Recap: ‘The Amazing Race’ Finale – ‘It’s a Great Place To Become Millionaires’

Shortly before Sunday (May 6) night’s “The Amazing Race” began, I tweeted, “Is anybody actually *rooting* for a team in tonight’s “Amazing Race” finale? Yeah. Didn’t think so.”
Over the next three-plus hours, I got many, many responses. Most people asked if rooting against teams counted on some level. No. No it did not. A couple folks suggested they were rooting for Mark & Bopper to somehow re-enter the game and win. That also does not count. A few tweeps proposed that they were rooting for single players on teams, with Vanessa earning votes for hotness and Rachel (of Rachel & Dave) earning mentions. One person and only one person said that he liked all of this season’s teams and would be happy for any winner, but didn’t mention a single specific team her was rooting for. 
I’m not going to say that my brief Twitter survey was a snapshot of the entirety of the “Amazing Race” viewership, but in an industry that makes million dollar decisions based on the imperfect non-paragon of representative statistical sampling that is the Nielsen system, I’m OK with feeling that I got a sense of a broad problem with “The Amazing Race 20”: Sometimes this is the best-cast show on TV. That was not the case this season. 
“The Amazing Race” dedicated two hours on Sunday night to crowning a champion who most viewers probably didn’t like very much. That, plus the obligatory crummy “Race” architecture, took much of the fun out of Sunday’s finale.
But at least Sunday’s finale wrapped up with the most deserving available team coming out victorious. I’d rather root for a team that’s both likable *and* deserving, but by the end of the finale, I was rooting rather loudly to get at least one of the two, but for a brief window, it seemed reasonable that we might somehow end up with a team that was both unappealing and unworthy.
So… YAY?
More after the break…
Congratulations to Dave & Rachel, who won both of the Legs featured in Sunday’s finale to complete this season with eight Leg wins and the million dollar prize.
We can all throw out our favorite names for teams that were comparably dominant when it comes to “The Amazing Race.” 
Eric & Jeremy went all of “Amazing Race 9” without ever finishing lower than SECOND, winning six Legs in the process. That’s pretty impressive, except that they lost the Race to forgettable, amiable hippies BJ & Tyler. If you don’t win, you’re not one of the best teams ever. [I’d still insist that Rob & Amber’s start to “All-Stars,” with three commanding wins, would have put them in the Best-Ever conversation. Except that after those three wins, they bombed out.]
Nick & Starr won seven Legs, but they had two Legs in sixth and one in fifth as they won “The Amazing Race 13.” Meghan & Cheyne won seven Legs and had three addition second-place finishes in winning “The Amazing Race 15.” 
And for Rachel & Dave? Eight Leg wins, plus two seconds (and a sixth and a fourth) and two climactic journeys down the end-of-season gauntlet passing vanquished foes to host Phil Keoghan.
Will they go down as The Best Team in “Amazing Race” History? I’ll leave it for you to decide, Readers. Chances are good, though, that they won’t be remembered as The Best, for a pretty simple reason: 
Nobody liked Dave.
Rachel was easy to cheer for. A pint-sized spark-plug with a good sense of humor, a level head and without an ounce of quit in her, Rachel should have been likable enough to lift an entire team’s likability onto her diminutive shoulders. Instead, Rachel’s primary purpose seemed to be as whipping girl for slightly estranged husband Dave, who shouted at her, threatened her and bullied her for a good portion of the Race. After taking the hostilities silently for a long time, Rachel eventually began antagonizing Dave right back, goading him into his grumpy temper tantrums. I’ll let you decide whether or not it seemed healthy and awesome that the finale featured Rachel telling Dave to “shut the [bleep] up” twice. On one hand? Go Rachel! On the other hand? Go, Rachel… Go far away from Dave.
It’s a truth that “The Amazing Race” is always populated with several utterly dysfunctional teams, but Dave & Rachel were the first team to prove to be both dysfunctional and exceptional, which probably means that they were actually are plenty functional, just not in a way that I found pleasant to watch. 
As superior as Dave & Rachel were throughout the season, though, you’d have a hard time telling me how their excellence was what led them to win on Sunday. They made one of the biggest mistakes in “Amazing Race” history, but still won because the two teams in direct competition, somehow managed to make mistakes that were smaller, but more costly. 
Let’s break down the two episodes, one by one…
J-Pop America Fun-Time Wow.
