I really don't know why this is so hard to understand: "Amazing Race" premieres need to be two-hours. Or, at the very least, they need to be 90 minutes.
 
And I say this every premiere cycle. Or at least I say it in every premiere cycle that doesn't begin with a two-hour "Amazing Race" premiere.
 
Of course, the reason I say it is because "Amazing Race," unlike "Survivor" or "America's Next Top Model" or most of the shows in the competitive reality universe, has the responsibility to at least vaguely introduce every single competitor in the initial episode. With "Survivor," you can have a castaway pull a Kelly Purple and go the duration of the game doing nothing. But on "Amazing Race" every team is doing the same thing at the same time and while some teams might perform tasks in less interesting ways, they're invariably going to be temporarily spotted in action. So in a premiere, you have to find a way to introduce people and let Your Friendly Neighborhood Bloggers figure out names and quirky nicknames.
 
"Amazing Race" has found a couple ways to circumvent this issue. The show has periodically cast J-list celebrities, people who are vaguely or plausibly familiar to some portion of the audience, but who aren't distracting enough to dominate the game (for the most part). There have been former Miss Americas, ex-reality show contestants aplenty, YouTube staples, poker stars and writer-actor Mike White, plus a couple other folks who were recognizable for certain viewers with certain points of reference.  The other occasional solution utilized by "Amazing Race" and pretty much every other reality show these days: All-Stars!
 
Maybe that's why Sunday (February 20) night's "Amazing Race: Redemption Island" -- Ooops... "Amazing Race: Unfinished Business" -- premiere was so disappointing. Despite providing me with 11 teams I could easily identify, including at least eight or nine teams I was genuinely pleased to see return, Sunday's premiere *still* left me muttering about the annoyance of not getting a two-hour or 90-minute premiere.
 
More thoughts on the "Amazing Race: Unfinished Business" premiere after the break...
 
I just don't think you can have a competition reality show that doesn't send somebody home in Week 1, so Sunday night's "You've reached the Pit Stop... But you've got to keep racing!" and "To be continued..." conclusion was a dud. "Survivor" didn't really send anybody home this week either -- fans will note my lack of a regular weekly exit interview -- because of the Redemption Island twist, but the show still went through the mechanics of an elimination which, coupled with ongoing confusion of how Redemption Island will operate, was sufficient to make Thursday's premiere feel resolved. With Sunday's "Amazing Race," I got to the end and... yeah. I felt like I wanted to see the whole episode.
 
Unless the whole point of the episode was to set the season's "Unfinished Business" theme with an unfinished episode. If that was the case... Not a great idea.
 
I felt like the episode had promised certain things that never materialized, which prompted me to go back to my screener and rewatch the episode's opening scenes. I was wrong. Phil Keoghan doesn't just "say" things. The things Phil Keoghan says have meaning. He's deep like that.
 
So I rewatched his initial instructions and while he very clearly said that the first team to the Pit Stop would receive the all-powerful (but wasted last season) Express Pass [sadly not yet sponsored by Panda Express], he never said that the last team to the Pit Stop "would" or even "may" be eliminated. But he did say, which seemed a little interesting, is that the season will have 12 Legs. With 11 teams and already one not-quite-non-elimination leg under our belt, does that mean that we're not going to have an actual Non-Elimination Leg? That would be terrific. Or at least we've got fewer Non-Elimination Legs to look forward to? In some seasons, Phil has definitely told teams how many NELs to anticipate. In this instance, he made no mention of that dreaded cop-out.
 
Thus, Phil never promised an elimination in this episode/leg and any assumptions to that effect were made by me. Mea culpa.
 
The other part that confused me was the nature of the automatic U-Turn. The season began with a task. Teams had to run out into a field of paper airplanes and they had to realize that "Queensland and Northern Territories Arial Services" means "Qantas." [I'll confess that I hadn't known that previously. All I knew is that Qantas never crashes.] Anyway, though, the deal was that the first eight teams to complete this preliminary task would get to be on a first flight to Australia, with the other three teams on a second flight leaving 90 minutes later. The last team to finish would get stuck with a U-Turn penalty. [That ended up being "funny" (it's not ironic, but some people would incorrectly call it that), because the last team ended up being Amanda & Kris, who we were reminded early in the episode were eliminated the first time around because Margie & Luke U-Turned them.]
 
This confused me for two reasons: The first is that I kept waiting for a Detour to come up and, in the episode, it never did. The second was that in Australia, heading for the first task, Amanda and Kris referenced their desire to win the leg so that they could get the Panda Express Pass and Amanda referenced that the Panda Express Pass would then mean they wouldn't have to worry about their U-Turn. In that moment, I just assumed that she and Kris were misunderstanding the power or timing of the Panda Express Pass, which I just guessed wouldn't become relevant until after they'd weathered the hypothetical U-Turn. 
 
