Recap: ‘The Amazing Race: All-Stars’ – ‘The Gladiators are Here!’

Every once in a while, I like for somebody on “The Amazing Race” to really impress me. And I'm easily impressed. When the Hockey Brothers were throwing casks over their shoulders and running up hills? That impressed me. Heck, when Mark put together that car with the instructions in a language he couldn't understand? That impressed me. 

Sunday (April 13) night's confusing episode of “The Amazing Race” offered a low bar for achievement: I wanted somebody to know Roman Numerals. For what it's worth, *I* don't know Roman Numerals. Well, I know some Roman Numerals, but usually I know them if I can work backwards to some degree. Like if I'm looking at a motion picture copyright date, I usually have a vague sense of when the movie was released and I can figure out the actual date from that. So when it comes to Roman Numerals, I don't impress myself, but I would have liked to have been impressed by somebody else.

I was not.

It was a weird “Amazing Race” episode in which the majority of the teams picked what was clearly the wrong Detour, nobody succeeded in just doing the Roadblock on their own and the results of the Leg were determined partially by a couple cab errors I don't understand, partially decided by inexplicably altruistic teamwork and partially determined by a bizarre physical miscalculation.

So… Huh?

I guess I'm going to recap Sunday's episode after the break, as best I can, but I'm not sure I understood a lot of it. It's like it was ALL in Roman Numerals.

So Sunday's installment began, as we knew it would, with a travel equalizer as the teams went from Sri Lanka to The Eternal City. Teams had to figure out what The Eternal City actually was, a task that required no thought if you were Dave & Connor, but became baffling if you were Rachel and decided it was somewhere in Ethiopia. [Bonus points to Cord for actually knowing that Hadrian was a Roman emperor.]

The teams arrived in Rome and they immediately hit a Detour, the choice between Gladiator and Charioteer. In Gladiator, teams had to learn a choreographed fighting sequence and then perform it opposite a brawler who was, to put it kindly, really committed to his performance. In Charioteer, teams just thought they had to race horses around a track thrice.

Now I don't know what the teams thought they were actually going to get to do on Charioteer, but it's absurd that every team but one instinctively chose Charioteer and got there to discover that they had to get dressed up in Roman finery and then navigate little remote control chariots around a dinky circle. 

It was, to put it kindly, underwhelming.

Yes, the “Amazing Race” producers had a little fun with the task. The chariots were, in some cases equipped with on-board cameras, making for some goofy and death-defying POV shots. Also, the drivers on the remote control chariots had only a tenuous grip on their vehicles, so they were constantly getting dragged behind in ways that would have only led to death and dismemberment. And while the task looked fairly easy when Rachel & Brendon initially arrived, it got much harder when there were four or five teams there attempting to race their chariots in a very cramped circle. So if you liked crashing remote control chariots, it wasn't so bad.

But Gladiator was awesome and I have no doubt that it's the task the producers were hoping to get footage from. There was a guy dressed up as an emperor and a band of slave girls on tambourines and the main gladiator was a beefy actor in very fine fettle. And the people who had fun with the task were very entertaining to watch. John, typically cocky, boasted about how his experiences with martial arts made this very natural for him, but he kept botching the first section, which required sword-only defense, while Jessica was at her most endearing acting with the gladiator and compensating for her partner's struggles. 

This was also the best possible venue for Leo & Jamal's boundless enthusiasm, either because of the joy they took in the whole endeavor — conflating “Gladiator” and “300” and flirting with the slave girls and avenging each other's deaths and everything — or just because they were both killed.

Leo & Jamal were the only team to initially choose Charioteer and then go to Gladiator, which produced a strange Catch 22: Charioteer was easier the fewer people doing it. So if you quit because it was hard because of the clogged oval, you wasted your own time going to another task, while also making it easier on the other teams. A double-whammy. I don't know what the producers were thinking with that task, because if it had only been one or two teams doing it, because it was the wrong task to do, it would have been the much faster task and it only became the harder task because nobody was expected to do it. Get what I'm saying? The food here is terrible and such small portions? Exactly.

John & Jessica were the first team to finish either Detour, reflecting the relative speed and easy of the desirable Gladiator Detour. Then, though, things went pear-shaped and I can't 100 percent explain why.

The clue told teams to go to a piazza linked to “John Keats' unhappy Roman Holiday.” The clue referenced Keats dying in a house next to the Piazza di Spagna and referenced the Gregory Peck/Audrey Hepburn classic “Roman Holiday.” It was telling them to go someplace very straight-forward, except that John & Jessica's cabbie and a few subsequent cabbies saw “Keats” and decided that they were supposed to go to John Keats Via, which has nothing to do with The Spanish Steps. There's not much to say here other than, “Huh?” or “Oops.”

That's why Rachel & Brendon made it to the Roadblock first and were first to be confused. The task? Count the number of steps in the Spanish Steps — 135 for these purposes — and add them to the date on the obelisk at the top of the steps. That second date? In Roman Numerals. Then, after adding the numbers, you had to put the resulting answer into Roman Numerals and then give them to a pair of Peck/Hepburn impersonators. 