Sunday’s finale began with an hour of Japanese stereotypes, misjudged emotional moments and an opening so infuriating that if I didn’t have to recap the show for a living, I might have just switched my TV off after 20 minutes.
After two episodes in India, teams flew off to Japan. Once in Japan, they had to take a bus, a train and a ferry to an Island to find their next clue. Rachel & Brendon had ticket-buying problems getting off the plane in Japan and they missed the first bus and fell behind the other two teams. Oh no! Nevermind. They teams all got to the train station at roughly the same time. However, because of ticket problems, Rachel & Dave ended up on a train that left 20 minutes behind the train with the other two teams. Oh no! Then, at the ferry, the other teams got on the last boat of the night and Dave & Rachel lagged behind and were forced to take a ferry the next morning, seemingly falling eight hours behind. OH NO!!! Nevermind. Teams couldn’t get their clue until dawn anyway. That meant that Sunday’s finale began with a travel equalizer, made spent 15 minutes on how the vagaries of travel could come and bite you in the behind, and the uncorked a second equalizer. That meant that we spend 1/6th of the night’s “Amazing Race” programming block on absolutely nothing. There were no tasks or challenges, just travel that the producers knew would never be allowed to have an iota of impact on anything.
Then the teams went to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Everybody reflected on the dropping of The Bomb in their own way. Dave talked about the military impact. Brendon talked about how he uses radiation for good and not for evil. Everybody was somber. 
Yeah. That was whiplash on an almost “Glee”-esque level. If you can’t go to Hiroshima without acknowledging the almost unfathomable events of August 6, 1945 — and you can’t — maybe you don’t set that reflection right next to a Roadblock asking players to participate in a goofy Japanese game show, in which the natives ghoulishly roar as the Racers fall on their faces and humiliate themselves. Payback-by-rubber chicken? Lame. Players had to run against a quickly moving treadmill, jumping into the air to pull down three synthetic fowl. This was not easy. And it was made harder because several teams had task disparities that forced less-suited players to do the Roadblock. Blonde Rachel, for example, had no trouble with the running, but the chickens were almost too high for her to reach. That was tough.
But nobody has it tougher than Vanessa, who you’ll recall did a faceplant last episode, hurting her ankle. I’m not going to get into the diagnostic question of whether or not Vanessa’s ankle was actually sprained. I’ve sprained my ankle. You’ve sprained your ankle. I know that when I’ve had sprained ankles, I could not sprint on a treadmill, a physical impossibility that even a hypothetical million dollar check wouldn’t salve.  Could. Not. Do. It. But whether Vanessa’s ankle was sprained or twisted or just irritated, there’s no doubting she was in a ton of pain and she was stuck having to perform the hardest task she could have been asked to perform under the circumstances. But she went out and she did it. Did she lose a lot of time? Yes. Did that end up costing Vanessa & Ralph the Race? Yes. Did I come away more impressed by Vanessa’s effort than by anything else that anybody did in the entire two-hour finale? Yup. Ralph, well aware of the anguish his partner was going through, begged her to quit and just take the penalty, but Vanessa refused. She partially refused because she’s stubborn. We remember that trait from the watermelon stacking earlier in the season. But Vanessa also realized that “Amazing Race” hasn’t had may time-consuming tasks this season. Taking a penalty of hours when most Detours have taken minutes would have guaranteed their elimination, so she didn’t want to do it.
As it stood, the Detour, which focused on two stereotypical activities that Japanese people stereotypically like, didn’t give them time to catch up. The choice was between Photo Cut-Out and Bingo Shout-Out. In Photo Cut-Out, teams had to encourage Japanese people to be wacky and take funny pictures with a sumo cutout. In Bingo Shout-Out, teams had to collect sushi plates and fill out a Bingo card with wacky Japanese people. Neither task was hard. Both tasks were wacky. Vanessa & Ralph were able to get close, but not close enough. At the mat, featuring wacky Japanese rockers as co-greeters, Ralph said how proud he was of Vanessa and he cried a little. I also sniffled. Like I said: Vanessa had the most impressive achievement of the finale and received nothing for it. 
Poor Vanessa.
Hawaii Two-0.
Having sent Vanessa & Ralph packing, we were down to Rachel & Dave — winner of the previous Leg because Photo Cut-Out was faster than Bingo Shut-Out — and two teams that were never going to have deserved to win, in Brendon & Rachel and Art & JJ. That set us up for a final Leg that included a Roadblock, a few physical tasks, a scenic and superfluous helicopter right and no cumulative challenge of any sort. Boo. I like cumulative season wrap-up challenges, even if they’ve rarely been perfectly utilized in the past.
