Most season premieres of The Amazing Race are predictable and decidedly ramshackle affairs, featuring hurried, bite-sized but still only intermittently chewable introductions to eleven faceless two-person teams, with all the requisite professional, regional and status identifiers (Hey! I relate to these two reasonably fit and photogenic people because they’re best friend/sibling/engaged/married/ separated/retired/parent child/cousin firefighters/cheerleaders/circus clowns/teachers/body builders/roller derby girls from SoCal/Sri Lanka/Utah/Kentucky/Canada!) included, along with hints of varying subtlety at the team’s dynamic and underlying personalities. First impressions can mean a lot here, often unfairly marking the team on the scale between terminally bland or insufferably obnoxious for subsequent weeks. There’s supposed to be a balance among the eleven, and most teams end up announcing which flavor they’ll be right up front. Different viewers obviously relate to and root for different types of teams, though some of the choices we’re provided stretch the limits of credulity.
The teams gather for intros and instructions, then make a mad opening group scramble across some weird landscape (say, a football field) to find their first destination. They drive to LAX giggling all the way, then fly out of California on one of two flights (the better to separate the haves from the have nots, timewise) to someplace 180 degrees different (say, China). Here they soak up minimal local color while doing menial tasks designed to get them lost and cut their adrenaline cocktail with tedium and/or inconvenience (ideally also punishing inattention to detail), and finish the leg with something ostensibly physical, usually involving “heights, fear thereof”. The winner of the first leg wins the “Express Pass”, a get out of any single task free card, and sets itself up, presumably, as the team to beat. The last team tearfully expounds on its disappointment at running either a patently stupid or somehow cosmically doomed leg, then slinks home. 99.99% of the time, we and TAR are both well rid of them. This year’s premiere followed precedent to an almost spooky degree, and although it set my teeth on edge and tried my patience throughout, it deserves recognition as perhaps the single episode in the show’s history where my negative rooting interests were not only at their most venomous, but were also, miraculously, rewarded. That practically NEVER happens.
This season of The Amazing Race, its 24th and yet another “All Stars” edition (culled mostly from the last four to five seasons, including one team from last season, which always feels a bit extreme to me), seems almost genetically designed to push the limits of my fandom and tolerance. Since all the participants are known commodities from the start, you’d think the premiere should theoretically be able to dive headfirst into the depths in search of sharks to swim with. Instead, the drama is kept to a bare minimum. Teams are assigned flights to Guangzhou, China out of LAX based on the order they find the first clue (creatively hidden, I must say, on the uniforms of the UCLA marching band, which teams must inspect mid-moving formation) and not on the order in which they get to the ticket counter. Considering all the reckless driving and angling for earlier and alternate flights we’re going to see play out over the next dozen episodes, this already seems like a bit of unconscious bar lowering, if not an outright cheat.
Shockingly, though, the delay in arrival times between teams on flight 1 and flight 2 hardly comes into play. In fact, once on the ground in Guangzhou, the majority of teams on the second flight leapfrog their predecessors altogether, just because they have better luck, or steadier nerves, or aren’t too busy incessantly arguing and spreading blame to pay the proper attention to their surroundings. Eventual leg winners Jet and Cord parlay an early arrival and competent initial task completion into a decent lead, which, having already completed the second task, they spend in one of the bubble cars which comprises China’s tallest Ferris Wheel (built onto the top of a truly impressive skyscraper), glibly remarking on the surprising speed or lack thereof of their fellow competitors. The next clue for each team is contained in one of these bubble cars, see, but not necessarily in every bubble car (A-HA!), and a full revolution of the Ferris Wheel seems to take forever, providing all the not-so-lucky teams ample time to ponder their predicaments and regrets aloud before they can disembark and try another car. By this point, as the “Try Again” contingent gradually each works out that a valid clue is hidden in all the even-numbered cars, Jet and Cord have long since fled the rooftop to the street level stadium below them for their next task.
