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Recap: 'The Amazing Race' Premiere - 'Business in the Front, Party in the Back'
Eleven teams head to Bora Bora to start the race for a million
You know how I'm going to begin this "Amazing Race" premiere recap and I know how I'm going to begin this "Amazing Race" premiere recap. So we might as well do it together, eh?
All together now...
"Amazing Race" premiere episodes should NEVER be less than 90 minutes and should always, ideally, be two hours.
Given that "The Amazing Race" has superior 18-49 numbers to "The Good Wife" and given that "The Good Wife" has comically low repeat numbers, surely it would behoove both "The Amazing Race" and CBS to set that particular regulation in stone.
There aren't any objections, are there? There are 22 contestants out there and they're engaged in lots of busy-work and even in two hours, it would be hard to give all of them personalities, but I find that hour-long "Amazing Race" premieres are almost impossible to recap, because I'm spending two-thirds of my time attempting to learn one superficial difference between otherwise similar teammates and almost no time deciding who I like or dislike and even less time than that getting emotionally invested in the results of the individual Leg.
And it's almost like the producers willingly sacrificed that latter aspect in Legs like Sunday's (February 17) premiere. Unless you are related to the team that was eliminated, either by blood or natural affinity to their shared profession, there isn't a chance that their departure will cause you even the slightest hint of disappointment. So Sunday was a basically affectless "Amazing Race" premiere, which I don't think needs to be the case.
Of course, it can't just be an example of CBS telling the producers, "Look, we've got the space and we wouldn't mind the ratings, so give us a two-hour cut of this premiere." Sunday's Leg was not designed to be padded out over two hours. It featured only two-and-a-half challenges and the episode's key challenge was designed for HD splendor and adrenaline junkies, not for in-Race difficulty or potential character illustration.
The "Race" producers would say that the design of the opening Leg was, indeed, designed for improved "Getting to know you" time. Starting with a Double Roadblock episode meant that all 22 Racers did something on Sunday's episode, while a single Roadblock and a Detour might leave one of the two Racers a cipher. That's not necessarily wrong. I understand. But one of the two Roadblocks just showcased screaming and falling. I learn very little about contestants from how well they scream and fall.
But I guess when I think back on the Leg architecture for Sunday's episode, it could have been a very good in-season Leg. It only failed because it was a premiere and it only failed because it was only 43 minutes.
Let's talk more about the premiere, including a first read on each of the teams, after the break... [Warning: Because I had a screener for this one, I was able to write it early and, in writing it early, I over-wrote. Apologies.]
One thing I was certainly missing in Sunday's Leg was an opening challenge. In recent seasons, The Race has found a way to add some in-show value to the run to the airport. I don't need a pre-LAX elimination like we had one season, but if you make teams go through balloons in a vineyard or whatever it was they did in the LA River, it creates first impressions and also eliminates the relatively arbitrary "The teams that know the fastest freeway routes to LAX get on the first plane" positioning that plagued Sunday's premiere. There were two flights to Bora Bora and there was nothing that we saw that determined that hierarchy. Because that hierarchy then led to an instant and temporary alliance and it would appear that that instant and temporary alliance will have ripples in subsequent weeks, it would have been nice if the early pact hadn't been made by a coin-flip of five teams.
See, we eliminated the "Team That Wins The First Leg Will Complete for Two Million" twist, which failed to generate the desired heat last season. Instead, I suspect the producers saw last season's surprisingly high quantity of teamwork and decided that might be fun to do more of. That meant this season's Opening Leg twist was that not only would the winning team get an Express Pass, a talisman that has been used with only so-so efficacy since it was introduced. but they would also get a second Express Pass to give to another team. The second Express Pass could be almost more powerful than the first, since it could be used to basically guarantee the elimination of a rival team, at least if properly deployed.
I somehow doubt the producers anticipated what actually happened, which was that twins Idries & Jamil -- who I will NEVER be able to tell apart -- pulled aside the five teams on the first flight and proposed a deal in which the first place team would give the second Express Pass to whichever team finished second, assuming that second place team was in this alliance. That's a very egalitarian approach to that second Express Pass, but it's definitely not what the producers wanted. What apparently might save the gambit are vagaries in pact verbiage. I came away thinking that the deal that was made was that if the team that finished second was part of this initial alliance, that team would get the second Express Pass. Some people came away with another interpretation: Whichever team finishes second from within the alliance -- even if five teams from the second flight moved up and finished second through sixth -- gets the other Express Pass. It looks as if semantics will get to play a role in the episodes to come. So... Yay.
The two Roadblocks both had some merit.
