"The Amazing Race" is a competition/challenge series that happens to go through a number of foreign countries, sometimes taking advantage of the cultural specifics and topography of said countries, but sometimes just using those countries a convenient way-stations for a game or two.
 
That is to say that "The Amazing Race" is not a travel show. It's a show on which people travel. 
 
Maybe because "The Amazing Race" is no stranger to Japan and maybe because a full quarter of an episode had to be dedicated to a choice between two flights ostensibly arriving 15 minutes apart, Sunday's (March 6) episode made a very compelling case that The Land of the Rising Sun is a place where people talk funny, dress funny and perform really wacky rituals. Rarely have I noticed the show falling so completely and utterly on its face when trying to showcase another nation and its rituals.
 
But there were a number of reasons why Sunday's episode was pretty poor. Casual mockery of the Japanese was only part of it.
 
Click through for the full recap...
 
Some shows cover up poor episodes well, but "The Amazing Race" isn't a show that's ever successfully figured out how to obfuscate legs with bad challenges or limited drama or an anti-climactic conclusion.
 
That's how you find yourself slotting out a quarter of your episode length to a choice between two flights between Sydney and Tokyo. A Qantas flight went direct between the two cities and arrived at 6:15 a.m. A Cathay Pacific flight had a stop-over in Hong Kong, but got in 15 minutes earlier. The connection in Hong Kong was a seemingly comfortable three hours. So we were treated to one team after another deliberating over the potential advantages of a 15-minute head start and the possible risks of a connecting flight, even with a seemingly adequate connection. Well, "The Amazing Race" doesn't waste that much time on incidental minutiae, so there was never any doubt that the travel choice would end up being formative. With the teams basically split on which choice to make, the Cathay Pacific flight ended up being very delayed in Hong Kong. It got in at 7:20, while the direct flight was on-time at 6:15. Thrilling, right?
 
[Following the premiere episode heart attack, this is now our second "best laid flight plans of mice and men often go astray" fiasco in which a supposedly earlier flight ended up being late and everybody on the first flight sat and panicked through a calamity. I half expect a fine print notice at the end saying that Cunard Cruise Lines has paid for promotional consideration, "Amazing Race" has become such a poor advertisement for air travel.]
 
Actually, not only was the protracted airline drama not exciting, but it ended up being only barely relevant. Yes, the second flight got in an hour before the first flight, but the team that won the leg was a team on the delayed flight. So it was a factor, but it wasn't necessarily a determining factor. Elimination did come down to two teams on the late arriving flight, because that was because they got lost or stunk at the challenges, not because of technical problems in Tokyo.
 
The challenges themselves were specious, superficial depictions of fringe aspects of Japanese culture irrelevant to virtually everybody in Japan. But I guess the "Amazing Race" producers figured they'd done a sushi-eating challenge with game show components last time, so contemporary Japanese culture was irrelevant. 
 
The Roadblock asked "Who wants to go back 1000 years in time?" and forced one player to get dressed up in a samurai costume, memorize a ritual that was never explained to us, and then go for a spin of a wooden horse, shooting a target with a bow and arrow. It wasn't exactly difficult, but it caused trouble for Ron, who arrived at the Roadblock first and then complained his way back into the pack. Meanwhile, Justin and Zev arrived on the delayed flight, somehow caught up and the moved into second (and then, in transit to the Detour, moved up to first) when Justin zipped through the Roadblock. Notably, Justin was the only contestant who made noises about attempting to understand the nature and purpose of their preparatory ritual, rather than just unsuccessfully regurgitating a hammy version of what the instructor had done. Also making up time on this task were Jet and Cord, whose directional skills nearly knocked them out of contention, but who rebounded with Cord's archery skills. 
 
Falling behind after the Roadblock were Mel & Mike and Jaime & Cara. Mel & Mike lagged because Mike had trouble with the shooting. The Cheerleaders fell behind because Jaime can't drive and side-swiped a parked car and then had to wait around while the own of the car called the police. I think even Jamie haters have to acknowledge that under the circumstances, the quick-tempered red-head kept her composure and didn't say anything racist (though she complained that not speaking the language was making this slower, which it was).
 
