Recap: ‘The Amazing Race: All-Stars’ Premiere – ‘Back in the Saddle’

02.23.14 4 years ago 41 Comments


Season 24 of “The Amazing Race” started on Sunday (February 23) night with an episode that inverted the show’s ideal momentum. There was a shocking, sad and emotional twist before we got to the opening credits, but then 50 minutes later, the episode concluded without any cursory effort at creating suspense or tension. 
And the editors couldn’t have created tension even if they wanted to, as the “All-Stars” season began with a purely designed Leg featuring two needle-in-a-haystack — not especially big haystacks, either — plus a Roadblock that failed to inject even an iota of difficulty into the game. 
For a season that was already plagued by skepticism regarding the “favorite” status of several of the team selections, this was not an ideal premiere, now was it?
I’d love to have more to talk about from Sunday’s hour, but it wasn’t well-suited for recapping, either. 
I’ll do my best after the break, but at a certain point, I’m probably just gonna stop to go watch “True Detective.”
The episode kicked off — Get it?!? — on a football field with Los Angeles’ second best college march band — Spirit of Troy Forever — promenading to the dulcet tones of the “Amazing Race” theme. The teams were lined up, but Phil Keoghan had an announcement: For the first time ever, one of the contestants wouldn’t even be able to start the race.
Bopper, of Mark & Bopper, grew a little vintage hipster goatee for his “Amazing Race” return, but the night before the competition, he experienced general internalized pain and he and Mark had to meet with Dr. Horowitz and Not-Doctor Keoghan in a poorly lit office where the news was delivered: Bopper had an inflamed pancreas and had been ruled insufficiently healthy to participate on The Race. That sucks for several reasons, led by general warmth for Team Kentucky, but also because of Bopper’s support for Mark when his chum was going through his own health struggles during their first Race experience. Bopper’s eyes were red. Mark’s eyes were burbling over with tears. But Phil gave Mark the opportunity to keep going and Bopper gave his blessing. Sniffle. I liked Mark. He was funny and game for anything, even if the show was much more impressed by his willingness to shave his head the first time around than I was.
So down on the football field, the teams all waited to find out what would happen next. The answer? Mark would be paired with… Mallory, of Gary & Mallory. Oh. Really? Had Mallory and Mark ever actually met before this? I assume that when CBS went looking for an alternative partner for Mark with possibly literally 12 or 24 hours before the season started, the conversation went, “Who is available?” And that was it for the conversation. When the answer to that was, “Mallory,” the follow-up became, “So how do we justify this?” “Well, she’s from Kentucky, too.” “Say no more!” So what was originally a team of life-long middle-aged best friends unexpectedly became a team of the weaker of two middle-aged best friends, plus a bubbly stranger from the same state. While on one hand, the entire Franken-team seems really silly — it was an untenable position for the producers and I don’t suppose they felt like they had any better options — I’m also interested the different dramatic possibilities that a mismatched team could provide in this circumstance. “Amazing Race” has always been a show about partnerships and testing established relationships, but some of those relationships have been fresh couples or estranged family members, so there’s been built-in dysfunction before. It’s still an extra layer when you have Mallory admitting that she didn’t know Mark’s last name. Still, they’ll both do it for The Bopper. 
Everybody hugged Bopper good-bye and the Race began and the rest of the episode just stunk.
There were two flights to Guangzhou [Formerly “Canton” if your knowledge of Chinese city names hasn’t been refreshed since the ’80s], China. The first featured Twinnies Natalie & Nadiya, Cowboys Jet & Cord, Father/Son Dave & Connor and Afghanimals Leo & Jamal. The second flight had everybody else. 
Once in Guangzhou, teams had to go to the fashion district and find one of three marked wedding dress shops, in what is the largest collection of wedding dresses shops in Southern China. No, not in “China” and not in “the World.” Why was this the first real task of an “Amazing Race” season and did why was it ultimately the deciding factor in the season’s first “Amazing Race” elimination? Sheer arbitrariness. The three shops were in a confusing maze of streets and alleys and similar shops, but there was very little explanation given for why Jet & Cord, not typically all that brilliant or detail-oriented, had no trouble finding the correct shop, but the task became an utter nightmare for Nadiya & Natalie.
In the pre-season segment, the Twinnies referred to their performance in their first season as a hot mess and they vowed to try to concentrate on winning this time, rather than bickering. In addition, Natalie got blonde highlights this time around for differentiation. Last time, one of them wore scrunchies. Neither the hair nor the newfound focus had any positive impact. Working with the Afghanimals, Nadiya & Natalie floundered and yelled and at at least one point, Nadiya saw one of the correct shops and declared it incorrect, leading to much more searching. The two loud, enthusiastic teams seemed to be paired together because they assumed that they had a big advantage over the teams on the second flight, but that idea became moot when the other six teams poured into the wedding district and soon started usurping the early-arrivals. 
