You don't have to be brainy to win on "The Amazing Race." In fact, if you look back over the show's 15 winners, only a few of those champions could be categorized as "smart." The best you can say about most of the winners, really, is that they were able to minimize intellectual blunders along the way. And sometimes you can't even say that.
Over the years, misread clues, misapplied maps, in-challenge counting blunders, word-puzzle cluelessness and other mental gaffes have done in far more teams than physical inadequacies or crippling phobias.
It's actually a key part of the show's dramatic tension for viewers. Most of us, sitting at home, have no clue how we'd perform if asked to eat 15 pounds of whale blubber or if we were forced to do a free-fall off of the pointy top of the CN Tower, but we can all feel confident that even with reduced sleep, a questionable diet and at the end of a 15-day adrenaline rush, we'd still be literate, we'd still be able to add digits, we'd still eventually be able to unscramble the most foreign of five-letter words in a few hours. We can feel equal or superior on that front, smacking our palms against our foreheads in frustration and glee.
Get ready for a lot of that in this current 16th season of "The Amazing Race," which seems to have ample potential to be the dumbest season of The Race ever, "The Amazing Race: All-Stupids" if you will. I'm guessing this crop of contestants will lead to a split in the viewership, because as tremendously fun as Sunday's (Feb. 14) premiere was, I can easily imagine this level of dunderheadedness getting exhausting in a hurry.
[More on the "Amazing Race" premiere after the break...]
It's not like this wasn't expected. As has been the case a few times on "The Amazing Race," this installment includes a couple semi-familiar faces and this season's semi-celebrities had something in common: Public displays of unapologetic mental vacancy.
On one team, Brent & Caite, we have former Miss Teen South Carolina Caitlin Upton, whose incoherent babbling about "The Iraq" and our lack of maps "and such" made her into an Internet celebrity. Even if you give her credit for having merely frozen up in that moment in the spotlight, you still have someone who is less-than-clever under pressure. Since "The Amazing Race" offers occasional pressure... Well, you get the picture.
On another team, we have Jordan & Jeff, who fell in love on "Big Brother" last summer. I like Jordan & Jeff and was unreasonably pleased when she won, but the kindest thing you could say about them is that they're lovable lunkheads. He's not smart and she seems to have been raised in an odd and isolated bubble in which she never learned... anything. As I said, I *like* Jordan & Jeff and will happily root for them on this Race, but they collectively lack in even the lowest level of book or street smarts.
So who could have been surprised that both Brent & Caite and Jordan & Jeff had some tough times in the season premiere when it came to brains? And yet, remarkably, Jordan & Jeff actually won the first leg (Yay!) and Brent & Caite actually reached the mat second (more on that later). That just goes to illuminate the strange things happening behind them.
It wasn't like Sunday's "Amazing Race" even included any brain-teasing challenges. That's the hilarious part. The tasks in Sunday night's episode required a little endurance and a little strength and some remedial painting skills, but the teams didn't have to pause everything for a five-hour game of Trivial Pursuit or anything.
The episode began by asking the teams to make it from downtown Los Angeles to the airport via public transportation. There's no doubt that LA public transportation can be confusing to newbies, especially if you start in an inconvenient location or if you don't speak the language. If, however, you start within a couple blocks of Union Station and you speak the language of the land, it isn't hard to get somebody to tell you to walk three blocks and take a Flyaway bus. Fortunately, all of the teams found that easy enough, except for the fancy teams that tried out-thinking the task and taking the Metro. It hardly mattered. All of the teams reached the airport at nearly the same time and the two separate flights that were supposed to provide a minor advantage for quicker teams became moot due to mechanical failures.
Once in Chile, after taking a bus to Valparaiso ("The San Francisco of South America!!!"), the Roadblock asked one contestant to do a 100-yard cable-walk at an altitude of 120 feet from the ground. Not easy, but definitely straight-forward. Then, teams had to collect paintbrushes, cans and ladders, go up a road and paint a *really* small patch of unfinished fall on the outside of a house. Again, easy and pretty straight-forward.
How did the teams handle the tasks? Well, for the sake of this first recap, I'm gonna run through the 11 teams, giving my initial impressions and how I'm feeling about them going forward. Within the context of those breakdowns, I'm assuming I'll give a pretty clear picture of how the episode went down.
