“‘The Amazing Race Canada’ is a beast, a logistical circus.”
So said one who should know: the series’ executive producer and showrunner, Mark Lysakowski.
“Then you throw in a pandemic and it adds a few little layers to things. It’s hard, it’s complicated, it’s challenging.”
And it’s back.
Three years after it last aired, the long-awaited Season 8 finally gets underway on Tuesday on CTV.
How do you shoot a big-budget reality show in which teams of participants have to race in and out of airports, taxis, hotels and restaurants, attempt feats at various checkpoints and do it alI in the middle of a pandemic?
The answer is you don’t. That’s why “The Amazing Race Canada,” the nation’s No. 1 network series for seven straight summers, has been parked at the starting gate since 2019.
“We had the show planned for the longest time,” said Lysakowski. CTV gave Insight Productions the green light back in September 2019. Ten teams were selected by the end of October. Locations were scouted right into March.
Then everything changed as COVID-19 shut down cities and airports worldwide. In April 2020, two weeks before the teams were due to arrive in Toronto, borders closed and provincial and federal restrictions were announced.
“Maybe we’ll get back in two weeks or two months,” the producers thought. Instead, it took a full two years.
Host Jon Montgomery remembers that first false start.
“I was packing my bags,” said the Olympic gold medallist. “I had my Santa Claus sack humped over my shoulder and I was set to jet. Of course, the world got shut down.”
Season 8 was moved four times before a safe window was found this spring. CBS jumped back a bit earlier with the American “Amazing Race” last winter, squeezed between the Delta and Omicron variants. Always in touch with their American counterparts, producers at Insight took notes.
When it was finally go time in Canada, the big task was reassembling 10 teams plus an elite production crew, as well as Montgomery.
Most of the teams competing are the ones chosen two years ago. A few participants dropped out and were replaced. The lineup now includes Juno Award-winning singer Jully Black, one of four Toronto residents taking part. The rest of the cast members include an Olympian, teachers, personal trainers, a firefighter, a comedian, a motivational speaker and Broadway performers.
All 20 team members plus Montgomery and the entire crew had to show proof of vaccination before the race began. At stake, as always, is $250,000 to the winning team, cars, trips and other prizes.
While the series has travelled over a quarter of a million kilometres in the past, the decision to keep Season 8 in Canada came before COVID struck.
“The audience tells us all the time they like seeing Canada, especially places they’ve never been to,” said Lysakowski. Seasons 1 and 7 also never left our borders.
“Whether we go to Timbuktu or we stay here and explore the tuk-tuk, it matters not because it’s always a great show,” said Montgomery. “When we (did) stay home in seasons past, Canadians have loved it.”
The reality is that the world has changed since 2019. Beyond the pandemic, war zones, labour shortages and political uncertainty have set up roadblocks far beyond the scope of any mere TV show. Had a world-hopping route been chosen, those 10 new teams could still be at a customs gate at Pearson Airport or quarantined in a Buffalo motel.
As it was, producers had to stay on top of ever-changing safety regulations that varied from province to province and region to region. “We were always very mindful to follow all the guidelines,” said Lysakowski.
Challenges were modified; some moved outdoors. Where masks were still required, such as in crowded indoor markets, runners have them firmly in place.
Whether any of the cast or crew came down with COVID during the run of the series is something viewers will have to discover for themselves. Lysakowski was not about to reduce the severity of the pandemic to the level of a network teaser.
For his part, it did Montgomery’s heart good to get back on the road and reunite with crew members who, eight intense seasons later, have become like family. Fun as it was, he, too, stressed that precautions were the “first point of consideration” as the series moved back to the starting line.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “a race on television plays second fiddle to people’s sense of safety and security.”
He also believes, however, that viewers at home are just as ready to get back into this “Race.”
“It’ll be cathartic and inspiring for others to watch people get back out there and immerse themselves in the public domain. To see them tackle, with an open mind and an open heart, what they can safely do.”
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