As the leaders and then a procession of followers change into colorful, tasseled Chinese acrobat costumes (“I’m flaming!” proclaims one) and are pulled in harnesses to an awkward position many stories above the ground where they must perform five mid-air circus flips, squabbling Sri Lankan twins Natalie and Nadiya stew far above them in a bubble car/personal prison going roughly the speed of drying tar, and rightly so, having proven indecisive, inattentive, or unlucky at every turn so far, and sometimes all three. Under serious pressure and time constraints, with such a crappy day behind them, and knowing full well that in any competition governed by a just god, they are most assuredly LAST, the twins steam and glare and spew with abandon. Blame is parceled out liberally, and the camera lingers on the argument an uncomfortable amount of time. The Amazing Race has been home to many a meltdown over the years, and surely will be again soon, but rarely does a team in such seemingly poor mental and emotional shape get a platform to fail this spectacularly out of the gate. In truth it’s just about the only thing interesting that happens the whole episode, which was unimaginatively visualized otherwise, poorly planned, and, though not the episode’s fault itself, terribly cast. At least the right team lost.
“Back in the Saddle” was not The Amazing Race at its best, or even a thin approximation. Once the twists, turns and quicksand patches of Guangzhou’s labyrinthine wedding dress district had been negotiated, teams either made no mistakes, unfortunate mistakes, or stupid mistakes atop the skyscraper Ferris Wheel, and the order in which they hobbled off the roof was the order in which they finished. Jet and Cord won the day and the Express Pass. Natalie and Nadiya bore their dysfunction on national television and essentially got a round trip ticket to China for their heroic struggles. In between, nine teams lived to fight another day, but only because a lesser team kinda outclassed them all and essentially came up lame in the starting gate. Despite this opening thud, in future weeks, The Amazing Race “All Stars” edition may well grow into the show we expect, if not exactly the one we hope for on a weekly basis: exotic, interesting, clever, involving, fun. I have faith it can get there, and that even if it doesn’t, we can still travel vicariously for the next 3 months. Even if the humans are found lacking, the scenery will be oh so pretty in HD. Still a sweet deal, all told.
With an eye toward that future, here is a capsule breakdown of The Amazing Race’s eleven “All Star” teams, listed in order and grouped by my personal rooting interest (teams I like, am indifferent to, and teams I dislike), including my early handicapping of each team’s chances to make the final three, just because. So much can happen to any team – who are forever at the whim of cab drivers, airport schedules, language barriers, reading comprehension skills, navigational difficulties, Mother Nature, and occasional rank stupidity – that it’s folly to predict a winner. There’s the potential for a good season here. It’s a sturdy format, time tested. I’m looking forward to seeing whether some of these “All Stars” actually live up to their billing, or whether they deserve those quotation marks after all.
The Globetrotters (“Flight Time” & “Big Easy”): Goofy, amiable veterans of both season 15 and the season 18 “Unfinished Business” all-star competition. Their fun-loving, laid back attitudes make them an easy overt rooting interest for me, although I still remember how they subtly terrorized a competitor afraid of drowning as they all waited their turns to go down a monstrous water slide in the season 15 homestretch. The two cracked a few classic callback lines re: their good looks, but otherwise made no real impact on this episode. That’ll change, I’m sure. The camera loves them, and vice versa. Odds: They’ll dominate a couple of early, overly physical legs, then bow out well before the final three.
The Country Singers (Caroline & Jennifer): Fresh-faced, wide-eyed aspiring country singers direct from Nashville, vets of season 22. Incredibly pleasant team demeanor, bordering on non-entity status, and notable for being the only team of attractive blondes on this year’s TAR (the producers usually go the extra mile in this respect). The team intro played up the self-professed “boy-craziness” of their previous Race, where the two spent much of the season in friendly thrall to the burly hockey players who eventually won the whole thing, because, yeah, guys with those kinds of physical advantages in an athletic competition need all the help they can get. Odds: Not good. Caroline & Jennifer haven’t really distinguished themselves in any way that didn’t involve outlasting clearly outmatched teams. They’ll be an unfortunate early exit this time around.
Team Achilles (Dave & Connor): Perhaps the most emotionally resonant moment of season 22 was when Dave O’Leary stood with his son as the victor of an early race leg, despite having ruptured his Achilles tendon previously and continuing on against doctor’s orders, and announced the injury was forcing his team to withdraw from the competition. It’s easy to feel like most teams are just back for the prize, for the fun of going on another adventure, or to attempt to boost their celebrity profile. Team Achilles, who purported to be challenge seekers even before the Race presented them with an untenable one, seems to have legitimate “Unfinished Business”. Odds: Up to the point of Dave’s injury, he and his son had the look of a fairly formidable team, though so much of it ended up being unrealized potential. It’ll be interesting to follow their progress, and I’m sure TAR will make much hay of it in the weeks to come. I think they finish in the upper third at least, and maybe kiss the top three.
