Monday, February 20, 2012

Amazing Race recap 20-01: "Tears of a Clown"

As threatened, I'm beginning my series of recaps for the Amazing Race season 20; your indulgence is appreciated. If you're not watching the program, it airs Sunday nights on CTV (Canada) and CBS (USA) and you can catch previous episodes at the network websites. This is my first attempt to recap the events of a television program and it's bound to be a bit creaky; further, season premieres of the Amazing Race have 11 two-person teams to introduce along with the first leg of the Race to depict, so you don't get a great sense of how the game is being played or what each team is capable of.

That said, let's begin:

We open at a vineyard in Santa Barbara, California where host Phil Keoghan is bicycling to the starting line of the Race, dressed in an Amazing Race bike suit; behind him are the 22 racers comprising this season's contestants. Phil is a very hands-off host, usually only interacting with the teams at the end of each leg, but he's a beloved institution of the show; I only recently realized I'd first seen Phil in the 1990s when he was a "roving reporter" for FX, appearing on their breakfast & collectibles programs. It's interesting to think just how many FX personalities went on to become television program hosts. Anyway, Phil being a major bicycle enthusiast, this is a nice way to introduce him and it's certainly a different way to introduce the teams, who usually arrive at the starting line in vehicles like buses, cars, helicopters or boats. Of course, since these people we've never met before are garbed in matching outfits, it doesn't help to set them apart.

Phil introduces the 11 teams, who each have an introductory clip:

  1. Dave and Cherie: a married couple who are professional clowns with Barnum & Bailey; astonishingly, this is the second time we've had an Amazing Race team comprised of clowns.
  2. Bopper and Mark: two male best friends from Kentucky, one Caucasian (Bopper), one African-American (Mark); although they appear to be middle-aged, they might be the oldest team in this race.
  3. Misa and Maiya: sisters of Japanese descent and both golfers.
  4. Brendon and Rachel: a dating couple who previously appeared on Big Brother; this is the third time the Amazing Race has cast a team out of Big Brother, but neither of the previous teams really made an impact; perhaps third time's the charm?
  5. Joey "Fitness" and Danny: two male best friends and self-described "Guidos" who name check the Jersey Shore, which just brings to mind earlier stunt teams like the glee club singers from season 17 brought in when Glee was a hit. And yes, his name is given throughout as "Joey 'Fitness.'"
  6. Nary and Jamie: two female best friends and co-workers, one Caucasian (Jamie), one African-American (Nary), both of them US federal agents.
  7. Rachel and Dave: Dave is a US Army combat pilot who served in Iraq, Rachel is his wife. Do we need two contestants named Rachel?
  8. Elliot and Andrew: twin brothers, one a rock musician, the other a pro soccer player; in their intro, Elliot describes Andrew as his "life partner - only not gay."
  9. Kerri and Stacy: two female African-American cousins from Mississippi, self-described "country girls."
  10. Vanessa and Ralph: a dating couple who are both recently divorced. Vanessa claims she used to "stalk" Ralph when he was married. Oh-kay. Thanks for sharing.
  11. Art and J.J.: two male best friends and co-workers, both of them border patrol officers. Feds, US Army and border patrol? They certainly won't want for lack of security!

With the introductions completed, we move to the starting line, where Phil and all of the teams have switched out of their bicycling outfits; the bicycling introduction was nothing more than that, just an introduction. Phil gives the teams his usual vague warnings about the challenges they'll face, pleasantries about their travel, a reminder that they're racing for $1,000,000 and informs them that the first team to arrive at the Pit Stop on this leg will win the Express Pass, a recently-added feature starting with season 17 which allows the team who possess it to bypass one task they don't want to finish.

In earlier seasons of the show, Phil would simply direct the teams to their first clues and the vehicles they'll be driving to the airport; however, recent seasons have included an additional task at the starting line and such is the case here; to obtain their first clue, teams must run into a nearby vineyard where 100 miniature hot air balloons have been tethered; 11 of these balloons have clues within their baskets. Phil gives the teams the signal to begin and as the teams race into the vineyard, the opening credits launch.