This launched a comedy of errors. Brendon is mathematically oriented. He said so himself. He only completed the task because a nice old man coached him through a two-part lesson in third grade math. Brendon & Rachel won their second Leg of the season and Brendon compared their ascension to a Sinusoidal Wave Pattern, which would have been more impressive if he hadn't just been retaught Roman Numerals.

Each subsequent team that arrived went through a comparable process. 

Dave and Jennifer worked together. They're buddies! Dave even let the Country Girls finish ahead of them, which everybody treated as some great act of chivalry, when he knew it was a meaningless act of chivalry.

Wait! The Country Girls had a Speed-Bump. They had to take a typewriter from the Pantheon to the Altare della Patria, which taught me that while tourists like to say the Altare della Patria resembles a wedding cake, locals compare it to a typewriter. I think people claiming this was an easy Speed-Bump are ignoring the amount of travel required. There was a ton of walking in this episode and the distance between the Pantheon and the Altare della Patria wasn't so great, but then the hike from the Altare della Patria to the Colosseum meant that the Speed-Bump took at least a half-hour to do. In past seasons, contestants have eaten an ice cream cone or sat in a sauna van for 15 minutes as Speed-Bumps. This was at least more time-consuming than that.

I had to mention the Speed-Bump and also the Jennifer-Dave alliance because it mean that teams weren't all necessarily sure where the Country Blondes were and the team with the least sense of where they were would have been John & Jessica.

They got to the Roadblock in last after their horrible cab error. They arrived just as Jamal asked the right people and got the answer. This was happening as Flight Time was steadfastly refusing to READ THE CLUE and kept getting the wrong answer over and over again. So John & Jessica had no clue where the Country Blondes were and Leo & Jamal had quit on Charioteer before the Country Blondes arrived, so when Leo & Jamal volunteer to help John & Jessica and they ask if there's anybody behind them and Jessica says, “Probably,” well that's probably true that she thought that, even if the flashback to their first season and the Express Pass and them not having a clue on their position vis a vis other teams should have come into play.

So Leo & Jamal gave the Roadblock answer to the remaining two teams, completing as awful a collective performance as I can remember on an “Amazing Race” task. Yes, Leo & Jamal gave the answer to the only two teams remaining on the course that they could see, making the assumption based on Jessica's “Probably” that somebody was behind there. There could theoretically have been a circumstance in which Jessica & John and The Globetrotters could have reached the Pit Stop ahead of the Afghanimals, since it was just a foot-race, which would have been one of the more humiliating eliminations in “Amazing Race” history. 

Instead, you had Jessica announcing, “We can catch up to the Globetrotters” and everybody I watched the show with going, “Why the heck would she think they could catch up to the two professional athletes?”

They could not. John & Jessica were eliminated.

Were they eliminated because of a confused cabbie? Somewhat.

But if Jessica had just said, “I don't know” when the Afghanimals asked if there was anybody behind them, probably they don't tell them the answer, right? And then the Roadblock becomes John, who at least seemed to have read the clue, going against Flight Time, who somehow paid no attention to anything other than counting steps. I'm taking John to finish first in that competition, if only because he was working with a more complete set of information. By speculating that they were “probably” ahead of somebody, Jessica got the answer, but that also got the answer for the athletes who beat her to the finish line. 

Am I misreading what went down? The cabbie hosed John & Jessica, but for the second straight time, their “Amazing Race” run ended because they didn't know who was behind them and who wasn't.

A few highlights from Sunday's Leg:

*** It was a fun ending because Phil Keoghan knew it was a fun ending. The Afghanimals reached the mat and Phil looked past them and said, “Turn around and get these guys running.”

*** I'm not sure whether it was Leo or Jamal who had the episode-title quote, but “I watched all four seasons of 'Spartacus'” was a better line anyway and that was Leo. The Afghanimals had a couple good moments this episode. I liked Jamal trying to ask a local for instructions in failed Italian getting “No speak English” back and responding, “That's Italian.”

*** The Charioteering Detour was especially bad because one player had to control speed and the other the turns, but we got no indication that there was a learning curve that anybody went through. It was just an arbitrary alternative task that they probably didn't expect anybody to do.

*** The Country Blondes pretty much surrendered after their Speed-Bump and initially struggling with the Charioteer Detour, but I liked Jennifer's response to dragging her little driver along behind the chariot: “The horses were fine. That's all we care about. Who cares about the man?”

*** It was a big evening for Roman/Vatican City on CBS, with a Pope-heavy “60 Minutes” leading into this episode.

*** This was one of the most smart-phone/tablet-dominated “Amazing Race” episodes I've ever seen. Everybody was just Googling away in the Roadblock. And Googling poorly. Five minutes of smart research and conversation on a smart-phone could have solved the Roadblock puzzle without running up or down a single step.

Thoughts? Any thrilling exit interview queries for John & Jessica?