In this respect also, I was wrong. Phil's words were that "that team will have to complete both sides of the first Detour you encounter on the Race." That's obviously quite different from "that team will have to complete both sides of the Detour on this leg." I don't know if Amanda and Kris also parsed Phil's words carefully, assumed this was a Detour-free leg and leapt at the opportunity to make their penalty moot, or if they really were unclear on the Panda Express Pass concept and just got lucky. 
 
Either way, these are the things that confuse me and the things that send me scurrying to rewind.
 
This dilemma only became relevant because of an extraordinary piece of travel awesomeness, the sort of counter-intutive strategy-screwing genius that "Amazing Race" experiences all too rarely. There were supposed to be eight teams arriving in Sydney 90 minutes early and three other teams lagging. Instead, the first flight had to take an unexpected stop after a passenger had a heart attack. Thankfully the passenger was OK, but it meant that suddenly the second flight got in 27 minutes before the first flight, meaning that Amanda & Kris, Gary & Mallory and Kisha & Jen went from last to first thanks to the fickle finger of fate. Under any other circumstances, Amanda & Kris would only have been thinking of basic survival, rather than fabricating a plan to get the Express Pass and negate their penalty. [Totally irrelevant side note: The Panda Express Pass gets you out of a task you don't want to complete. If a Panda Express Pass were used by a team that was simultaneously U-Turned, should the Panda Express Pass really get them out of both tasks, or just the first one? As of now, we don't need to know.]
 
Once in Australia, there was only a Roadblock, built around the question "Who's ready to get tanked?" and, disappointingly, having nothing to do with consumption of Fosters, which any true Australian would really like to clarify for you is actually Australian for "cat's piss" and not for "beer." The Roadblock asked one player from each team to don SCUBA gear and locate a huge, bulky compass in a vast tank populated by sharks and rays and other aquatic creatures. None of the aquatic creatures came into play in the task, which was too bad and also contributed to making the first piece of the Roadblock into a non-factor. [Am I saying I wanted Kent or Vyxsin to be eaten by a shark? yes. Yes I am.] Even Kisha and Jen, who struggled with water in their season -- "Not to fulfill any stereotypes, because we are African-American, but no, we cannot swim," Jen cracked -- raced through it.  The player then had to take the compass and use it to decipher a code using nautical flags. 
 
Here's where things got interesting, albeit not immediately. Mallory & Gary, then Amanda & Kris and then Kisha & Jen all finished the SCUBA, finished the puzzle, finished the subsequent sailing task and reached the Pit Stop in that order, with Gary & Mallory receiving the Panda Express Pass before being told they had to keep racing. [For a fun game, rewatch Malloy's face as Phil tells them they have to keep racing. Gary gets it immediately. Mallory... Not so much. Her feet are moving one way, her mouth is moving a different way and I'm still not sure that she understood what happened.]
 
The eight teams that were initially in first and became last thanks to the ill-timed heart attack -- as opposed to all of those well-timed heart attacks -- then became a surprisingly bunched pack and we were reminded of one of the most interesting parts of any All-Star season of any show: Some people come into the game with relationships with other teams, which means that a strategic aspect comes into play that is absent in most "Amazing Race" seasons, where you might get a half-hearted alliance or two, but it rarely impacts the game. In this case, the leg was totally impacted by alliances. You can decide if that's "good" or "bad," but I definitely thought it was interesting. 
 
We saw the good side of alliances: The Globetrotters, who were eliminated in their season because of Big Easy's difficulties with puzzles, just couldn't handle the post-SCUBA code. So they quit and, as they were running, the asked Justin & Zev for help. Well, Justin & Zev are such Friends of the Globetrotters that they were even wearing Globetrotters t-shirts earlier and without hesitation, Justin gave them the answer. I like the Globetrotters and I like Justin & Zev, so I'm OK with this. And then when Margie & Luke and Jaime & Cara asked for help seconds later, Justin declined. "We don't know them really from a hole-in-the-wall," Justin correctly observed. Those two teams needed the help becuase...
 
We saw the bad side of alliances: Jaime & Cara and Margie & Luke had worked together in their season and they worked together here. They were just stupid and screwed up the puzzle, so they got the answer wrong and had to go back to the Roadblock. They, in turn, were helped by Ron & Christina, who had no valid reason to help them, but figured "What the heck?" And then, in turn, Luke & Margie helped Kent & Vyxsin for no good reason. And I'm 100 percent certain that none of this helping would have occurred in a non-All-Stars season. Because on the first leg of the Race, who's going to help a stranger for no reason? Few people.
 