TEAMS I'M LIKING:
Jordan & Jeff (a.k.a. Team Big Brother) - Jordan and Jeff were a good pair on "Big Brother" and I'm betting they'll be a good pair here. He keeps her connected to reality -- I fear she'd just float away otherwise -- and she inspires competitiveness (and leadership) in him. They seem like good people and they're physically capable enough that she should be OK for a while. Eventually, though, they may hop on a plane to a totally different hemisphere, leaving the rest of the teams behind. Like even though their first clue clearly said they were flying to Santiago, Chile, Jeff's immediate reaction was "I think we're going to Guatemala," to which Jordan replied "China?" And they weren't kidding. When they got to LAX, Jordan walked up to the ticket booth and demanded, "We need two tickets for China." Again. Not kidding. On the other hand, I don't think either of them is under any illusions that they're smart, so when they didn't know what a "funicular" was, they asked without hesitation. And when the other teams were wandering around confused by where they were supposed to be painting, Jeff & Jordan figured going up the hill made sense. I also appreciated Jordan's lack of hesitation when it came to the cable walk. She knew Jeff has a fear of heights, so she just did it, saying "I can do this... I can do this..." as she walked across. Having a good attitude goes a long way on this show and how could you not laugh at their victory dance at the mat?
Louie & Michael (a.k.a. The Detectives or Team Watching the Detectives) - I'd root for this team for Louie's fu-manchu mustache alone, but they also seem funny, fearless and pretty strong. I'd even have thought they were among the smarter available teams, until they decided that the logical thing to do in the painting challenge was try covering graffiti on a largely arbitrary wall. That cost them very little time, but it still wasn't clever. I'm just going to attribute that mistake to their ingrained desire to clean up the streets. But they're on probation. They're also starting the next leg in 9th, so they have time to make up.
Jody & Shannon (a.k.a. Grandmother/Granddaughter or The Team with the Old Person) - The sprier-than-expected grandma, a triathlete with several half-marathons to her credit, had the line of the night when she asked Shannon to do the Roadblock, saying "I have the balance of a drunken, elderly person on stilts." I like them because they know that they're going to be one of the first two or three teams out of the game and they're just happy to make it as far as they can. The team with the oldest contestant usually goes out first and no all-female team has ever won. They're going to be eliminated quickly and it could just as easily have been this week. But Jody & Shannon are alright by me until they head home. Also, unless I'm forgetting, they didn't do anything dumb. They're starting the next leg in last.
THE JURY'S STILL OUT
Steve & Allie (a.k.a. Father/Daugher or Team She's Not My Trophy Wife, Darnit) - Steve was the third base coach for the Phillies when they won the World Series in 2008, while Allie resembles a non-anorexic Shenae Grimes. I'm happy when you have parents and children on this show who just seem to get along, who aren't estranged and aren't scary and co-dependent, who just seem to like the chance to spend time together. Allie was strong on the Roadblock and I was feeling good about this team until they took their paint cans, ladder and brushes and wandered into a random stranger's house and started painting a corner of their wall, even though the colors didn't match. It was a magnificently stupid moment, made extra funny by the confused Chilean work crew, including a dude in a bright orange Sudoku shirt who turned to the camera and announced, "Look. I don't know what they're doing here." I think that Steve & Allie will have no trouble getting back in my good graces and they're starting the next leg in a solid fourth place.
Monique & Shawne (a.k.a. Team Momtrepreneur) - Monique & Shawne didn't do anything especially positive or negative in this episode. Monique had a funny-ish line comparing herself to Jesus-on-the-Cross as she walked down the street with her ladder. And they somehow finished second, mostly by virtue of going out, doing the tasks and not messing up in any embarrassing way. That's a decent combination for under-the-radar success.
Jet & Cord (a.k.a. Team Cowboy or Team Hillbilly Cowboy) - "Cowboys aren't necessarily just some hicks from Texas," Jet announced proudly as Team Cowboy reached the mat in third. The problem? Jet and Cord had just spent 44 minutes proving that they were, in fact, hicks from Texas. It's bad enough to go and request Brazilian money at an exchange stand even though you know you're going to Chile and bad enough to attempt to use that Brazilian money to buy bus tickets in Chile, but Jet & Cord attempted to pass off responsibility onto the money exchangers, as if they're requested the right currency and been told "Eh. This will be close enough." As the episode ended, I'm still not sure Jet and Cord understand that Brazil and Chile are different countries with different currency and I'm 100 percent certain they wouldn't know that the countries speak different languages. And yet the misadventure with the currency only forced Team Cowboy onto a later bus and they made up all of that time by not messing up again later, either on the Roadblock or the painting task. It's always been an "Amazing Race" truth that if you're going to make a big blunder on a leg, get it out of the way as soon as possible and stay steady from there. That's what the Cowboys did. [Actually, it's been pointed out to me that the Cowboys are actually hicks from Oklahoma. But it's a very real possibility they can't tell Oklahoma and Texas apart.]
