Recap: ‘The Amazing Race: All-Stars’ – ‘Smarter Not Harder’

Mark it down: On Sunday, March 16 at somewhere around 8:50 p.m. ET, after annoying seasons of “Big Brother” and four episodes into their second season of “The Amazing Race,” I found myself liking Brendon & Rachel. 

Look, I”m not proud of myself and it really didn”t last for very long — perhaps only a minute, in fact — but this blog is about nothing if it”s not about absolutely honesty. 

So if I ever try saying, “I”ve always hated Rachel & Brendon,” you can now call me a liar, because there it was, the moment that I warmed to Brendon & Rachel. And that totally justifies their presence on this “All-Stars” season of “The Amazing Race.” No? 

Oh well.

Did it at least justify Sunday”s episode of “The Amazing Race”? No, again?

Oh well.

[Full recap of Sunday”s Leg after the break…]

Actually, Sunday”s Leg wasn”t bad, once you accepted the inevitability of the result. Before the episode began several people tweeted me about the likelihood of a Non-Elimination Leg and as soon as the episode ended, my father sent me an email with the subject line, “I knew.” This was definitely an episode that had NEL written all over it pretty much through every second of it. The math lined up, with three straight eliminations. It also stood to reason that after last week”s episode was determined largely by spacing between flights, the producers wouldn”t want a second straight episode in which flights could potentially be the determining factor (even if that didn”t even up being the case at all). And then during the episode, the heavy concentration on sentiment also had the whiff of an NEL. [No, whiffs of sentiment don”t always mean an NEL, or else surely the producers wouldn”t have wanted to lose Mark & Mallory after only two Legs.]

This was just an episode that never felt like it was going to end in an elimination and, indeed, it did not. And because of that brief, shining, humanizing moment for Rachel & Brendon, I was willing to allow them to cheat “Amazing Race” death for a week. Normally I would have been like, “Oh come on!” Instead, we got to the episode”s end and I was like, “OK. Y”all did right. You can skate for another week.”

Sunday”s episode was very, very straight-forward. There was a Roadblock. There was travel. And there was a Detour. The Roadblock caused some people trouble. The Detour caused a lot of people trouble. And in this season of tasks that have produced almost no differentiation between teams, I liked at least the illusion that we were watching skill and enthusiasm be rewarded perhaps for the first time on “All-Stars.” [It was completely an illusion. Yes, there were tasks that frustrated people, but we had the exact same Top 3 (in different order) as last week, while the team that started the Leg in last, ended the Leg in last. That”s practically the definition of the illusion of performance-based mobility.]

“The Amazing Race” is having travel problems. 

I don”t know if aviation is changing and there are fewer available flights and therefore fewer seats on those available flights. I don”t know if the locations the producers have chosen are strange. But it”s a problem.

Last week”s episode featured the nine teams trying to get onto two flights with a vast gap between them, with six teams getting a three-hour lead on the other teams. This week”s episode had teams gunning for three places on a flight with a 90-minute advantage (there was also supposed to be a 45-minute gap between a second and third flights, but a delay meant that this week was a 3-6 inversion of last week”s flight situation). Well, last week five of the first six teams out off the starting line made it onto the first flight and the teams on the first flight grabbed the top six spots at the Pit Stop. This week, there was a Roadblock between the starting line and the travel, but the first three teams to start *still* were the three teams on that first flight and even though the Detour produced exhaustion, annoyance and some amount of equalization, those were still the three teams that finished at the top at the Pit Stop.

That”s a problem. I”m not sure it messes with the fairness of the Race, but it messes with the perception of the fairness of the Race.

The Roadblock — Leaps and Bounds — asked one player from each pair to jump on a bamboo trampoline “adjusted to their height” and grab a flag. Bamboo trampolines don”t have the elasticity of familiar trampolines and the task wasn”t about bouncing so much as understanding the rhythm of the natives propelling the trampoline and utilizing their momentum. Most of the players did the task with relative easy. But not all. Cord required 47 jumps, as Jet deadpanned awesomely, “That task required a lot of Cordination.” Jessica require a number of attempts and she only succeeded after turning her feet into bruised, blistery lumps. Ouch. And Rachel had a few hilarious failures, but that was because she was wearing pantyhose and once she removed them — She”s very invested in showcasing her undergarments this season — it became easy.

[Going back to the illusion of mobility, Cord”s problems at the Roadblock were pronounced and we saw that this cost the Cowboys the lead, but that was a lead they only gained because of a lucky cab. Dave & Connor started in first, got to the Roadblock in second, but moved back into first. And despite those 47 attempts, Cord couldn”t even cost the Cowboys a place on the first plane.]