Up first, one player from each team had to do a 10,000-foot free-fall from a helicopter hovering high above Bora Bora. On an aesthetic level, this challenge was a total win. I watched the episode on screener and the free-fall was gorgeous and appropriately terrifying. I assume it'll look even better in high definition. Where this Roadblock fell flat was tension and character-development. Basically, if 11 players compete in a Roadblock and zero players have a fear of heights that goes beyond the sort of temporary hesitation that most normal people would have when jumping out of a perfectly good helicopter, then the task hasn't given us anything new to work with. You need somebody like Brooke from the current season of "Top Chef." Brooke has been so committed to her phobias that she refused to open her eyes on a stunning helicopter ride through the Alaskan glaciers. Put Brooke on a helicopter and tell her that to win a million bucks, she'd have to jump? That would yield drama and also it would tell us something about Brooke's commitment. As it happened, the clue for the Roadblock didn't leave any doubt that this was a Teammate Without Acrophobia Challenge. So everybody went up and went down. The only "drama" to the task came when Roller Derby Mom Mona somehow skipped an empty line on the sign-up sheet and chose a later helicopter pairing, allowing Misanthropic Newlywed Katie to move up a position. For one pre-commercial edit, we were led to think this might be a big gaffe. It was not. Everything was compensated for in a slightly diabolical second Roadblock.
In the second Roadblock, the non-freefalling teammate had to dig through 400 sandcastles on a Bora Bora beach to find a clue in the sand. That's a bit needle-in-a-haystack-y, but not fully evil, right? Well, it was hot. Does that make it worse? A little. And then the real catch: If you knocked over a sandcastle and didn't find a clue, you had to rebuild it. Ouch. Granted that this could have been worse. These weren't elaborate sandcastles. They were just single-mold structures. But that, of course, meant that with 400 sandcastles and potentially 11 teams competing, you couldn't keep up with which castles were original and which had been rebuilt. [We didn't see it come into play, but surely after teams found their clues, they had to rebuild that castle, right? To make the chances of finding a clue even more remote by the end?] This was NOT an easy task. John of John & Jessica was the first to arrive at the beach and the first to find his clue, but from there, people started going a little bit crazy. Twin Idries, second to the beach, saw other teams moving ahead and didn't handle the adversity especially well. Wynona, of Team Alabama, plunked herself in the sand and basically seemed determined to get heat stroke. Alleged YouTube Sensation Joey started performing with a dude on a ukulele, which might have been a sign of growing loopy-ness, but with Joey didn't seem that unusual.
The task was infuriating enough that the last three teams -- Firefighters Matt & Daniel, Newlyweds Katie & Max and Country Blondes Caroline & Jennifer -- made the mostly [but not entirely, since I remember Boston Rob and the meat] unprecedented decision to take a three-way penalty, skip the rest of the task and hinge the entire result of the Leg on a one-mile tandem canoe to the Pit Stop. It was a risky move. Katie & Max were convinced that as the athletic young couple in the mix, they'd be a lock to avoid last. But Daniel & Matt were convinced that as regular weekend canoe-trippers, they'd be safe. I don't like Max & Katie's logic, since Katie didn't even know how to hold a darned canoe paddle, but they were validated because however well Matt & Daniel canoe under other circumstances, they had balance issues on the outrigger canoe, knocking them into last place and clinching their elimination.
Matt & Daniel weren't unlikable. They're firefighters, which gets at least some instant rooting interest and they were amiably Southern and in need of money. But their elimination, at least from what we saw, won't make a mark. Had they turned out to be canoe juggernauts, causing Katie & Max's strategy to blow up in their face, that might have been fun to watch and it would have sealed Matt & Daniel as underdogs. Instead, they're a team I'm guaranteed not to remember ever existed, especially since the holiday on Monday means that "Amazing Race" exit interviews won't start until Week Two. It's like Team Firefighting never existed.
So let's look at the other teams that actually may exist. Since I don't instantly hate anybody, I'm not going to do my breakdown of Teams I'm Rooting Against, Teams I'm Rooting For and Teams in the Middle. I'm not sure I instantly love anybody either. You know what would solve this problem?
All together now...
"Amazing Race" premiere episodes should NEVER be less than 90 minutes and should always, ideally, be two hours.
Anyway... The teams!
Idries & Jamil (aka Team Gyno Twins) - Way to buck stereotypes with that whole "We're afraid of the water" thing. Geez. And was was the point of the profession-lie-that-wasn't with Pam & Winnie? If you're gonna lie, own it! Other than that, guess I like Idries & Jamil. They're smart and vaguely amusing -- Idries: "Shut up." Jamil: "That's our code word for 'I love you.'" -- and I see no reason why they shouldn't go reasonably far. Dunno if they should be penalized -- in my heart, not in the game -- for the producer thwarting First Flight Alliance. Since it looks like the Express Pass deal is going to go pear-shaped next week, we may end up thanking them. I think that Jamil has slightly more facial hair and may be slightly taller, but... Who knows?
Max & Katie (aka Team Evil Newlyweds) - I don't have a read on Max, other than that he's a bit strange. Katie, on the other hand, I love. It's not that she's cute, which she is. It's that she's evil -- Katie: "In our everyday life, we don't have many friends" Max: "Her likability factor is low." I'd compare her to Jamie of Jamie & Cara, who may viewers hated, but I always loved, because she simply didn't like the broad swath of humanity and made no effort to conceal that. So Katie's "Nice Girl" performance with Meaghan & Joey? That was classic. And the strategy to punt the Roadblock with three remaining teams? It could have blown up in their faces, but it worked out well, though they're going to have a four-hour hole next week. On the surface, though, Max & Katie fit the profile of a team that should be able to make a Top 5 run at least.
