License article

The Amazing Race Australia, Wednesday, June 6

Channel Seven, Wednesday, 9pm

SNAKES and ladders: a great, if a little overused, analogy for television's best reality competition, The Amazing Race. Yet for those who watched last night's excellent opening episode of Race's second Australian season, it's a salient one.

For the past few weeks, Channel Seven has (incessantly) advertised the series with an amusing promo: a seemingly mismatched couple, James and Sarah, swiftly falling behind during the show's first moments, racing around Sydney Harbour.

The joke, of course, is Sarah's insistence that she must always wear high heels. The intended impression is that her penchant for heels will be a huge encumbrance to the couple's prospects in the competition. And early on, the two do fall behind the other teams.

Yet, being The Amazing Race, and to borrow that snakes and ladders analogy again, things can change quickly. All it takes is one bad taxi driver, a poor piece of map reading or, as we saw last night, an inability to eat eight fertilised duck eggs in a Manila market - and James and Sarah were among the first four (of 11) teams over the finish line by the end of the episode.

The premise behind the show is simple. Eleven teams of two face off in a literal race around the world.


At each country stop - last night the Philippines, next week India - the teams complete a set of various physical and mental challenges.

The objective is to not be the final team to finish the challenge, as they then face elimination.

The last couple standing wins the $250,000 prize. The show is an enduring hit in the US, where 20 seasons have been made.

If you were to pinpoint a key element that made The Amazing Race Australia's first series such a delight to watch, aside from laconic host Grant Bowler, it would surely be the casting. The show's producers blended together a compelling group of heroes and villains.

Michael McKay, Race's Australian executive producer, says the first season's casting set a benchmark for reality TV in Australia. Fair call. But any fears this wouldn't be the case again in season two were assuaged early on in the opening episode.

''We wanted to continue to challenge ourselves in that way,'' McKay says. ''The first series were action-adventure based, so the season two teams mentally prepared for that. But this second season is more brain than brawn. Being a very physical male team may not help you. Yes, there are some Raiders of the Lost Ark challenges. But sometimes a puzzle game can bring a team to tears more easily than a bungy jump.''

This year's cast boasts identical twins (both are rugby league cheerleaders and devotees of peroxide hair dye and orange-skin tanning), indigenous Australian cousins, a pair of Melbourne cops, a brother-sister combination and two quirky hairdressers, Sue and Teresa.

The latter two provide much of season two's comic relief. Whenever they get flustered, for instance, they take out their beloved ''aura spray'' and lather each other in a mysterious mist-spray they insist helps calm their nerves.

This year's cast also includes Sticky, the show's first disabled contestant. Sticky was born without a left forearm, and to watch this enterprising and relentlessly upbeat youngster compete is a joy.

The first episode also introduced a new element to the race: the salvage pass. In it, the winner of the first episode, father-daughter combination Ross and Tarryn, were given the option to either advance themselves in the race or save the last couple, siblings Lucy and Emilia, from elimination. They took the latter option.

To introduce a new device, McKay flew to Los Angeles to sell it to The Amazing Race's American production company, which must approve every change to the franchise.

''Every version of the show is different,'' he says. ''Once I explained the salvage pass to them, they were excited to see how it played.''

They were also excited when producers mapped out this season's route.

''It's not a cheap show,'' McKay says. ''You have to mentally prepare yourself for that sort of investment to go again. But we've found some places that no [franchise] of the show has ever been before.''

This week's episode is typically entertaining. Faced with what at times feels like insurmountable odds in rural India, the teams demonstrate impressive resilience. Well, most of the time. Like most Race episodes, tensions are mollified by the odd meltdown.

''The format of the show is classic,'' McKay says. ''It's just people out there travelling. The stuff they do and the mistakes they make.

''Navigational challenges, getting from A to B, is just hard. Sometimes when you travel, getting through an airport can even be hard. We can all relate to what these guys are going through.''