Joe & Heidi (a.ka. Team Wang) - Lots of smoke, but no fire from these two. The first thing Heidi announced was that Joe is "very confrontational." When that comes to pass, I'm certain this team will slip into my "Dislike" bin, but for one episode, Heidi had no personality and Joe seemed only to be a minor irritation. They didn't do anything all that well or all that poorly, so that's why they're in fifth starting the next leg and why I'm not prepared to consign them to a lower grouping.
TEAMS I'M DISLIKING
Carol & Brandy (a.k.a. Team Matching Haircut) - I get that Carol & Brandy are trying to break down stereotypes about lesbians by trying to show the world that lesbians can act like stereotypical gay men. Well done. They are not, however, nearly as funny as they think they are and the jokes about fashion, being spoiled and loving Martha Stewart only annoyed me, rather than entertaining. They were just fine on the respective tasks and if they stop pretending to be stupid and superficial and start just trying to win, I can see disliking them a lot less.
Brent & Caite (a.k.a. Team The Hotness and Such) - There's always a low threshold for intellect when it comes to this show's inevitable pairs of Dating Models. Caite's ongoing excuses for her Miss Teen South Carolina blunder are just silly and Brent's fierce, "I just don't think she deserves the crap that people give her" would have made more impact if Brent & Caite hadn't fallen from second to nearly last due to a completely preventable mental error. Finishing the Roadblock in first, Brent and Caite raced down the hill and ignored the part of the clue that read "You may only travel by funicular." There only excuse here is that since neither of them knew what a funicular was, that sentence just went fuzzy in their heads. This is even sadder because Brent & Caite claimed that they wrote the word "Details" on their hands. That led to a 30-minute penalty and caused them to slip from second to seventh. "Technically we really are second," Caite said, unclear on the meaning of the word "technically." On the other hand, Brent and Caite may have become the first team of dating models to ever last a full episode without mentioning Jesus. Also, Caite's *very* attractive. So maybe they'll grow on me?
Dan & Jordan (a.k.a. Team One of Them Is Gay) - I can't tell Dan and Jordan apart yet, other than that Jordan is gay. It was a little bit funny when Jordan instantly launched into his Miss Teen South Carolina impression to the camera. It was a little bit obnoxious when Jordan pulled other teams aside and made sure that they knew who Caite was and did his whole impression again. There's a fine line between being funny and enthusiastic and being catty and pointlessly mean and that's where Jordan crossed it. Yes, we know you real Perez Hilton, Jordan. You should be so proud. Then there was the unfortunate case of the missing paintbrush, which cost Dan & Jordan a 15 minute penalty, as they fell from fourth to eighth.
THIS WEEK'S ELIMINATED TEAM
Dana & Adrian (a.k.a. Team Irrelevant) - First Adrian blew all of the family's money in a failed business venture and now this. Dana and Adrian were going along just fine, middle-of-the-pack, until they reached the Roadblock and they decided that Adrian should do the cable-walk. Ooops. Could they have guessed that sending the season's heaviest male contestant out on the wire would be a mistake? Probably. Adrian was making slow progress on the cable even before he fell off and was dangling. Dan *also* fell off the cable and subsequently pulled himself across with a technique that probably violated the spirit of the Roadblock, if not the rules of the Roadblock. But Dan wasn't penalized. I don't get why Adrian didn't at least try to utilize the Dan technique. Oh well. Dana and Adrian seemed like utterly fine people.
One last point about Sunday's premiere:
Did anybody else notice that Jordan & Jeff's prize for winning was a trip to Vancouver, including the opportunity to go for a test run on the skeleton course at Whistler? I'm not totally sure, but I'm assuming that's the same track that Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died on earlier this week. Since that tragedy, more than a few of the sport's officials have come out complaining that the course at Whistler was always too dangerous and that many people had been injured on it previously. Maybe this wasn't necessarily the best of prizes or the best timing? I sought comment from CBS on whether or not the Whistler skeleton run would still be listed as part of the prize package, but nobody got back to me. Since I watched on a screener, I don't know if anybody had the sense to edit the line out for broadcast. Was it still there?
What did you think of Sunday's "Amazing Race" premiere? Who are you liking? Who are you disliking? And is this, indeed, the dumbest group of contestants in series history?