Returning, teams hunt for their clues and the clue informs them they're travelling from Santa Barbara to... Santa Barbara! Clever. When they enter their vehicles, a prerecorded message from Phil plays in the car's video screen, telling them they're bound for Santa Barbara, Argentina. I was actually a little disappointed that Phil's message explains where the other Santa Barbara is. I like to see teams struggle a little with the clues, not have every location given to them; I feel that navigation should be one of the most important skills in an Amazing Race team. Instead, the flight distribution is determined by luck - which teams are lucky enough to find their clues first?

Most of the teams seem to find the clue very quickly, but Misa and Maiya really struggle; according to a clock, it takes them about 1.75 hours to find their clue! As is usually the case with premiere legs, teams are supposed to travel within a set of prearranged flights; there are two flights set aside for the teams, the first can carry six teams, the other carries five and leaves 2.5 hours later. Getting aboard the first flight on leg 1 of the Amazing Race is a very good sign; usually, whichever team winds up eliminated on leg 1 will be someone from the last flight to arrive. This gives some comfort to the teams out in front as they compete to be first, while it adds stress to those in the back as they compete against being last.

Often we get a little bit of airport drama in the premiere, but this glosses over how teams wound up in each of their particular flights. We can assume some teams got lost on the way from the vineyard to the airport because Joey "Fitness" and Danny are the 3rd team to find a clue and Kerri and Stacy are the 4th, yet both teams wind up on the later flight! It's a pity this wasn't a two-hour premiere so we could have an idea of why some teams fell behind. En route, Rachel (Dave's wife) opines the other Rachel (Big Brother)'s clover-design top makes her look like "Shamrock from Rainbow Brite." I have no idea who "Shamrock" is; neither does Google.

So, teams fly to Salta, Argentina, then drive to the town of Santa Barbara via waiting SUVs; the six teams in the lead are Rachel/Dave, Brendon/Rachel, Art/J.J., Nary/Jaime, Elliot/Andrew & Vanessa/Ralph. As the other five teams arrive in Argentina, knowing they're 2.5 hours behind the leaders and how one of them will almost certainly be eliminated, Cherie begins to crack, crying as she realizes she and her husband have fallen behind the other four teams racing in the back; it's from this that we get the episode's quote-title, "Tears of a Clown."

The first six teams arrive at an airfield where they're given a Roadblock; usually each leg of the Race has a Roadblock and a Detour, but the first leg has only one - either to be easy on the teams or to make it easier to edit the first episode. So, our Roadblock forces one team member to perform the task and they know it has something to do with the airfield (and that the Amazing Race usually has a scary task in the first leg). Teams seem to assume the person on the Roadblock will be skydiving and since they have to pick who does the Roadblock before all the details are revealed, we wind up with some interesting decisions - because the way this Roadblock works, the non-participant goes skydiving, the one performing the Roadblock has to locate their partner's landing site.

Consequently, Art takes the Roadblock, meaning J.J. has to skydive; he's utterly terrified by this while the other Racers on the Roadblock are having the times of their lives. Dave and Art work together to locate their skydiving partners, prompting Dave to quip their alliance was an "inter-agency coordination" between the Army and Border Patrol. As Vanessa finishes her skydive she quips "my uterus is in my throat!"

As the first six teams complete the Roadblock they're directed to their next location and set out in their SUVs to find Patios de Cafayate Winery; the other five teams are still en route to the airfield. Again, not realizing how this Roadblock will work, Kerry agrees to take the Roadblock because Stacy is terrified by heights. And because the Race is cruel, cruel, cruel, this means poor Stacy is the one who skydives. While the five skydivers prepare, their partners head to the landing site, but Danny, left to navigate his SUV, turns out to be incapable of driving stick, causing him to fall way behind. Y'know, teams always, always, always have to drive stick. On the one hand, teams don't seem to learn from the show's history; on the other hand, at least it means they don't get too comfortable.

As Art & J.J. and Brendon & Rachel head to the next location, Brendon takes the opportunity to rag on the border patrol agents, saying "I'm half-Mexican and I hate them for a reason." I'll never understand why some teams think they have make up excuses to dislike their competition. Anyway, at the next location teams are told to prepare 120 empanadas, which must be judged by a chef. When they're done this task, they'll be racing on foot to Phil at the Pit Stop. Tasks where teams have to be judged are always difficult on racers - it seems a bit cruel to place this before the Pit Stop when the Pit Stop isn't at another location, instead lying within walking distance.

