The fall's 13th installment of CBS' "The Amazing Race" wasn't so much of a race at all.
Siblings Nick and Starr finished in first a whopping seven legs of The Race, including the finale for the million dollar prize. They were athletic, reasonably intelligent and except for one meltdown from Starr, they kept their wits about them at all times. Only two other teams won legs the entire race. It was probably the most dominant piece of racing in the show's history.
I'm just going to go out on a limb and say that the show's 14th season, which premiered on Sunday (Feb. 15) night, will be more competitive. In fact, I'm feeling pretty good about this "Amazing Race" season so far.
As I've written before elsewhere, "The Amazing Race" probably should always have two-hour premieres, because otherwise there's just too much happening to keep track of all of the newly introduced teams, much less get to really like or hate any of them. But Sunday's "Amazing Race" premiere had several of the things I like most about the show, some of which were sorely lacking last season.
[Full recap, complete with spoilers, after the bump...]
1) Everybody actually read the clues - I know, it doesn't sound like so much to ask, right? But how many legs last season were lost by teams that misinterpreted clues, failed to fully read clues or just ignored pieces of key information contained in the clues? There were penalties and restarts galore last season. I think Nick and Starr probably would have won anyway based on their strengths, but their margin of victory was only increased by never crucially botching a clue. Then again, Dan and Andrew made it to the final leg despite seemingly screwing up every clue they got. But on Sunday's "Amazing Race" premiere, everybody did the little things right. Either Bertram van Munster and company made the clues easier, or they selected a less careless cast. Either way, I was relieved not to have to yell at the screen.
2) Great locations - I had no troubles with the locations last season, so no criticism intended. I'm just very partial to Switzerland and between Lucerne and Interlaken, "The Amazing Race" delivered great photography of the country and also made very good region-specific choices of tasks. That leads me to...
3) Superior challenges - The Roadblock was just bungee jumping, so it wasn't hard and it didn't reward any skills or courage. Nobody really hesitated, so the Roadblock didn't change the overall order of things. Usually that irks me, but the Verzasca Dam and the ridiculous height of the jump helped me overcome any reservations. I mean, this is where James Bond jumped in "GoldenEye." The bungee challenge is always a cop-out, since you can bungee anywhere, but this was bungee-done-right.
The episode's second challenge was even better, forcing the teams to ascend a precariously steep and muddy hill and then descent with 200 pounds of cheese. Now the clue asked the contestants to do the task using some rickety antique cheese racks, but that didn't end up being essential, since the racks were almost guaranteed to break. The thing I enjoyed about the task -- other than the hilarious image of 50 pound wheels of cheese rolling untethered down the hill and off into the wilderness -- was that it really could be accomplished multiple ways and that none of those ways were actually easy, but it could still accommodate different levels of prowess. Yes, the stronger teams were able to carry 100 pounds at a time and make the task about brute force. But aging pop Mel of Mel & Mike accepted his limitations immediately and basically bumped down the hill on his rump. It didn't look comfortable or appealing, but at least Mel found a way to help his team. Best of all, the team that applied the most brainpower to the task was self-described Country Bumpkins Linda and Steve, who transformed their racks into sleds and made up a huge amount of time in the process.
Perhaps next year a task can involve cheese rolling on Cooper's Hill near Cheltenham. But that might be too dangerous.
4) Hubris - Man, I love hubris like a 10th grade English teacher. So when an episode begins with flight attendants Christie and Jodi boasting about all of their insider knowledge when it comes to travel and then ends with Christie and Jodie nearly being eliminated because they were the only team that stupidly took an earlier train when the later train got in first, that just makes me laugh maliciously. That leads me to...
5) A genuine footrace race to the Phil with elimination at stake - Nine out of 10 "Amazing Race" episodes really aren't close at all. The editors have to do intercutting at the end to create the illusion that there was barely any difference between last and next-to-last. On Sunday night's episode, Jodi and Christie arrived at the Pit Stop parking lot after Jennifer and Preston, spotted the other team and then out-sprinted them to the mat. There wasn't any editing trickery, because the two teams were in the same shot most of the time. Because of my love for hubris (See #4), I was rooting for Jodi and Christie to stick around to brag another day. Jennifer didn't look physically slight, so she was oddly useless throughout the episode and Preston was literally carrying her at the end.
Those five most excellent elements helped me ignore that it's too early for me to feel like I'm rooting for or against any of the teams.
The only team I'm comfortable getting behind for now is Mel and Mike White. I mean, it's Ned Schneebly and his dad. It's Buck and his dad, of whom he says, "I think the other teams might think my dad is Cloris Leachman, but he's really MacGyver." We got to watch Mike White bungee jump tonight and that's just good TV. I found it interesting that, at least in the first episode, none of the other teams expressed any awareness of who Mike White is. I get that they weren't going to know him as the creator of "Pasadena" and the writer-director of "Year of the Dog," but he's done enough character acting that somebody could have recognized him.
So I'll cheer for the Whites. I like the dynamic between athletic sisters Lakisha & Jennifer and between lawyer-siblings Tammy & Victor. I'd have liked the frankness of Hillbillies Linda & Steve, but he pushes her too hard and I don't want to watch her crying.
I have no reason to dislike Margie & deaf-son Luke, but I wish he'd stop making everything about his deafness and the point he's trying to prove. Cumulatively, his adventures on "The Amazing Race" will make him a worthy champion for deaf advocacy and I salute him. He and his mother won the stage, so they're worthy competitors. But he kept talking about how nobody would expect a deaf person to be able to do the things he did, but there was absolutely nothing required of the teams on this leg that I would have considered him at all handicapped in. "The Amazing Race" is a game of two-person teams. If you can communicate with your teammate, that's all you need and Margie and Luke can communicate perfectly. I guess there will be tasks down the road that might be struggles, but the show's producers aren't stupid. They will have made sure that none of the challenges explicitly rules out Luke.
[Best moment of the episode, by far, was Phil Keoghan signing "You're Team #1" for Margie & Luke. If that doesn't win him the Emmy for reality show host next season, it's a crime.]
So who to dislike?
Well, Brad & Victoria left Jodie & Christie high and dry with the train confusion, but it's sortta a game. I don't begrudge them.
Amanda & Kris are too pretty and happy to be trustworthy, but they don't yell each each other or call each other "Baby" or "Honey," at least not that we've seen.
And Cara & Jaime implied they were ready to be thought of as bitches, but in the episode they didn't do anything memorably good or evil.
How about y'all? What'd you think of the premiere? And who are you rooting for or against?