They are clowns, virgins, former CIA operatives, retirees, models, 'little people' and Harvard Law graduates. They come in all shapes and sizes, older couples have a habit of surprising everyone with their resilience. We haven't seen new couplings, though there's been two proposals and a fair share of breakups.
These are the people who are willing to give up weeks of their time to race around the world to win a million dollars.
When The Amazing Race ("TAR") first appeared on our screens during the fall of 2001, it did not attract the type of attention that its sister reality TV shows like Survivor or Big Brother enjoyed. But like Apple Computers, a good vintage of Pinot Noir and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it soon developed a loyal following who were fiercely protective of their 'little gem'.
The first season, upon repeat viewing, was more raw and at times lacked the slickness of later seasons: the production staff were learning how to be 'amazing'. But the Racers were interesting and the challenges actually, well, challenging.
Then it started winning Emmys. And with that the attention of the casual viewer and, more importantly to the network executives, the media and the advertisers. As a result, quality dropped precipitously in the name of higher ratings: Racers were cast based on looks or controversial 'hooks' (or were rejects from Survivor auditions); tasks became easier; they aired 3 exhausting races virtually back-to-back.
Things looked bleak for the purists. Until this season. Generally considered the best since TAR Classic (as Season 1 is known), twelve teams traveled from the East Coast of the US to England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Kenya, Thailand and are currently in Singapore.
Pepper has been avid followers of the race. TAR has always been gay friendly, from the still-popular Guidos from TAR1 to Chip & Reichen, the winners of TAR4. However this is the first time there's been a female couple, in the form of the winners of Leg #8, 'More than Friends' Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay. Amazingly, or perhaps not, in a season that contains a host of young dating or married couples, this is the pairing that has caught the imagination of the viewing public.
"They're so cute, and so obviously in love, it's a privilege to be there, experiencing them getting closer," says Evelyn Cho of Club 71, a popular gay and lesbian club in San Francisco. Cho organizes TAR viewing parties at the club each week and it's packed to the brim every time.
Willow lives in Oakland, has Cho ever seen her at the club? "No, from the articles and interviews I've seen, I don't think she or Tara were out when they started the race. If they decide to visit us sometime, we'll throw them the biggest welcoming party since that time the mayor legalized gay marriages," Cho says enthusiastically.
Certainly the twenty-somethings have become role models for many young gays, desperate to find people in the public eye they can look up to, even if they are not A-, or even B-list celebrities.
"One of the reasons people identify with them is they are real people, well, as real as you can get on TV. They come across as very nice people," Cho adds.
Is the niceness real or manufactured? Are they getting the Kris & Jon Sweetheart Edit? Like any TV program worth its salt, TAR has villains, good guys and comic relief. Unlike other TV programs, the producers have no idea how their carefully chosen cast will behave until the cameras start rolling. To compensate, they give the racers "personality" using some nifty editing - people who are quite nice in real life are portrayed as evil or annoying or bumbling fools. Just ask Life Partners Joe Baldassare and Bill Bartek ("Team Guido"), who were universally hated during TAR1, but turn out to be the nicest people, like, ever.
"That hurt for about two seconds, then we laughed about it. We knew we would be portrayed as the bad guys because of our 'all or nothing' attitude. But look at us, seven seasons later and there's still only one Team Guido!" Joe said via email.
The Guidos agree that TAR has been good to the gay sector and are excited to see another couple doing well. "The race is based on how quickly you get from point A to point B and how well you handle the tasks and the traveling. Age, race, sex or orientation have little impact."
In that respect, Willow's intelligence and advanced computer skills have given Team Lovebirds (as one online recapper calls them) superior advantage on more than one occasion. It took her mere minutes to complete the computer task in leg #1, and she was the only racer to think of searching the internet for an unfamiliar painting in leg #3. That's not to say her partner is a slacker either, when they suffered the humility of coming last on a non-elimination leg, and with the prospect of having no money for a leg to be held in one of the most expensive countries in the world, Tara used her artistic talent to earn them precious funds by setting up an impromptu portrait stall on the sidewalk.
The revelers at Club 71 don't believe Team Lovebirds are receiving a special edit. "You can't edit in things that are not there, so if they are really that nice, that's all you see," says one teenage patron, decked out in flowery, un-coordinated, hippie girl clothing that is a sort of trademark of the couple.
Not hard to believe, from a group that swoon everytime the couple appear - that's right, I said swoon, you have to be there at the club to feel the love - a huge "awwww" accompanies their every single screen moment. Seeing the heartwarming affection and support they show each other, whether partially hidden amongst cherry trees, or hand-feeding a baby leopard, or reverently making a religious offering in a Thai temple, one can't help but join in. It's like the whole club has a crush, know that the objects of their affection are firmly out of reach, but are crushing anyway.
There is no question that they enjoy strong support and an almost awestruck following in the GLBT community, but what of the world at large? One of their reasons for coming on the race is to see if their long distance romance will work out. Willow lives in Oakland, Tara in Birmingham. They met while working together on a BBC web animation series but have not made a firm commitment to stay together, siting reasons such as distance, work and the fear of rejection from their families.
If their families didn't know about the romance before the current season started airing, they will certainly know about it now. Perhaps it wasn't the best way to come out of the closet, but then again, the ploy has worked out, judging by the overwhelmingly positive coverage by the mainstream media.
"Probably the nicest couple on the Amazing Race since Kris & Jon, and showing a more competitive edge than that long distance dating couple," said Entertainment Weekly.
"In this day and age, it seems wrong that this couple should fear discrimination or have doubts cast on their relationship. Come on, Willow and Tara, open your eyes and look at the other teams. Do you think I'm going to cheer for the nasty stunt-casted Riley, the even nastier Snyder or the bland Faith & Robin, when I have you? I may be an old and cynical armchair tube critic, but I'm not blind. Win the race, settle down and have half a dozen kids, that'll make this old heart happy," said Olga Mensch, TV Crictic of the San Diego Daily News.
Competition for the million dollar prize is fierce. Amongst the remaining teams are four athletes, two all-male teams (stronger at physical tasks) and their allies, Xander and Anya Harris of Oxnard, CA, who are probably leading the field in terms of highest placed finishes. It won't be easy. These teams have successfully negotiated Europe and Africa, Asia is always challenging because of the language, crowds and hectic pace. Where will they go next? Who will be the first team to cross the finish line? It's riveting TV, and we at Pepper have no qualms about joining the hundreds of Lovebird fan club fanatics in wishing Team Lovebirds the best of luck.
It's more than just a trip around the world, it's a life changing experience.
Next week, we look at some of the more exotic locations that the Amazing Race has visited. Don't miss the exciting new issue, coming to your inbox soon!
The Amazing Race airs Tuesdays at 9pm ET/PT on CBS.