The timing of the planes brought teams to Kuala Lumpur fairly late at night. It”s at this point that “The Amazing Race” usually utilizes an equalizer, that the show usually has teams arrive at a church or ticket stand only to discover that the thing doesn”t open until 7 a.m. Rather than doing that, and knowing that an NEL was coming, the producers decided to concentrate on Malaysian nightlife with a Detour that probably could have been done in any urban center in the world.

The choice: Mix Master or Master Mix. In Mix Master, teams had to train with a professional DJ and complete seven repeated scratching mixes, an act of repetition several of them compared to the classic game Simon. In Master Mix, teams had to properly pour a pyramid of seven cocktails without mixing colors. Neither option was easy and neither task was performed instantly by anybody. 

Even in failure, Mix Master seemed like it was fun. There was definitely a precision that you had to have, plus a very limited amount of musicality, but you basically did it till you got it right. Nobody freaked out.

That could not be said of Master Mix. The combination of infuriatingly sloshed beverages, flashing lights, a late night and shattered glasses would be enough to stress out even the most cool-headed of “Amazing Race” contestants.

Luke is not the most cool-headed of “Amazing Race” contestants. Luke was prone to failure-based temper tantrums the first time he and his mom raced and nothing had changed the second time. And after a few fairly sedate Legs, we were reminded tonight that Luke hasn”t really changed this time either. He still became more and more discombobulated and finally stormed off into the bathroom, with Margie yelling at him about “acceptable behavior.” I kinda understand Luke”s state of mind here. Not only were they well over 20 failed attempts on the drink pouring, but because of Luke”s deafness, they didn”t have any choice on the Detour. This was it. Yes, I know that there are deaf DJs who work by feeling the vibrations of the music. That wouldn”t have helped on a one-off challenge that was only auditory call-and-response. So the pressure was on Luke and Luke doesn”t handle pressure well.

It finally game down to just Luke & Margie and Brendon & Rachel at the Detour. Luke was the worst, but Rachel was harried and Brendon was requesting permission to break glasses. But in a key moment when they could have been competitive, Brendon and Rachel both came and talked with Luke and encouraged him and showed support. They didn”t need to. I”m sure the temptation would have been to try to block out the competition, especially the annoying competition. But Rachel and Brendon were there for Luke and when Margie suggested they take the penalty together, Rachel spurred both teams to continue.

“I thought she was the biggest crybaby ever, but I tell you what, tonight she was there for us,” Margie said.

Damn right. It was sweet and caring. And it was sweet and caring in a way that was human and outside-of-the-Race, rather than Amy”s various charity missions last season to keep the helpless Nicole in the game. 

And with that support, Margie & Luke finished, leaving Rachel & Brendon at the Roadblock. I wasn”t sure if there was an extra show of support that should have been expected from Margie & Luke at that point, but they rushed off happily to the Pit Stop, leaving Brendon & Rachel praying. Extensively. I could have done without the minute of prayer and the close-up on Rachel”s cross. But I guess it worked! They finished and nobody was eliminated.

Wow. That was way too much to say about a Non-Elimination Leg.

A few other thoughts on Sunday”s episode:

*** Why does Rachel want to win “The Amazing Race”? “I want babies and Brendon promised that if we win, I can have babies.” Well OK!

*** I remember that Dave was injured Dave & Connor”s first season. I really need him to stop reminding us over and over and over again. I think we have one more week of reminders, since he had to quit at the start of the fifth Leg last time, but after that? Never mention it again, please. And being a Mormon doesn”t mean that it”s harder for you to mix drinks. It just means you don”t drink. Leo and Rachel both had bar backgrounds that didn”t help them at all. The skill-set involved in the pouring of that drink pyramid wasn”t connected to whether or not your religion allows/encourages drinking. Dave & Connor didn”t overcome adversity to finish the Detour and they didn”t do something that was *more* outside of their comfort zone. It was a yellow liquid and a red liquid. The drinking was irrelevant.

*** I liked the contrast in Tiny Caroline and Giant Big Easy both doing the first Roadblock. Neither had much trouble. I”d have been amused if Caroline had spent hours and hours jumping for that flag. But no. It was relative to height. So “The Amazing Race” didn”t want to have a Roadblock that penalized short people, but the show was fine with a Detour that penalized deaf people.

Thoughts on Sunday”s episode? Did you also briefly warm to Brenda & Rachel? Don”t worry. I assume it”ll pass.