Whatever Nadiya & Natalie were doing wrong produced a halo of clue-avoiding poison, as their quartet was joined by Country Girls Jen & Caroline. The Twins left with the Country Girls leaving the Afghanimals alone and they promptly found the right shop. In what seemed like no time, the Twinnies went from near the top to the very bottom, shouting at each other all the way.
From the wedding task, teams had to go to the Ferris Wheel at the top of the Canton Tower where they were, again, asked to gain or lose advantages based on little more than luck. The even-number Ferris Wheel compartments had “Amazing Race” clues telling teams where to go next.The odd-numbered compartments had “Try Again” clues. And the cars took a looooooong time to go around. 
Jet & Cord reached the Ferris Wheel with a big advantage and even after getting a “Try Again” their first time, they reached the Roadblock first. The Roadblock required one player from each team to put on tights, ascend a 300-foot wire and do five high-wire flips. I guess if anybody had had a paralyzing fear of heights, that could have yielded drama. But nobody did. In lieu of acrophobia, though, there was nothing to this task. The difference in time that the task took for healthy, strong men like Brendon or Cord versus the time it took for slightly acrophobic and somewhat old Margie was a non-factor. We didn’t see a single team gain or lose time based on Roadblock performance. And that’s just not good Race Design. 
So Jet & Cord, having been in first for the first three bits of the Leg, remained in first at the end and won one Express Pass for themselves and one to be given out before the end of the fifth Leg. Good for them. They were followed by CBS’ favorite reality gadflies Brendon & Rachel, who proved how drama-free this Leg was by not bickering or shrieking for the entire Leg. Dave & Connor, Margie & Luke and Leo & Jamal followed.
And as for the two teams at the back of the pack? Well, the Country Girls got on a Ferris Wheel compartment with a clue and ended up in ninth. Joey & Meghan, Team YouTube, had at least one “Try Again,” so they were still there when the Twinnies arrived. Eventually, Joey & Meghan got on a compartment with a clue and the Twinnies bickered a bit about whether to get on a not-really-random car that they couldn’t guarantee had a clue or waiting for one of the cars that they knew had a clue. Natalie wanted to just get in a car, while Nadiya wanted to wait for the sure thing, but even though the editors wanted to focus on their fighting, it was pretty much irrelevant. Joey & Meghan got into a car with a clue with a lead and there was no chance that lead, even if it was 10 seconds, was going to be relinquished. That was the kind of episode this was.
Farewell to Natalie & Nadiya. I wasn’t a Twinnie hater their first time around and this was a lame way to go out, but their absence will not in any way hurt this “Amazing Race” season. To me, the producers were entitled to pick ONE team from between Leo & Jamal, Joey & Meghan and Natalie & Nadiya, one team to represent all polarizing, loud, high-energy teams from the past five or six seasons. Nobody needed all three. Leo & Jamal’s high-energy comes with solid performance and pointless conniving. Natalie & Nadiya’s high-energy comes with pointless conniving and sisterly fighting. Joey & Meghan’s high-energy comes with crying. Nobody needed all three and the elimination of any of the three wouldn’t have hurt the season at all. 
So… Oh well.
Some quick thoughts on Sunday’s episode, before I start hoping that next Sunday is better:
*** Without the blonde highlights, I never would have been able to tell Natalie & Nadiya apart. And even though this is their third time racing, I still get Jet and Cord confused, even if they’re wearing different color hats. So that’s Jet in the jet-black hat and Cord with the white hat? OK.
*** Line of the episode: Jen’s description of the tinier Globetrotter as he participated in the Roadblock, “Flight looks like a sexy piece of spinning meat.” There wasn’t much else to choose from.
*** Second best line of the episode:  Mallory’s promise, “I never tried a food I don’t like, except for cole slaw.”
*** I just don’t quite get the health logistics that allowed Bopper to run out onto the track with the other “Race” teams, but I guess the theory is “Better safe than sorry” and that’s not something to push.
*** By not getting the Express Pass and not getting the chance to repeat their humiliating history, John & Jessica are back to being a team with no real place on an All-Stars season. They were All-Stars for exactly one reason: A catastrophic Express Pass blunder. We barely saw them on tonight’s episode, because outside of that goof? They’re dull. 
*** Yeah. I have worries.
Your thoughts on the premiere? On Bopper’s departure? On getting Mallory back?

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