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Phil Keoghan on Amazing Race’s partner swap and other twists

A few days after The Amazing Race 30’s first head-to-head race concluded it second episode, Phil Keoghan told me, “I don’t know if we’ve ever had a more controversial element to the show.”

There may have a competitor for that designation during tonight’s episode, “All’s Fair in Love and War,” in which teams will swap partners for an entire leg of the race.

Phil sees the extreme reactions to the head-to-head races as a good sign. “People that absolutely love it and people that absolutely detest it,” he said. “But if there’s anything good about that, it’s just that people are talking about it.”

He also sees these types of twists and changes as vital to the race. “We don’t want to be accused of also being stagnant, like we’re not trying things,” he told me. “We’ve kind of tried to freshen things up and we’ve tried some new things.”

Season eight, The Amazing Race: Family Edition, was once such experiment. “Fans wanted it. We tried it and it didn’t work. But we gave it a go. We thought it would work. We gave it a shot,” he said.

That’s the key for Phil: trying things but not disrupting the core of The Amazing Race.

“We have to evolve, we have to try new things—but at the same time, we have to also remember what works about the show,” he added. “At its basic level, the idea of ordinary people traveling the world and being put in an extraordinary experience is what makes this work. And the scale of it. We’re shooting 12 shows in 21 days—it’s insane. It’s insane. That energy comes out in the making of the show.”

Amazing Race 30’s partner swap and head-to-head race

Last season, the show experimented by abandoning its central casting premise for the entire cast: Instead of teams of people with preexisting relationships, strangers were paired together during the first leg.

I told Phil that I was initially skeptical, but I really loved the season. “You and me both,” he said.

“The thing that I loved about it was they didn’t half-ass it—they didn’t do, like, half strangers, half regular teams. They just said, Fuck it: We’re going to commit to this, we’re going to go for it. And I’m with you: I had a lot of reservations. Isn’t the whole point of the Race that it’s pre-existing relationships? Isn’t that the whole point? I had a lot of trepidation.”

But even though the cast members were all strangers, the teams formed relationships after a “honeymoon period,” he said. “Once that went out the window, and then they became real, which happens real fast, it became interesting.”

“I don’t mind being wrong,” he added. “That just proves my point that you don’t know until you try something.”

Tonight’s attempt at trying something, the partner swap, is “something that fans have been asking for forever,” Phil said.

“I am proud that we had the opportunity to try some things. Because sometimes if you don’t just try it, then you the get the fans that go, Why don’t you guys just try it? And then we’ll let the fans be the judge. And if the fans continue to watch and they like it, then we go, Okay they’re forgiving enough … and the quality of the show is there, but they also maybe will give us some credit for being able to take a risk and try something new and different.”

As to this season’s first controversial twist, the head-to-head races that have so far been at the end of two legs, Phil likes the core idea.

“I love a race: I love a point A to point B race,” he said. “I love that Amazing Race has always been about people making their own decisions to from point A to point B. I love that nobody votes you off or decides that they don’t want you there because you’re a threat. If you’re good, you’re good, and you can get from point A to point B, period.”

“But I also understand that sometimes you have to try things and you can’t just stick with the status quo,” he added. “And you almost have to try something like this to just get people talking about why maybe it doesn’t work—or does, or maybe it’s some compromise in-between this and something else. Just to stir people up—and it’s stirred people up. It really did! And we didn’t know how it was all going to play it out.”

Fans, he says, are “very opinionated; there’s no filter. I’m listening; I listen. We’ve made mistakes and I think they feel like they have a direct line to us.”

“If this continues to work—and I say ‘if’ because nobody knows how or why all of this works—what we know is that we have a good show. Our fans have stuck with us through thick and thin. You’re never going to get everything right on any show you make because it’s difficult to make a show and know that you’re making every single decision work, and if you did, every show would be a success, every movie would be a success,” Phil said. “It doesn’t work like that.”

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.