“The Amazing Race” giveth and “The Amazing Race” taketh away.
Following a season that saw ratings drop on Fridays, “The Amazing Race” got a special Wednesday showcase after the “Survivor: Worlds Apart” premiere and with both long-running favorites instituting format twists this season, CBS was able to spare 90 minutes apiece for the two launches.
Longtime readers know that I'm pretty insistent that you need to have at least a 90-minute premiere for “The Amazing Race,” because the effort to establish 11 teams of 22 players while also giving the necessary exposure to navigating around international locations and
for various challenges is almost impossible in only 60 minutes. I don't think “The Amazing Race” has ever had an entirely satisfying hour-long premiere.
And the 90 minutes given to Wednesday's (February 25) “Amazing Race” premiere were enough to help me see some of the merit to the Blind Dating twist that gave us six teams of established couples, plus five teams of semi-compatible strangers on an extended bid for both romance and a big chunk of money. Over 90 minutes, I was able to see how it might be interesting to watch the interactions between the fake couples, how they could offer at least variations on the typical “Amazing Race” relationships and how that couple be worthwhile. At the same time, it was hard to deny that the show loses something when each and every relationship is couple-y, as opposed to the usual “Amazing Race” mixture of friends, lovers, siblings, spouses, co-workers, parents-and-children, etc. The show is about how different types of pairings interact in a stressful environment, rather than how different types of the same pairings interact in a stressful environment. The sameness of the couplings kept the results from being as shocking or revelatory as the show wanted us to think they were.
But I'm interested.
The problem, though, was that in the process of making sure that we spent a lot of time watching how the 10 various strangers were flirting or relating or just trying to co-exist took type from the standard things that an “Amazing Race” episode needs in order to truly sing.
So when we eliminated a team that we barely saw at all for reasons that verged on baffling, I couldn't get excited about what was still edited to look like a somewhat back-and-forth race to the final mat.
Some basic details after the break, followed by my usual season-opening handicapping of the teams…
The episode got off to what could generously be called an atypical start.
Greeting the teams at the starting line, Phil Keoghan asked, “Did anybody get like a tingly feeling?” and I felt instantly concerned for Phil.
He then sent the teams off on a “Survivor” task before the first flight out.
An “Amazing Race” task can involve mud and ice and bales of hay, but only if some effort has been put into making those elements organic to a location. Instead, we just got a straight-up “Survivor” obstacle course meant to introduce concepts of teamwork before the blind daters spoke more than a few words. I didn't mind it except for how completely it was from a different show and how little effort the producers took to make it part of this show. “Amazing Race” has had pre-travel premiere challenges before, but never ones designed just to get people dirty and uncomfortable, before making them travel across the city and catch flights to Tokyo. The obstacle course was meant to determine the eight teams on a first flight to Tokyo and the three teams stuck on a flight arriving 45 minutes later, but the travel disparity was rendered obsolete by odd a Detour disparity as I can ever remember on “The Amazing Race.”
The choice: Synching Steps or Samurai Sake. In Synching Steps, teams had to join the techno-pop group World Order and learn robotic, slow-motion choreography. So… Basic choreography with judging. In Samurai Sake, teams were taught the names and bottles for 10 sakes, then one racer had to take a sake order from a table of samurai and relay the order to their partner who had to find the requested sake bottle behind the bar.
I'll accept that if you're scared of a foreign culture with a foreign alphabet and foreign booze, you might be intimidated by the way Samurai Sake sounded. You might worry that you'd have to memorize all 10 brands based only on the characters and then… I don't know what. It could be complicated. And you might as well go and see if the choreography looked easy and if the judges seemed lenient.
Here was the problem that I never saw explained and that I desperately needed to have explained: Synching Steps was HARD. The timing and movement in the dance hinged on both individual precision and also on synchronization. If you're on a blind date, you don't have a clue whether your new partner has any ability to do something like that and if you don't know, my read is that you're better off assuming the answer is “No.”
But once teams arrived at Synching Steps, they just stayed. And I don't know why that was. Even the process of learning the dance took a long time. And then you had to rehearse and get comfortable. Meanwhile, only one team could perform at once, so if you tried and failed, you could fall behind three or four or five other teams trying while you waited. We watched as it went from broad daylight to pitch black. Blind daters Laura & Tyler finished on their second time. Blind daters Jenny & Jelani finished on their eight try. But most teams were failing 10 or 20 or more times.