Team Kentucky (Mark & Mallory): As the eleven teams gathered at the starting line to soak up Keoghanian wisdom before departing for China, The Amazing Race pulled an elaborate fake out. Salt of the earth season 20 fan favorites Mark and Bopper confirmed that Bopper would have to pull out of competition due to an inflamed pancreas that might have proven life-threatening if properly aggravated – which, as Dave might attest for a different body part, TAR is more than capable of. The camera panned past a cavalcade of shocked racers and lingered on the crestfallen Kentuckians as Phil announced, with Bopper’s “blessing”, his replacement, two season fan favorite and former Kentucky beauty queen Mallory. Mallory, as ever, is a thrumming ball of weapons-grade positivity, and Mark, clearly shaken by his best friend’s absence and the task ahead of him, seems determined to make the best out of singularly difficult circumstances. I certainly wish them luck. Odds: And they’ll need all they can get. It’s hard to imagine how any amount of good karma and can do attitude can trump the limitations of two strangers – a middle aged man and a bubbly sparkplug – learning to be a team as they compete. The whole premise of The Amazing Race is for two people in a long established relationship to be tested on all levels as they travel the world. Team Kentucky is starting from a position of decided weakness even before the fur starts flying. I doubt they escape the bottom third, but it makes for a nice storyline if they do.
The Cowboys (Jet & Cord): Rodeo riding brothers from rural Oklahoma, vets of both season 16 and the season 18 “Unfinished Business” all-star competition. Content to run their own race and eschew alliances, Jet and Cord are hard workers, matter-of-fact, athletic, and a bit smarter than lazy stereotypes would suggest, although their relative inexperience in big cities and random concentration lapses do back them into the occasional corner. Odds: Even without winning the Express Pass, I’d make them favorites to reach the final three.
Team Goonies (Margie & Luke): Veterans of both season 14 and the season 18 “Unfinished Business” all-star competition. Clearly driven and courageous enough, Luke is an interesting case, and our memories of him tend to fall into one of two categories, give or take some fun goofing off along the way: either speaking candidly of the challenges of being deaf or his earnest desire to be an inspiration to that community, or breaking down in frustration while performing a particularly difficult task. His mother Margie is the rock of the team, and perhaps the most selfless person on the race. She speaks early on of the challenges of running the race in her late 50s. They straddle the fence between “Good” and “Indifferent” for me, just for the fact that Luke can be so trying to deal with on occasion, albeit through no real fault of his own. Odds: However good-natured, plucky, and never-say-die they might be, I still think it a very long shot they’ll make either the upper third or the final three.
The Afghanimals (Leo & Jamal): By turns shrewd and obnoxious, these over the top SoCal cousins of Afghan descent, veterans of TAR’s most recent season, seem to have envisioned their team identity as part in-your-face merchandise brand (I’m thinking lower tier Vodka or knockoff body spray) and part mischievous, often pointless, pseudo-villainy, making for an overall standard of team conduct important, and perhaps comprehendable, only to them. Leo and Jamal definitely dance to their own drummer and profess to always be having fun, and their enthusiasm can be infectious. At times, they are the charming and goofy flavor of unpredictable; at others, they are duplicitous, confounding, and distractingly loud. Their stubborn, erratic natures and penchant for self-sabotage make the Afghanimals a fascinating team to watch, but a difficult team to root for outright. Odds: Leo and Jamal are resourceful, improvisational, tenacious and even reasonably athletic. I still can’t shake the feeling they’ll shoot each other in the foot en route to a resting place just outside the final three.
