hopefully we'll get the viewers there Thursday nights at 10 o'clock.
The Amazing Race 29 premieres Thursday at 10/9c on CBS.
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)