The Amazing Race (TAR) is a reality competition series that debuted on CBS on September 5, 2001. It has been hosted by Phil Keoghan since its beginning. For the most part, CBS has aired one season of TAR in the fall and another in the spring; the 21st season of the show will premiere in September 2012.
Each season of TAR begins with about 11 or 12 teams, pairs of players who have some pre-existing relationship. They are given instructions on how to proceed to their next location, which at the outset of each episode typically involves catching a plane. As each leg progresses, the pairs must accomplish tasks that often involve local customs or landmarks. A “Pit Stop” marks the conclusion of each leg; the pair in last place is usually eliminated at this point, though there are a few legs in each season where no one has to go home. The teams then begin the next leg in the order that they arrived at the Pit Stop. Waits for planes and other transportation invariably bunch the teams up, preventing the lead pairs from gaining a lasting advantage. Seasons almost always both begin and end in the mainland United States, and most legs find the players having to make their way to a new country.
TAR had the bad fortune of debuting just before the September 11 terrorist attacks. The disruption of that season’s fall schedule made it hard for the new series to gain traction, and despite critical praise, its audience remained small. Season 4 of TAR was pushed to the summer of 2003, and the show’s future looked questionable. But Season 5, which didn’t premiere until the following July, received an uptick of interest, so much so that there were actually three full seasons of TAR aired in 2005. It has aired twice every season since with the exception of 2007-08.
TAR has drawn praise for its international flavor and high production values. For many people, and especially many television critics who aren’t otherwise fans of the genre, TAR has come to define “quality” in reality TV, winning eight times in the nine years that the Emmy for best reality competition series has been awarded. The show has also attracted attention for diversity in casting; Season 4 champions Reichen Lehmkuhl and Chip Arndt, a gay couple, were referred to as “married” on the show, a radical label to use in 2003.
The nature of the game makes it possible for men and women, the young and the older, and the fit and not-so-fit to compete on something close to equal terms, though teams made up of two fairly strong young men tended to have an advantage in the show’s early seasons. Since then, TAR has usually chosen to limit the number of such teams in a season, occasionally having none at all. It was not until Season 17 that a two-woman team, doctors Nat Strand and Kat Chang, was able to win the title.