McLean, VA (written by Laura Bly/USA Today) -- The latest installment of CBS' The Amazing Race kicked off last night, taking 11 teams on another rip-roaring romp through nine countries across the globe.
The 21st season, which launches a week after the show nabbed a ninth Emmy for Outstanding Reality Series, includes a new impetus for jet-lagged meltdowns and rude tourist behavior: If a two-person team reaches the mat first for both the initial and final leg of the race, they'll double their winnings to $2 million.
Among this round's contestants are a heavy metal rocker, a double amputee snowboarder and married professional monster truckers -- with a pair of Chippendale dancers boosting the requisite eye candy quotient.
But, insists New Zealand-born host Phil Keoghan, "the places are as much a star as the teams we pick. Even on Survivor, it's pretty difficult to tell the difference between one beautiful island and another.
But when you turn on Amazing Race, the contrasts to the places you see in the background are extreme. In a given episode, you can go from the furnace to the freezer in the space of a few minutes, and you never see the same place twice." (Countries are another story; Amazing Race has visited 82 over its 11-year run, and China is back for its 11th appearance this season.)
Then again, Phil Keoghan is no (travel writer & host) Rick Steves.
"We are basically a travel show on Red Bull," he says.
"It's the difference between having a relaxing glass of wine while looking at beautiful imagery, and watching our show where the adrenaline is pumping through your system as you're racing through the streets of (Bangladesh's capital) Dhaka." The densely populated South Asian country, setting for a challenge this season involving rat collectors, is what Keoghan calls "high-octane and high energy; a place that just slaps you in the face."
Other parts of the anatomy will be slapped in Istanbul, where teams visit a traditional hammam, or Turkish bathhouse. Not in the cards for this season's contestants: A repeat of Keoghan's own 1999 trip to Istanbul, when he swam the mile-wide Bosporus from Asia to Europe and "almost got run over by an oil tanker."
Experienced globe-trotters may diss The Amazing Race for perpetuating Ugly American stereotypes, but Keoghan is unapologetic.
"There are some people, and it doesn't matter which nationality, who are not good representatives of their country ...we've all heard them at restaurants and been pushed aside by them in lines at immigration," says Keoghan. "We could decide, 'let's cast a group of perfect ambassadors who are articulate, polite to everybody around them and represent the best of who we are as a nation. But I think we'd be kidding ourselves. We're not casting good and bad. It begins and ends with, 'is this person a captivating character?'"
While "captivating character" may make for dramatic TV, travel and relationship skills aren't necessarily part of a winning Amazing Race formula.
"I've seen the most incompatible people not only do well, but win the race. I don't understand it, frankly," says Keoghan. "And experienced traveler is a relative term: I don't know whether anybody is ever prepared for the travel that is The Amazing Race. It still kicks all of us in the butt, every single time."
So what's the ultimate destination for the peripatetic show?
"They're exploring Mars right now, (and) we're already pre-scouting," says Keoghan. "We're ready for Amazing Race 50."