Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is set in a 2081 in which all Americans have been mandated equal by virtue of a series of Constitutional amendments. The truly exceptional are equipped with handicaps, while the mediocre are sometimes elevated to positions far above their natural abilities, all in the name of this equality.
The world of “Harrison Bergeron” has nothing to do with the world of CBS’ “The Amazing Race” and the results of Sunday (December 4) night’s “Amazing Race” really weren’t analogous to anything in “Harrison Bergeron.”
And yet, “Harrison Bergeron” came to my mind immediately as Sunday’s “Amazing Race” episode ended and I looked at the last line of my notes, which read “Sometimes it sucks to be better than everybody else.”
That was my takeaway from Sunday’s episode, though clearly there are better takeaways like, “You can only get away with being careless and not-so-bright for so long on a Race that occasionally rewards attention-to-detail,” but that theme was ultimately less relevant than the first.
Sunday’s episode was about the triumph of entirely accidental teamwork and the results came through a circumstance I’m pretty sure we’ve never seen before on “The Amazing Race.”
Click through for a discussion of Sunday’s episode…
The Snowboarders are gone.
In last week’s recap, I talked about how, with six wins in the first 10 Legs of this “Amazing Race” season, Andy & Tommy had the chance to be considered one of the most dominant teams in show history were they to win. Instead, they’ll be first on the producers’ call sheet for the next All-Stars season, as a Leg they were once again dominating left them eliminated and in contention for a place as the most dominant team to *not* win “The Amazing Race.”
Sunday’s episode was set up as a story and played out as one of the most structurally odd episodes I can remember. The episode played out over a normal hour, but the first 15 minutes of the episode were dedicated to a challenge that meant nothing and the last 20 minutes were dedicated merely to teams attempting to correctly make it to a challenging Pit Stop. That meant that the Roadblock and Detour, which barely impacted position at all, were allotted less than half of the episode.
But the story that the editors wanted to tell was one of impetuous Race leaders Andy & Tommy and the idea that their enthusiasms, while producing totally positive results for the entirety of the Race thus far, could also be damaging.
The opening task required teams to leave the previous Pit Stop and dress in the suits and mustaches of “Tintin” characters Thopson & Thompson (or Dupont & Dupond). Their task was to find a man in a Tintin costume and correctly identify themselves and their characters’ positions within the Herge universe. The Snowboarders departed with a solid lead of 35 minutes and they wandered around the streets looking for a correct identification of their questions. Somehow they realized their characters were part of the Tintin-verse, but they latched onto one drunken Belgian’s suggestion that they were Charlie Chaplin. The suggestion wasn’t inherently unreasonable given their attire, but when they went to an Internet cafe, they somehow researched Chaplin, but didn’t bother to Google to see if anything connected Chaplin to Tintin and explained why they would be going up to a man dressed as Tintin and identifying themselves as a silent comedy icon. The other three teams, starting well behind Andy & Tommy were able to get the right answer, but the Snowboarders fell from first to fourth due to an impetuous piece of guesswork and poor subsequent research. Other than the amusing spectacle of Marcus & Amani and Ernie & Cindy strolling through Brussels at dawn dressed as Thomson & Thompson, the task added and proved nothing, since all four teams had to take trains to Amsterdam and then had to take the exact same flight to Panama City. It was 15 minutes of TV for a task the producers knew wouldn’t be determinative in the slightest, but the editors used it to illustrate a character trait that might potentially doom the Snowboarders.
The teams spent a while being run ragged for the purposes of cultural immersion and little more. In Panama City, they had to boat out to a remote village, where they were to stay overnight before getting tattoos and leaving in the morning. The tattoos were temporary and just told the teams to return to Panama City, but in terms of positioning, the damage had been done. With Sandy observing their luckiness, the Snowboarders got a smart boat captain and made it to the village and then to the tattoos with a 20 minute advantage.
The 20 minute advantage gave the Snowboarders a substantial lead at the Roadblock, which forced one player to traverse a 35-story wire-walk between two buildings to collected a clue and then to return. It was no problem for Andy, who went back and forth and maintained the Snowboarders’ lead, as they rushed off to the Detour, having only seen Jeremy & Sandy at the Roadblock.
Sandy’s terrified of heights, but with the proper coaching she worked the wire and completed the task and her pair rushed down to their cab shortly after the other two teams arrived. What followed was the key moment of the Race: Jeremy & Sandy’s cabbie didn’t necessarily know where to go and he discussed the next step with the cabbies for Marcus & Amani and Ernie & Cindy. In a Race where teams only occasionally form alliances, their cab drivers had formed what would prove to be a fortuitous alliance.
The Roadblock only maintained the position order and the Detour was fairly uniform as well. The choice? Filet or Sole. In Filet, which was unrelated to filets entirely, teams had to scurry around a fish market delivering whole quantities of squid and barracuda and shrimp. In Sole, teams had to craft a pair of simple sandals with less-than-simple laces.
I know why three of the four teams did Sole. If you hear that you have to make one of something, that sounds mighty easy, right? After all, last week teams had to make 18 different waffle concoctions. But Simple Detour Logic suggest that running around a fish market with your arms full of slippery, slimy fish is going to be the more telegenic task and therefore the easier one.
