Recap: ‘The Amazing Race: All-Stars’ – ‘Can’t Make Fish Bite’

Sunday (March 23) night's installment of “The Amazing Race” came down to one decision made in the first 15 minutes of the episode. I'm not saying there was a “right” answer or a “wrong” answer in the moment, but the choice was made early and once it was made — incorrectly, as it turned out — there was nothing left to the episode and what followed was a 45-minute anti-climax. 

That's too bad, because this was perhaps the first episode of the season that was well-structured in terms of Detours and Roadblocks, featuring difficult tasks that had the chance to shake things up in terms of team placement. 

I write “had the chance to,” because they didn't. This week's Top 4 was last week's Top 4. And last week's Top 4 was 3/4ths of the previous week's Top 4. We've had five Legs so far, which means 20 Top 4 finishes. The teams now in the Top 4 have *15* of those finishes. I refuse to go back to previous seasons to see if that's a comparable rate to the norm, but that's a pretty deep entrenchment at the top for this season. Similarly, while everybody likes to talk about major positive or negative swings of fortune on the Race, the back of the pack has also remained close to intact. Mark & Mallory fell from 6th to 10th in the week they were eliminated, but otherwise the teams that have gone home were starting in last or next-to-last.

So Sunday's episode had an exciting start in terms of travel, but once things went south, the only thing giving the episode even an iota of tension was a stereotype-based hypothetical: Would the middle-aged mom turn out to be a master seamstress, leading to one of the most shocking reversals in “Amazing Race” history? Well, we never even found out.

On to the recap after the break…

I've talked several weeks in a row about the travel problems that the show is having this season. To some degree, Sunday's episode had that problem as well.

Eight teams departed Kuala Lumpur and had to fly to Sri Lanka. There was one convenient direct flight. While it wasn't announced up-front, there were only places for six teams on that first flight. The six teams that left first got the six places on the flight. There was some editing to suggest that purchasing tickets at an agency versus buying at the airport might make some difference, but it didn't. The first six teams got the good flight. The two teams at the back — Luke & Margie and Brendon & Rachel — did not. 

And that's where the episode-deciding decision came up: There was another flight, through Singapore, that actually got to Sri Lanka ahead of the direct flight. The problem? It had only a 30-minute connecting window. No travel agent in the world would recommend attempting to make that connection, especially not in a strange airport in a strange land. In lieu of that flight, you had to go standby on the first flight and face the possibility of not being able to depart for Sri Lanka until the next morning.

It was a circumstantially based choice. Brendon & Rachel weren't just in last. They were an hour behind the next-to-last team and they knew they were facing a Speedbump as well. Even as their travel agent tried to discourage them, they went with the flight through Singapore with the tight turnaround.

“We're dangerous racers because we have nothing to lose,” Brendon said. Sure. In their case? Who can blame them?

Seemingly with less of a deficit, Margie & Luke debated, dithered and decided to stick with standby on the first direct flight. Teams on “The Amazing Race” make it onto flights off of the standby list all of the time. I don't know the percentages, but it happens with frequency. I'd say that in the balance, you probably make standby on a flight like that more frequently than you can count on making a 30-minute connection at an airport you've never been to before. Either one seems like a viable gamble. 

[We were denied one piece of information that I think is key: What was the backup plan for Rachel & Brendon in Singapore? We didn't hear, did we? If they'd missed the connection, were they going to be pushed to the next morning there? Given the timeframe, that seems likely. It was a nighttime flight and I don't know if Singapore-to-Colombo is such a hotly trafficked line that there are planes leaving all the time.]

Rachel & Brendon and Margie & Luke weren't awash in options. In the end, one team called the flip correctly, the other team did not. 

Team “Big Brother” got to Singapore, they sprinted, Rachel squealed a little, Brendon dropped his bag and paused to get it, but they made the connection and made it to Sri Lanka in first. Their lead was nullified by an Equalizer at a Buddhist Temple, but they gambled correctly. Of course, they only gambled correctly, because Margie & Luke gambled wrong. They didn't try the Singapore connection, they didn't get on the first flight, they had to leave the next morning and they never set eyes on another team for the rest of the Leg. Farewell, Luke & Margie. It was just that simple.

[Back to strategic wrinkles: Margie & Luke and Brendon & Rachel made their decisions separately. Perhaps if they'd arrived at a travel agent at the same time and been informed of their options at the same time, maybe Margie & Luke decide to try for that Singapore connection with Rachel & Brendon, knowing that the absolute worst case scenario is that they miss the connection, get to Sri Lanka many hours behind the other teams, but at least get to have a 1-on-1 race to avoid elimination, knowing exactly where your competition was. Margie & Luke presumably knew that Brendon & Rachel had tried for the Singapore flight, because they weren't waiting at the gate with everybody else and crossing their fingers on the standby tickets, but they must have gone through that last Leg at least hoping that Brendon & Rachel got stuck in Singapore, even if they never mentioned it.]

Once they were in Sri Lanka, the teams were equalized at the temple and on a long train ride and then they had to do two fairly hard tasks to complete the episode.