Mona & Beth (aka Team Roller Derby Moms) - Wait. How can you possibly introduce two moms as being roller derby participants and NOT tell us their nicknames? That's a serious fail, "Amazing Race." Yes, I could probably look this information up, but it should be the first thing I know about two roller derby participants. Instead, the first thing I know is that Mona -- slightly shorter, slightly lighter hair -- can't follow directions. Whatever. No rooting interest so far and very little long-term game potential that I can see.
Anthony & Bates (aka Team Hockey or The Hanson Brothers, for "Slapshot" fans or Team Free Bates if you're feeling Downton-y or anti-Anthony) - Bates has long hair, Anthony short. Bates is older, while Anthony is still active. Anthony has no front teeth. I've got no issues with Team Hockey and we'll have to see how well they do in mental/social challenges, but they're definitely physically fit and slightly amusing. The sense that they were mostly selected to make a really lazy romantic pairing with the Country Blondes is a bit annoying, but what can you do? Better a couple goofy hockey players than two boring frat boys if "Amazing Race" wants to play Cupid.
Chuck & Wynona (aka Team Alabama or Team Kenny Powers) - Chuck's love of taxidermy and his sublime permed mullet will make him a guaranteed favorite. I wish that a bumpkin Southern team could be... less bumpkin-y, but maybe that thing where Chuck tried chatting up the random coconut-husking civilian rather than looking 20 yards down the beach for the clue will prove to be a fluke. Either way, I liked how supportive Chuck was of Wynona when she was struggling in the sand. I'll give them a tepid endorsement.
David & Connor (aka Team Cancer or Team Father/Son) - They're a father and son who are best friends and both battled and -- knock wood -- beat cancer. How are you not going to root for them? At least at first? Every time David's voice cracks up when talking about his son's illness? That killed me. And Connor jumping out of the helicopter yelling "I love you mom!!!"? That was sweet. The fact that Connor is a cyclist who battled testicular cancer sets up inevitable problematic ties to Lance Armstrong, but I'm not ready to penalize him for that just yet. The Hockey Brothers were on the second flight, but finished the second Roadblock fast and ended the Leg in second, but David & Connor finished third and Connor is convinced this means they're entitled to the other Express Press.
Caroline & Jen (aka Team Country Blondes) - Jen is the taller one and Caroline is the one with ties to Daniel Boone, right? Otherwise, I've got nothing. I stopped paying attention when they announced their eagerness to snag husbands before we even got to the opening credits. Eventually I may learn to tell them apart, but I'm not certain how much I care.
Joey & Meaghan (aka Team Alleged YouTube Sensations) - They're WACKY! And they're on YouTube! And... Yeah. Joey is really going to be exhausting if he doesn't get worn down quickly. I'm all for enthusiastic and excited contestants. I'll always root for the people who treat "The Amazing Race" like a fun life experience over the people who complain and get hyper-intense too quickly. But I don't spend enough time on YouTube to have a clue who these kids are, but my initial read is that they're more self-conscious about celebrating their quirkiness than they are meaningfully quirky.
Pamela & Winnie (aka Team... Not Instantly Interesting Friends) - Other than Winnie volunteering Pam to the Gyno Twins with a medical problem, did Pamela & Winnie do anything memorable in the first episode? At all? Pam has bangs and Winnie doesn't. Winnie is taller. But if they don't do something fast, I don't think telling them apart is going to be necessary.
John & Jessica (aka Team Put a Ring On It) - Hey look! It's a couple of pretty kids who have been dating for a long time and the woman is ready to get married and the man is in no rush. When have we ever seen that on "the Amazing Race"? Oh right. EVERY STINKING SEASON. And that team nearly always does well and with their Leg victory and Express Pass, I don't think you'll need to worry about them for a while. Jessica is cute and I liked John's giddiness when he said of the secretive First Flight alliance, "It's exactly like Fight Club!" It'll be interesting to see what John & Jessica do with the second Express Pass, the one David & Connor are sure belongs to them.
Anyway... Those are the 10 teams.
A couple other thoughts on Sunday's episode:
*** I wonder why "Amazing Race" wouldn't have kept the possibility of the $2 million winner. It added incentive for chatter and, in most seasons, it would be incentive that wouldn't cost the show anything. I'd have kept the double-prize a possibility until somebody won it.
*** The stretching, urinating dog at the second Roadblock needs to become a recurring character.
*** John giving play-by-play to the camera during the second Roadblock is either something that could become really funny or really annoying if it continues. I reserve the right to go either way.
*** Line of the episode goes to Phil Keoghan for greeting Chuck with, "We have never had hair like this on 'The Amazing Race.'"
What'd you think? Which teams are you rooting for and who do you hate?