Case in point: The Snowboarders arrived at the Detour first and finished first. That was fine. Ernie & Cindy and Jeremy & Sandy arrived at Sole soon after. Marcus & Amani finished the Roadblock in fourth and decided to do Filet, but their cab driver, still in communication with the other two cab drivers, just took them to the same place the other two teams had gone. Ooops, right? And if you’re Marcus & Amani, surely you just decide this is fate’s way of telling you to be a cobbler, right? Wrong. They rushed back to their cab, redirected him, went to the Filet challenge and completed it before the other two teams had completed Sole. It didn’t matter much, but Sole was the faster task.
Here comes the devilish challenge.
Rather than telling the teams where the Pit Stop was, they had to go to a square and watch a group of dancing women. One woman had the destination — “Panama Viejo” — written in text hidden within the pattern of her skirt. Another woman had a picture of the old mission on a pendant around her neck. Those were the clues to send teams the right place. But many of the women had coins and the coins all said ‘balboa” and if you don’t know that the balboa is the primary unit of currency for Panama, that could be a problem.
The Snowboarders stared for a long time and then Andy became convinced “balboa” was the answer and even though Tommy was less convinced, they ran to their cabbie and said “Balboa” and he took them off to… The Canal. Wrong. They yelled “Balboa!” at a few more people and then they were sent to a big statue of Balboa. Wrong. Farewell to their lead. But they would have gotten away with it.
Marcus & Amani couldn’t figure out what the dancers were trying to tell them. Ernie & Cindy couldn’t figure out what the dancers were trying to tell them. Jeremy, however, sketched the building on the dancer’s pendant and ran to his cabbie and the guy immediately said, “That’s in Panama Viejo.” Meanwhile, the other two teams, unable to spot the right clues, came to the same conclusion as the Snowboarders and went back and ordered their cabbies to go to “Balboa,” whatever or wherever that happened to be.
Uh-oh, right? This is how the Snowboarders are going to luck out again and skirt elimination?
Jeremy & Sandy’s cabbie got on the phone with his new buddies, the cabbies for the other teams. They all somehow collectively agreed that Jeremy knew the right place to go and the other two cabbies ignored their “Balboa” instructions and played Follow the Leader.
Fortunately, Jeremy & Sandy reached the Pit Stop in first, followed by Ernie & Cindy. As Marcus & Amani jogged over to Phil, the three remaining teams rejoiced at eliminating the season’s dominant pair. Marcus went so far as to say that their sextet combined like Voltron to form one underdog David, compared to the two Snowboarders and their singular Goliath.
For their part, the Snowboarders returned to the square and one of them actually spotted the “Panama Viejo” text. They finished last. They were eliminated.
On one hand, their mistake was the presumptuous assumption that the Pit Stop was “Balboa,” without any evidence. That’s what knocked them out of the lead.
But on the other, more practical, hand, their mistake was that they were so far ahead their cab driver never had the opportunity to bond with the other three cab drivers, allowing them to capitalize on the hive mind. Without that cabbie hive mind, Ernie & Cindy and Marcus & Amani would have been doomed to a fruitless journey to the Balboa monument, followed by a return to the square and whatever length of pondering that would have required. The Snowboarders would have finished second and either Marcus & Amani or Ernie & Cindy would have headed home.
Instead, Jeremy’s clever drawing put his team in first and the other two teams grafted on to remain in the Race. And the Snowboarders were punished for being exceptional. Or for being inattentive.
Like I said, it really has nothing to do with “Harrison Bergeron.” But it’s a good story if you’ve never read it.
Other thoughts on Sunday’s episode:
*** That was an awful episode-opening extension of last week’s Ford commercial, a bit like the Snapple-sponsored Indian dinner Gary and Mallory received last season after winning the Snapple prize in the previous Leg. But how cool that the teams got to sleep in the Atomium!
*** Did you know that Marcus played in the NFL? We got several additional reminders tonight. But you know what I’d forgotten? Marcus’ last season with the Colts was 2004, followed by four additional seasons with the Lions, Seahawks and Falcons. But that means that Marcus wasn’t on the Colts’ team that won the Super Bowl in 2007. That makes it more significant when Marcus talked about this episode as a conference championship, which was a hump he didn’t get over in his football career.
*** Magic Rocks. Marcus was given magic rocks at the Panama airport and he was supposed to used them to curse the Snowboarders, but he couldn’t reach them. Instead, he threw the rocks out the window. Do we think the curse remained intact? If Marcus & Amani had been eliminated tonight, I’d definitely have blamed the curse rocks.
*** Andy talked a little trashtalking to psych Sandy out at the Roadblock. It was good-natured trash talking, but I wonder if it was included to make him look bad. I didn’t interpret it that way and it didn’t appear to offend Sandy or Jeremy.
*** “Sole” was an awful Detour, possibly the least imaginative Detour in my “Amazing Race” memory. Filet wasn’t all that much better, but at least it made the team that attempted it smelly.
*** I liked Marcus using his handkerchief to wipe sweat from the brow of one of the pre-Pit Stop dancers, followed by her flawless English, “Thank you” and his attempt to parlay that into a clue. It was a good bounce-back after Marcus became convinced they were supposed to join in the dance for some reason.
What’d you think of this week’s shocking results? And who are you rooting for in next Sunday’s finale?