So let’s just look at our Million Dollar Mistakes.
Million Dollar Mistake #1: You know how Art & JJ spent a full season mocking Team Big Brother for being followers who just graft on to other teams and don’t do any work of their own? Heh. You know who didn’t remember that? Art & JJ, when they got to the Honolulu airport, couldn’t find a cabbie who knew their next destination, but just told their driver to follow Dave & Rachel, little knowing that Dave and his cabbie had a bond stemming from their shared service to our country. That inspired Dave’s cabbie to ditch his tail, leaving Art & JJ with a clueless driver, going cluelessly around Hawaii, from one wrong location to the next.
That let Dave & Rachel and Brendon & Rachel have a bit of a cushion when they were asked to ascend and then rappel down from a 45-story building after spotting their next destination from the roof. This was a fun task and I was amused by the helmet-cam POV shots of each of the contestants. I also could see how it would be freaky if you don’t exactly rock with heights. 
Their next clue told them to go by foot to a group of helicopters and take a spin around the Island for no reason. That led to…
Million Dollar Mistake #2: “Big Brother” Rachel read the clue properly, including the words “on foot.” The problem? She and Brendon ignored said words and went off in a cab. By the time they got themselves turned around, that was it for their small advantage over Art & JJ. 
There was then something with a water rescue on jet skis. It wasn’t relevant. It just happened before…
Million Dollar Mistake #3: Rachel & Dave were coasting. Big lead. Zooming along. Then their cabbie doesn’t know how to get them to the right place and somehow they get dropped off somewhere and rush along til they find a clue telling them to paddle-board across some vast expanse. They do. They get to the gauntlet. Everybody is smiling. Everybody is cheering. They realize that the million is theirs. Phil tells them they’re first to arrive. BUT!!!!! They didn’t complete the Roadblock. Phil’s all, “Awkward!” The losing teams are all, “Omigod!!!” Rachel & Dave are all, “What Roadblock?” And they have to turn around, paddle back and find the Roadblock the missed the first time.
In the Roadblock, one player from each team had to go down a steep hill on a long traditional sled, collect a traditional lava tile and bowl it into a goal. Thanks to Million Dollar Mistake #2 and Million Dollar Mistake #3, Art & JJ reached the Roadblock with a big advantage, but thanks to Art’s distribution of mass, the sled was almost impossible for him to control. This led to one of the swiftest “Amazing Race” emotional roller-coasters ever. Art & JJ are struggling with the Roadblock thinking they’re doomed, that Rachel & Dave had already finished. Suddenly, Rachel & Dave show up. Art & JJ get a new lease on life. JJ goes from grumpy sourpuss to hopeful. Then Rachel nails the sled on her second time through. She’s tiny and compact and strong. Of course it’s easier for her. She also is solid at the tile bowling. 
As a result, Dave & Rachel went from first to humiliating second back to first and found themselves paddle-boarding back to the last Pit Stop, running back through the gauntlet and reuniting with Phil, who didn’t have to pretend things were awkward this time.
Other thoughts from Sunday’s finale:
*** It wasn’t a coincidence that in the post-coronation happiness and hugs, the only team from outside of the Top 3 that got to talk about their experience was Mark & Bopper. I know that we’re only two seasons renewed from “Unfinished Business,” but you know the “Amazing Race” producers are already brainstorming gimmicks to let them get Mark & Bopper and Andy & Tommy and maybe Bill & Cathi back as soon as possible.
*** I’m still angry about those first 20 equalizing minutes.
*** Wait! Sorry. There was a second Roadblock in the final Leg. The ice-shaving thing. Wow. That REALLY wasn’t memorable, was it? But it was in my notes, so it must have happened.
*** It was odd how self-conscious the cameraman became when Vanessa took off her top and began sprinting in that tight tank-top in the last gasps of the Japanese Game Show challenge. It was like, “Must. Not. Zoom. In. On. Jiggling.”
*** “Brendon! My knees hurt! My legs hurt! What do you want me to do? I hate you right now!” Yeah. Never again with Rachel and Brendon on reality TV, please. Never again.
What’d you think of the finale? Of the season as a whole? Of Dave & Rachel’s place in “Amazing Race” history? 
And do you have any questions you wanna make sure I ask in tomorrow’s exit interviews?