Mark Burnett has a whip-snappy log line for his new reality challenge “Expedition Impossible.” “From start to finish, it's like 'Indiana Jones' for real people.”
The new ABC series, which debuts tonight, is classic Burnett: while the biggest brand-name producer in reality TV has branched off into popular competition shows like “The Voice” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” “Expedition” brings him back to his extreme-outdoorsy roots, having launched his career with “Eco-Challenge,” “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race.”
“People have asked me for many, many years, 'Will you do another one of these epic races?'” Burnett tells PopcornBiz. “I was the first person do it with 'Eco-Challenge' back in 1995. Haven't done it since 2004, and ABC said to me 'Do it on your terms'. And so what you’ll see is 2,000 miles of terrain, a crew of 400, 41 cameras, helicopters, hundreds of vehicles and the most epic adventure ever – but for ordinary people.”
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“I chose the teams by just trying to make it about ordinary people – some of them, almost off the couch, you know? “ says Burnett of his typically canny eye for casting, “but people who believe they really wanted an adventure. These people are not trained people.”
Burnett describes some of the 13 three-person teams in the hunt as they scramble to trek 2,000 miles through Morocco, across the Sahara and over the Atlas Mountains : “You've got a bunch of New York City fire fighters who are a little overweight; three girls from Kansas, one of which is so young she missed her high school prom to do this; there's a team of a grandfather, his son, and his granddaughter; a team of ex-NFL football players; Gloucester fishermen who spend their time out in the Atlantic, like 'The Deadliest Catch'; a team of Latino women from the Bronx; and there's a team with a blind guy – the first blind guy to ever summit Mt. Everest, so we knew it wasn't a crazy choice to make reality TV. This guy authentically was a guy who knows whether he can get through 'Expedition Impossible'.”
The producer decided to make the competition a little purer, making the primary goal simply the adventurous experience, rather than a major payday of the promise of pseudo-celebrity after logging some airtime in a bikini.
“I could have easily made this a million dollars, five million dollars prize money,” he says, offering a relatively meager $50,000 and a Ford Explorer at the finish line. “I don’t want people doing it for that reason. You've got to want to do it because you WANT to do this. You're going to do this, and you're going to suffer like this. It's not a game. There are game elements and there are great challenges: They go into a casbah, which is the name of a Moroccan castle. It's dark, there are 50 rooms in this ancient casbah, and there's hundreds of lamps. They have to put candles in the lamps. Only some of the lamps have the right pattern that when you put it onto a map it illuminates the map – and that's how they know where to go next.”
“Another one where there's like a cobra charmer in the mountains,” he explains. “And as he charms the cobras, they come out of places and they're all mixing and you're so confused. And the cobras go away. The question was, 'How many cobras did you just see? If you think it's ten, take this map and go east. If you think it's nine…' Believe me, you get the wrong number and you got the wrong mountain and you've got to come back again. Because if you get it wrong, you get up at dead end canyon after hours – It says, 'Wrong Way.’ And you've got to turn around and come all the way back now. You're exhausted and you've got to come and watch the same cobra charmer again and guess again.”
The producer says he remains drawn to the extreme adventure realm of programming because, frankly, it’s what he’s be doing if he wasn’t making TV shows.
“I've spent a lot of my career working in the adventure realm. It's what I'm known for, I think, and I love this kind of stuff."
"Expedition Impossible" airs tonight on ABC at 9 ET