En route to find Misa, Maiya takes a wrong turn off the road and her SUV's tires sink in the soft sand, causing her to fall behind. Elsewhere, Stacy is upset at skydiving but ultimately finds her courage, deciding if she didn't jump, she'd be sending a poor message to her children. These moments come up in the Amazing Race all the time and I'm all for it - I like seeing people conquer their fears and find strength they didn't believe they had. Maiya finally gets out of the sand, but she and Misa are in last place; Joey "Fitness" & Danny are just barely ahead of them.

So, the first six teams struggle at preparing empanadas, some needing to redo their work and fall behind as the judge dismisses some of their efforts. There's no way of telling who's actually nearest to completion, but ultimately it goes to Rachel & Dave, with Brendon & Rachel just a few minutes behind them. Rachel & Dave run outside the building to Phil and receive the promised Express Pass for their efforts. Art & J.J. take third place, Nary & Jaime win fourth, Vanessa & Ralph are fifth and Elliot & Andrew come in sixth place. The next five teams don't even arrive at the winery until all lead six teams have checked in, showing that the 2.5 hour lead wasn't really diminished.

As Bopper & Mark work at the empanadas, this exchange occurs:

Bopper: "This is the first time I have ever made a pinata." Mark: "It ain't a pinata, my brother! It's a emphazz- well... call it whatever you want. I don't know either."

It's very early, but I'm already sensing I know who my favourite team is.

As Misa & Maiya arrive at the winery they wonder if they should bring their bags in from the SUV; they decide not to, thinking, I suppose, that they'll be driving to the Pit Stop after this task. They're the only team present to make this error; teams are often unsure when to carry their bags with them and when it's safe to leave them in the car - some teams won't leave their cars without their bags, just in case. Again, this is a recurring error on the race and one which has seriously cost teams in the past.

Kerri & Stacy make up a bit of lost time by being very good at the empanadas, taking 7th place. By now, Misa & Maiya know they made a mistake by leaving their bags behind. Dave & Cherie win 8th place while Bopper & Mark take 9th. Misa & Maiya finish next, but have to run back to grab their bags. Running back to the winery they search frantically for Phil, but - in a heart-stopping moment - run out to the open, grassy yard where the Pit Stop is located, walk within sight of Phil - who even motions towards them - turn around and leave the yard! Phil seems visibly shocked to see Misa & Maiya walk the opposite way. By the time Misa & Maiya have searched elsewhere and wind up back at the yard, Joey "Fitness" & Danny have already claimed 10th place. Phil informs the sisters they've never had a situation like this before, where a team came that close to the Pit Stop ahead of another team, yet wound up eliminated. It's a deeply, deeply embarrassing way to be taken out of the Race, but Misa & Maiya are the program's first casualties. They say they suffered from "tunnel vision," so intent on looking for Phil directly ahead of them that they didn't look just 90 degrees to the right.

Instead of a promotion for the next episode, the show is followed by a "preview of the upcoming season" with quick clips of teams in exotic locales, dropping objects, falling over, yelling at each other and calling people names. I know some people who watch reality programs thrive on the trash-talking and relationship drama; personally, it's my least favourite part of watching the Amazing Race.

Except for when the premiere episode has been two hours long, I've seldom had a good "read" of who the teams are by the end of leg 1. As noted above, I have some fondness for Bopper & Mark because down-to-earth average Joes with a sense of humour are always a nice contrast to what some of the other teams bring; couples in romantic relationships seem to wind up at each other's throats more often than not and that's certainly what the preview clip promises. I am sorry to see Misa & Maiya go, as I usually like the all-female teams and I sense Joey "Fitness" & Danny are too self-conscious and aware of their image for me to enjoy their race; that said, I really never know which Racers I'll enjoy the most and often even the teams I dislike contribute something to the overall success of the season. I try to see the good in every team because (and I see many commenters on this show don't get this) they're real people, not scriped performers; real people are much more complicated and contradictory than fictional people, even though reality shows are edited to make you feel such-and-such a way about a particular person. The Amazing Race has almost no bad seasons and look forward to seeing how this one plays out.

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