But nobody thought about quitting. According to the clock airline professionals Jeff & Lyda were trying and failing at Synching Steps for 3:42. How do you fail at something for that length of time, watching people failing all around you and noticing that not a single team has given up on the other Detour, without saying, “OK. There are still three or four teams trying and struggling here, what possible reason would there be for us to not try the other Detour?”
Because what possible reason could there have been to not try the other Detour?
The other Detour was easy. Painfully easy. Embarrassingly easy. Former New Kid on the Block Jonathan Knight, he of the profession of choreographed dancing, and boyfriend Harley, plus blind daters Jackie & Jeff were the only teams to pick Sake up front and they discovered that all they had to do was listen to and watch the introduction of 10 brands of sake. Maybe you remember some details about the bottles and the names and the characters and maybe you don't. But all you had to do was remember a vague sense and match exactly one name with exactly one bottle. But even if you botched it over and over and over, you were just playing a guessing game. It wasn't made clear if you could only get the instruction in the sakes once, but nobody needed a second set of sake instructions.
The Leg included a U-Turn and while Jeff & Lyda had to go do Sake, they also completed it almost instantly.
I needed something in this episode to explain either why nobody quit Synching Steps or why Samurai Sake could possibly have been harder than it appeared. Without that, how was I supposed to judge how strangely stubborn or stupid Jeff & Lyda were being in staying at Synching Steps? I also couldn't tell why Jeff & Lyda were taking so long to make their attempts or why they were so bad at it. Everybody seemed pretty mediocre at the dance moves, because we only saw two version of performances, the bad one in which a sound effect let us know that somebody messed up early on or the version in which we saw so much of them dancing that we knew they'd finished successfully, but only because of the lack of sound effects. I don't really know why Laura & Tyler were good at the dancing or why Jelani & Jenny were decent.
It was a badly illustrated Detour and that's what the whole Leg hinged on.
Yes, the Leg got a bit close at the end because of a couple complications.
First, CJ & Libby were so distracted by the hustle and bustle of Tokyo transportation that they got lost and briefly fell into last. There's a strong chance that CJ & Libby could have gone home if Jeff & Lyda had just made a better guess at the U-Turn board. Jeff & Lyda were U-Turned by Mike & Rochelle, which wasn't a bad move because Mike & Rochelle thought nobody else was behind them and they wanted to protect themselves. Jeff & Lyda knew there were clues remaining so some teams hadn't reached the U-Turn, but they had to guess which teams. If they'd guessed CJ & Libby, I wonder if CJ & Libby would still be in Tokyo today. They didn't. They guessed a team that had already passed them. Oh well. [Had Lyda & Jeff guessed correctly and survived, you'd have had to hear me complain about Double U-Turns and the unfairness of the “Amazing Race” system. But won't do that now.]
So Jeff & Lyda are gone and that's fine because I saw nothing about them that indicated that I should care about them in any way. They stood by each other as they screwed up dance choreography and that means that they're probably an OK couple. So good for them. They were able to return home married and content.
What of the other teams? Well, let's break them down in the order in which they finished:
FIRST – Jelani & Jenny – BLIND DATING. Or The Legal Team. Of the blind daters, Jelani & Jenny are easily the ones I'm most interested in. They bonded over legal puns, rather than telling each other they're cute. They were supportive of each other during the choreography and didn't seem in any way less cohesive than dozens of previously dating couples who have appeared on the show over the years. I like them, even though they almost talked themselves out of the Express Pass through overanalyzing the final clue. Or maybe I like them because of that.
SECOND – Jeff & Jackie – BLIND DATING. Or Team JJ, because pretty much the only thing they seem to have in common is their first initials. Jackie's a showgirl from Las Vegas. Jeff's a salesman of some sort from Florida. They each agree that the other is attractive, but what possible reason could we have for thinking they're worth the trouble as a couple? “My brain is not as strong as most people,” Jackie admitted proudly, but Jeff doesn't look to be a scholar either. The further they go, the more the show proves that being young and athletic is more useful than any other attribute. I wonder if I'd like them more if they'd chosen Synching Steps and Jackie had gotten to showcase her dancing talents.