Team Oy Vey Surf (Jessica & John): A perpetually smiling, bleached-blond SoCal lamp post and his presumably long-suffering girlfriend, now fiancée, vets of season 22, where they became the only team in TAR history to be eliminated from the Race while still holding an Express Pass. That indignity was a lot to live down (host Phil Keoghan was dumbfounded as John got all New Agey on the Finish Mat and proclaimed that he “didn’t need a million dollars” instead of owning up to, or even acknowledging, his seismic, mildly hubristic blunder), and it explains their enthusiasm to settle accounts two seasons later. Odds: I admit I really have no reason to dislike this team outside of their ignominious previous end (and the fact that when John [always] smiles he looks uncannily like the “Chatterbox” Cenobite from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser). I actually have a good sleeper feeling about them, especially now that they DON’T have an Express Pass to waste. Top third, maybe, upper half at least.
The YouTubers (Joey & Meghan): When introducing Joey & Meghan, obscenely young-looking/acting veterans of season 22, TAR touts the pair as “YouTube Sensations”, which is, I understand, a fairly competitive degree program being offered by more and more colleges lately. The threshold for “Sensation” status two seasons ago was half a million subscribers to the YouTube show they host that I’m now in my second full year of being too lazy to look up on Google. Now, Joey informs us, they have 3 million. So there’s that. That number seems more sensational to a layman. I’m much more highly annoyed by Joey and Meghan (which is to say Joey) than actively hostile to them. The two communicate verbally almost as if they are texting each other with their voices, and Joey walks around in a post-energy drink reverie with the volume turned up to 10 much of the time. He seems a good hearted enough kid, though his “look at me” antics can wear thin easily. Odds: Joey & Meghan are in no way physically imposing (or even that athletically gifted, outside of their abundant youth) and at times display the attention span (and book smarts) of a laser pointer. That said, in their season, they did display admirable tenacity and positive attitude, which might bode well for them as a team seeking to thrive under the radar. Still, I don’t see it in a competition this theoretically fierce. Bottom half, or middle third.
Team Cockroach (Brendan & Rachel): Vets of season 20, the anthropomorphic lawn sprinkler, professional victim and drama-seeking missile returns to TAR with her freshly minted husband in tow (so now he’ll NEVER escape), wearing cloying matching T-shirts identifying the pair as “Brenchel”. Ugh. Pound for pound, Team Cockroach is perhaps my most hated TAR team ever, though the Twinnies happened to supplant them on this, the occasion of their one night only swan song. Brendan and Rachel are built for the long haul, however, and it will drive you insane, just you wait. In case viewers had forgotten about Rachel’s penchant for histrionics and hysterics, the producers use their intro as an abbreviated greatest hits montage, which features her crying in no fewer than four different locales. Her tearful lament, “I just wanted to travel around the world with my best friend!” is seared into the consciousness of all recent TAR viewers. We carry it in our very souls, like a waking nightmare. Expect bottomless fun in a similar vein this year, no matter how upbeat the two lovebirds were at the start. Extra points to Rachel for crying out “That’s my husband!” over and over as Brendan did the mid-air flipping challenge. Oh, we know who he is. Even suspended many hundreds of feet above the ground, you’ll never be out of earshot, buddy. Odds: Rachel is as difficult to eliminate as she is easy to rattle, and Brendan is hyper-competent in many areas. I predict several more maddening close calls on their way to another top three finish.
The Twinnies (Natalie & Nadiya): Simultaneously booming and shrill, Sri Lankan sisters Natalie and Nadiya, veterans of entirely too many episodes of season 21, have done more to set back the cause and public image of identical twins than anyone since Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of homicidal twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg’s 1988 chamber horror classic Dead Ringers. The announcement of their inclusion in the “All-Stars” cast a month ago filled me to the brim with dread, and their performance in the premiere didn’t disappoint. If their time on the show was meant to be a short one, at least they went all out to maximize the carnage. The “Twinnies” would always rather yell at one another than work together, would rather blame each other for past mistakes than attempt to fix them and move on, and would rather demean other teams for the cardinal sin of not helping them than reconsider strategy. Their dual masterworks this week – a circular, backtracking odyssey through Guangzhou, China’s Wedding Dress district and a colossal argument atop China’s tallest Ferris Wheel – were awe-inspiring in their way. As their competitors found clues easily enough and left them in the dust, no amount of urgency or intercession by reality could stem their bickering tide. NOTE: If you use the term “hot mess” more than once in the course of a paragraph, chances are not exactly slim that, in fact, you ARE one. Odds: Thankfully non-applicable now.