The Detour was the choice between Fishing Pole and Spin Control. 

In Fishing Pole, you had to go out into the water and sit on precarious fishing stilts and then each participant had to catch a fish. You were exposed to the elements and at the mercy of nature. As one of the Cowboys said, giving the episode its title, “You can't make fish bite.”

In Spin Control, you had to learn a local dance, which then had to be done while spinning a drum-like instrument on a long stick. It asked for balance and choreography. 

I'm still not sure what “skill” was involved with either task. 

Dave & Connor both caught their fish quickly and since they mentioned previous fishing experiences, that suggests there was some measure of technique. But Jet & Cord finished right behind and they both claimed to have never fished. Also neophytes, John & Jessica struggled for a long time and quit, proving they'd learned at least something about cutting bait — pun apparently intended — from their previous “Race” experience.

There was the same skill-based ambiguity over at Spin Control. The Globetrotters know how to do choreography and how to spin things. They finished fast, accompanied by “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Rachel & Brendon, however, struggled and didn't finish until their 14th attempt, which might have created drama, except that knowing that Margie & Luke were out of the picture, Rachel remained completely relaxed and even though Brendon said their roles had reversed and he got a little irritated, they finished without a meltdown. Even John & Jessica, who got to the other Detour alone and made fun of John's dancing skills got a fast pity pass.

The Roadblock was simultaneously amusing, but also awkward. Titled “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine,” the teams went to one section of what you could either call a garment factory or a sweatshop and they had to learn to correctly use a sewing machine to stitch together a single shirt. I get that sewing is not a skill that most people develop in 2014 and that, if we're gendering things, it's not a skill that would likely be honed by the four all-male teams remaining. Still, we got a lot of tension because nobody on any of the seven teams we saw hit the Roadblock knew how to sew. At all. Things were so bad that even though the editing made no effort to suggest closeness with Luke & Margie, Racers like Flight Time were speculating that there might be a chance that the Roadblock could take long enough for the lagging team to arrive. And then we'd have to face the question I mentioned earlier: What if Margie's an ace with a sewing machine? I'm not saying that the Roadblock was easy, but there was an easy Leg victory for anybody with even rudimentary experience on a Singer.

Nobody could take advantage.

Connor finished first and that Dave was able to remind us once again that this was the Leg he had to bail on last time around. It wasn't that Connor sewed well. He just finished first.

Jennifer also didn't sew well, but she worked a little with Connor at first because they were together on their earlier season. Jennifer finished second. As a result, the Country Blondes got their highest Leg placement ever, after three thirds the first time around.

The Cowboys finished third, because even when they aren't especially good at something, they tend to do consistently well on any Leg that doesn't offer them the chance to get lost.

The Afghanimals had the most spirited participation on the Roadblock. Leo began by offering 1000 rupees for anybody to help him. [That's $7.66 American.] As Leo progressed, he became increasingly punch-drunk and amusing — “Yay, Connor! I love you, Connor! I'm kidding. I don't love him. He just beat me.” — flirting with the other workers and joking. This remains the great mystery of the Afghanimals. The Globetrotters also make an effort to consistently entertain no matter where they go. Big Easy is always good with a quip — On future sewing: “I will leave it up to my fiancé and my mother. But if they ever need me to do something, I'll go buy something new.” — and Flight Time was doing basketball tricks up and down the sewing machine rows. Why do I love the Globetrotters, but the Afghanimals usually annoy me? Tonight, I actually thought Leo was funny, for whatever that's worth.

Brendon & Rachel finished the sewing task last, which was somewhat tied to Brendon's inexperience, somewhat tied to the earlier Detour struggles and only loosely related to the Speedbump, which was silk-screening 15 shirts. Their big flight risk kept them from being eliminated, but only moved them up into position to be in jeopardy next week.

And we don't know how or what Margie & Luke did. I think they did the fishing Detour? I don't know which of them performed the Roadblock. I don't know if Margie is, indeed, the fastest seamstress in the world. It didn't matter. Luke was very philosophical and well-behaved through the whole episode and both Margie and Phil Keoghan seemed surprised by how relaxed he was. 

Oh well.

A few more thoughts on Sunday's episode:

*** I'm amused that Caroline's crush on the Cowboys is just total hero-worship. It's not like she wants to flirt with them to gain position or anything like that. It's not like the Cowboys could do more for the Country Blondes than they already have with the Express Pass. “We like to be near the Cowboys, because they're magical.” Caroline gushed. “It's like we were destined to be best friends.” 

*** I'm also amused by Brandon's appreciation of The Buddha and the link between his teachings and their “Amazing Race” plight. “We need to forget the past and let go of what's already happened and look to the future.”

*** And how nice of several teams to reflect on the absence of Natalie & Nadiya as The Race made its way to their motherland. I can't imagine anything in this episode would have offered The Twinies much of a home-field advantage had they still been around.

That's it for me here. Thoughts on the flight choices in tonight's episode? Or anything else?