THIRD – Laura & Tyler – BLIND DATING. Or Team SoCal, because they're both LA-based. I liked how quickly Tyler was helping Laura in the initial obstacle course and how driven Laura seemed in the choreography. I can actually believe that these two might date in the real world and they both seem both fit and not-stupid. I think they're worth watching.
FOURTH – Aly & Steve – DATING. Or Team Olympics. Yes, the top three finishers were blind dating couples. But no, I don't put any stock in that at all, especially since if you hadn't know Aly & Steve were dating, you never would have been able to tell the difference between their interactions and the interactions of the three teams above them. I can't be especially interested in these two yet, but don't rule out athletes.
FIFTH – Jonathan & Harley – DATING. Or Team New Kid. Poor Harley. He's just the guy who's traveling with the ball of neurosis that is Jordan Knight's brother. He doesn't even factor in their team name, but I'm guessing that if they're going to go far, Harley is going to be the one to carry them. But I'm looking forward to seeing at what point Jonathan is able to use being a New Kid to help him. Like how did people in Tokyo not recognize him and instantly volunteer to take them everywhere? It'll happen eventually.
SIXTH- Bergen & Kurt – BLIND DATING. Or Blonde Date, because they were paired together because it looks like they both take care of their hair or something. They were both so shy that you almost would never guess that they were supposed to be on a “date.” And Kurt has never had a boyfriend. But as friends, they were supportive enough. I'm neutral-to-positive on them.
SEVENTH – Mike & Rochelle – DATING. Or Team Truck Stop Love. How did Mike & Rochelle ever finish that Detour? And what led them to believe they'd be better off staying there? And why has Rochelle not introduced Mike to her kid after eight months? I like them. I like that they used the U-Turn. I don't think they have a chance.
EIGHTH – Hayley & Blair – BLIND DATING. Or Team Run For The Hills, Blair. He's a doctor. She's a nurse. So they're made to be together, right? Well, the episode was a long assemblage of strange noises and stranger statements Hayley was making on this first date. She was full of complaints about the muddy first challenge — “I looks like I have diarrhea” — and by the time they got to the airport and had an awkward food court dinner, he looked like he might try catching a plane to Iceland instead. And then she was correct on directions leaving a subway station in Tokyo and wouldn't let him hear the end of it. On the other hand, as annoying as Hayley may have been at times, they were still constantly interacting, even if Blair looked like he wanted to be interacting with an exit. This is what “The Amazing Race” wanted by pairing people up, not Jeff & Jackie. And there's the off-chance that Hayley and Blair could eventually make for good TV.
NINTH – Matt & Ashley – DATING. Or The Stylists. If last season's Dentists were full of big talk and swagger, but low on evident skills, they'd be a lot like Matt & Ashley. Matt talked so much that I'm not even sure I'd recognize Ashley.
TENTH – Libby & CJ – DATING. Or Team Tuskeegee. Talk about getting lucky. I'm not sure how Libby & CJ will be able to get around any city with even the most moderate of populations, but I kinda look forward to seeing their confused meandering and I look forward to counting the number of destinations that will feature Libby reading something as a sign that CJ is supposed to propose and CJ cringing.
So… Yeah! Those are the teams.
Some other thoughts:
*** Nobody's explaining how the money will work with the winning teams if the blind daters win. I need HitFix/Reality Blurred's Andy Dehnart to get his hands on the standard “Amazing Race” winning contract and this season's “Amazing Race” winning contract to let me know if there are clear differences in terms of how the prize is allotted. [UPDATE: After a brief mind-clearing in the comments, I no longer find this mysterious anymore. For some reason, I just hadn't given it much thought. I'm good now. No worries!]
*** Will they do a different New Kids song to accompany each Team New Kid arrival at the mat? Or will it just be “The Right Stuff” every time?
*** There was some ugly stereotyping going on in the Sake challenge. I'm not sure if it was disturbing or not, though. I bet it would have been worse if we'd spent more time there.
*** The exploitative taxi cab driver stalking CJ and Libby was funny.
Anyway… Sorry for the chaotic recap. I've done too much recapping tonight. I'll try to get back in synch for Friday's episode.
What'd you think of the premiere? How are you feeling about the blind date twist after 90 minutes?