I don't think anybody came away from the Roadblock with any understanding of how what they did related to Japanese culture and then the Detour was even sillier. The choice was between Prayer of Purity or Frog of Luck. In Prayer of Purity, the teams had to mimic a Shinto ceremony and stand under a waterfall. In Frog of Luck, they had to wade around in the mud looking for one of a number of hidden frogs, while Japanese youths were pelting them with mud clothes. It's still unclear which part of the Frog of Luck challenge was supposed to echo a real Japanese custom or pastime, but everybody had to get dressed in boxers (or bikini tops) and a white bib before doing a basic needle-in-a-haystack task. Because only two teams even attempted the Prayer task, we didn't get to see if it was the faster option, but I have no doubt that it was the easier option. The teams weren't getting judged and nothing they were doing had even a low level of difficulty. Ultimately for the team that was eliminated, Prayer of Purity would have been a better choice.
 
There was still some drama for the two teams doing the Prayer Detour, though not in the task. The Globetrotters finished first, but Flight Time accidentally grabbed Christina's fanny pack. He realized his error, but rather than backtracking to the waterfall to replace the pack where he found it, he dropped it off in the Men's changing room. Christina and Ron finished and freaked out because the fanny pack wasn't there and Ron's outrage only continued when he found the fanny pack in the changing room. Ron made things far more dramatic than they needed to be, because Ron has started to complain about every step of this process. I don't remember him being *this* bad in their first season. He's awful and it looks like he's going to only get worse next week. There's no question the Globetrotters could have and should have brought the fanny pack back where they found it, but they left it in a place it was guaranteed to be found, so there's that? It wasn't malicious, just careless and lazy. Regardless, Phil Keoghan listened to Ron and Christina tattle at the mat and gave the Globetrotters a 30-minute penalty that seemed to drop them from third to fifth?
 
[Team Aspie and Gary & Mallory finished first and second. For Team Aspie, this was a second consecutive winning leg. And for Gary & Mallory, this was a return to the Top 2 after some struggles last week.]
 
The leg came down to the Cheerleaders and Mel & Mike, but really it just came down to the Cheerleaders, because Mel & Mike gave up on the Detour. To be more specific, Mike gave up, but he gave up on the behalf of his 70-year-old dad who was braving hypothermia in a pond of mud trying to find a frog, so you can't really give Mike any guff for the decision. Mel & Mike quit and went to the medical van just seconds before Jaime and Cara arrived, so as far as the Cheerleaders knew, they were last and on the verge of elimination. They were happy to have survived. I was a little sad to see Mel & Mike leave, but I also wasn't going to be able to stomach anymore medical drama from Mel. It was just gonna be painful. They're good folks and nobody needed to watch them suffer for money.
 
In the end, I resisted the temptation to dig up a good Edward Said essay/commentary on Orientalism, but the episode was all about unexplained otherness and fetishism of difference. The challenges were silly, but inoffensive. But other aspects were verging on offensive. Like Mallory kept making valiant attempts to pronounce the places they were going to. Because Mallory has become a crazy, slobbering ball of energy, I couldn't tell if she was trying to pronounce the places with a Pan-Asian accent or if it was just more incoherent babbling. But I know that the banging of the gong after each mispronunciation was right-on-the-edge.
 
Anyway, "Pointless Travel Wheel-Spinning + Meandering Tasks + Orientalism + A Team I Like Quitting" led to a sub-par episode. But at least I'm not writing this recap at 2 a.m. like I was last week, post-Oscars.
 
 
A few other observations from Sunday's episode:
 
*** Christina is engaged to Azaria of "Azaria & Hendekea" fame? Who knew? Anybody remember Azaria's condescending attitude towards his sister on The Race? Anybody else feel like Christina is marrying a version of her father? Indeed...
 
*** Mallory may be out of control, but she did have my favorite line of the episode, when she warned the mud-throwing Japanese that, "You're gonna have two redheads coming through. They're gonna look pretty good in this outfit." 
 
*** How much of this episode was wasted on airplane non-drama and then on people picking up their cars at the Tokyo airport? How much of that time could have been dedicated to explaining the rituals in either the Roadblock or the Prayer Detour in more depth? Just wondering...
 
*** Really, not much else. Just not an interesting leg. I'm still feeling very good for Justin & Zev, who were always my favorite team this season, but who have no become my favorite team by a wide margin.
 
What'd you think of the leg? Are you partially relieved to see Mel & Mike go home before something worse happened? And were the Globetrotters sufficiently penalized or not penalized enough?