Sadly, that left nobody to help poor Cowboys Jet & Cord, who had one of those classic Jet & Cord legs where even though they were initially bunched in a big group, they made one little mental mistake after another until they went from a pack of eight to a pack of three and then a pack of one. And when we left the episode, Jet still was giving no indication that he'd cracked the puzzle. 
 
That was the only reason why I was the tiniest bit relieved that we ended without elimination. I like the Cowboys.
 
Since this is something I do every "Amazing Race" premiere, I might as well do it here as well. It's my quick breakdown of the teams I'm rooting for, the teams in Dan Limbo and the teams I'm rooting against.
 
 
TEAMS I'M ROOTING FOR:
 
The Cowboys, Jet & Cord: "I don't think nice guys always finish last," Jet said. And nobody would disagree that Jet & Cord are very much nice guys. They're funny, likable and they do well in physical challenges. They're just prone to mental gaffes both repeated and minor (as in this episode) and major. They were lucky they were in "The Amazing Race: All-Stupids" season and I fear they're going to be less lucky here.
 
The Globetrotters, Flight Time & Big Easy: I like how Flight Time blames Big Easy (justifiably) for their first elimination, but they're such darned jovial guys that it doesn't seem malicious. Their size and their own mental gaffes will probably stand in their way again.
 
Team Aspie, Zev & Justin: Their first elimination, with Justin misplacing the passports in a leg they won, remains one of my saddest "Race" moments. I love the dynamic of their friendship and Zev, whose Aspergers went unmentioned in this episode, as one of my all-time favorite attitudes towards the game. 
 
Mel & Mike: They're a father-son, but they're just Mel & Mike. You know they won't win because Mel's 70 and that's going to mess him up at some point (some point very soon, it would appear), but I'll root for them as long as they're around.
 
The Cheerleaders, Jaime & Cara: Jaime was right that people either loved her or hated her, but I'm not sure how many people other than me fell into the "love" camp. She just doesn't like people. She's not xenophobic or racist or sexist. She treats Americans the same as Africans the same as the Australian sailors navigating their skiff. This consistency has endeared her to me. I'm not sure Cara even exists.
 
 
TEAMS IN DAN LIMBO:
 
Gary & Mallory: "Amazing Race" has had many parent-child teams over the years and Gary is one of my favorites among the Race Dads. He's just gung-ho for anything. I'd find Mallory's bubbly personality cute if she didn't resort to begging Jesus for help IMMEDIATELY. On the puzzle, she barely even looked at the flags before seeing if her Savior would be her savior. How about trying yourself first?
 
Ron & Christina: I have nothing against Ron & Christina. They're fine. They're guaranteed to have at least one moment that will make viewers cry this season. I just don't love them.
 
Team Pee, Kisha & Jen: Another of the all-time crushing Race eliminations. I want every episode to show Kisha and Jen ducking into a bathroom at least once. I also can never remember which is Kisha and which is Jen. And please don't think this is racist, because I also can never remember which is Jet and which is Cord. It's not that I can't tell them apart. One has short hair and harder features, while the other has long hair and softer features. They don't look anything alike. I just don't associate "Kisha" with "short hair" in my mind all of the time, just like I don't always go "Cord has lighter hair and he's taller."
 
 
TEAMS I'M ROOTING AGAINST:
 
Team Seven Other Pairs We Wanted To Be On The Show Passed, Amanda & Kris: The other 10 teams, I know exactly why they were chosen. I really don't know how many teams turned the show down that we were left with Amanda & Kris. I don't dislike them and I didn't dislike them in their season. I just could probably pick at least five losing teams from past years that I'd rather have. So far as I can tell, their only piece of "unfinished business" is getting me to remember who the heck they are.
 
Team Faux-Goth, Kent & Vyxsin: Some people find them colorful and entertaining. I find them affected and irksome. 
 
Margie & Luke: I like Margie. She'll do anything and she's fiercely protective of her son. Good for her. Luke complains, gives up and willingly lets his mother do things that he'd be better suited for. He blames himself for their first elimination... and he's right. Maybe he'll be better this time, less crying and whining.
 
 
OK. This recap has gotten really long. That's what happens if I have screeners in advance. And as I wrote the recap, I began feeling less disappointed by the unfinished aspect of the leg and more pleased with the teams I was happy to have back...
 
What'd you think of the premiere? And for those of you who watched in HD, how'd the show look?