Thursday, May 17, 2012

Amazing Race 20-11 recap: "It's a Great Place to Become Millionaires"

At last, the conclusion of my Amazing Race season 20 recaps; although we're heading into this program with four teams still racing, this two-hour finale actually comprises two legs of the Race, as I think every two-hour finale has done, as opposed to being a single leg spread across two hours of film. Consequently, we'll be hitting an elimination point halfway through the episode.

We resume in Cochin, India ("the City of Harmony" Phil says) with Rachel & Dave departing the previous leg's Pit Stop. They're instructed to travel by plane to Hiroshima, Japan then board a train to the Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima. Dave claims his relationship with Rachel is more important than $1 million, but doesn't show it very often. He does admit while on the Race, he considers Rachel his teammate, not his wife; Rachel taunts Dave into admitting he really thinks of her as a soldier. Rachel/Dave, Brendon/Rachel, Vanessa/Ralph & Art/J.J. all wind up on the same flight to Hiroshima, with Vanessa still suffering from the twisted ankle she suffered on the previous leg.

In Hiroshima, Brendon & Rachel miss a bus from the airport and Rachel places the blame squarely on Brendon for not listening to her: "From now on, I'm not making any decisions, you can do them all." Brendon tries to reason with her but she keeps talking over him, as she so often does. He finally seems to clue in that talking to her is unproductive and just lets her stew in her own juices. Anyway, this missed bus was inconsequential in the Race.

Teams have some difficulty understanding how to order their train tickets and Rachel & Dave wind up missing a vital train which places them hours behind the other three teams when they miss the ferry boat to Miyajima Island. However, the next clue doesn't arrive until "the rising sun," giving Rachel & Dave the time they need to catch up. So far every time it has seemed like a team has fallen behind, it's turned out to be false drama. During the interim before all four teams catch up, we are at least treated to J.J. calling Ralph & Vanessa "Conan & Kardashian."

An old man with a cart delivers their next clue, directing teams to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Atomic Bomb Dome, a memorial park set up to commemorate the fall of the Atomic Bomb. The teams take a moment at the park to reflect on the brutality of war; Brendon comes off sounding unintentionally naive: "I'm a physicist. I study radiation and we try to use radiation to help people get rid of their cancer, so to see radiation can cause massive destruction is just... it's a hard thing to comprehend." At the park, their next clue directs them to travel by train to the TV8 studio in Osaka, Japan.

After departing the train, teams set about getting rather lost. Art & J.J. get a good taxi driver who knows where the TV8 studio is, but the others flail around; Vanessa & Ralph wind up at a former location of TV8. Thus, Art & J.J. find themselves at the studio alone and Art takes on this leg's Roadblock: performing on a wacky Japanese game show! We had a wacky Japanese game show back in season 15 when the Race went to Japan, I think it was hosted by the same Japanese man as well. What does this tell viewers about Japan? What does it tell us about what the Amazing Race producers feel about Japan? Anyway, Art has to run against a conveyer belt and grab three rubber chickens which are hanging over his head. Once all three chickens have been pulled down, he must run to the end of the belt and jump on to a mat at the end. It's not that challenging for Art, but he falls down a lot, providing many opportunities for laughs and hijinks and whatnot.

The other teams are running around "like chickens with our heads cut off" according to Ralph; the poor guy has no idea what the Roadblock is, but he gave the editors a present! Art finishes the Roadblock before any other teams arrive and he and J.J. head to the Umeda Sky Building, where their next clue awaits them as a media file on a computer screen. The other three teams arrive at the Roadblock at about the same time; Vanessa, Brendon and Dave's Rachel take the Roadblocks, in part because their teams are trying to keep an even number of Roadblocks between each other, what with there being a limit of six Roadblocks per teammate and at least one Roadblock waiting in the final leg.

Vanessa really struggles on the conveyer belt because of her injured ankle. Rachel & Brendon finish the Roadblock, leaving Vanessa alone. Ralph becomes nervous for Vanessa's sake and suggests she take a 4-hour penalty rather than risk seriously injuring herself. However, Vanessa refuses to give up and keeps trying. At this point, the wackiness of the "game show" has been seriously deflated. However, Vanessa toughens up and keeps going.

At the Umeda Sky Building, Art & J.J. find the computer screens which direct them to this legs Detours: "Photo Cut-Out" or "Bingo Shout-Out." In "Photo Cut-Out," teams have to carry standees of sumo wrestlers and convince ten groups of three people to have their picture taken. In "Bingo Shout-Out," teams enter a sushi restaurant and collect pieces of sushi fill out a bingo board which spells out S-U-S-H-I using the first letter of the sushi's names. Art & J.J. like the sound of the sushi challenge, which wouldn't be my first choice since it relies on a lot of luck.

Vanessa finally defeats the Roadblock, impressing Ralph with her tenacity. At the Umeda Sky Building, Rachel & Dave decide on the photography task, while Brendon & Rachel head out for sushi. As they head to their taxi, Dave finds his backpack has been unzipped and gets upset with Rachel, cajoling her at least twice about how she shouldn't unzip her bag; this gets Rachel miffed since she claims she didn't open his bag and she calls him a "freak." Rachel launches into her own tirade over this, being in no mood for Dave's dictatorial mood, leading to an exchange which was originally previewed back in episode 1:

Dave: "Just stop. Silence is golden."

Rachel: "Then why don't you shut the CENSORED up?"

Until this moment, I hadn't realized we he had an outstanding spoiler from the first episode preview unaccounted for.

Vanessa & Ralph decide to take the sushi challenge and pass Brendon & Rachel at the Umeda Sky Building, upsetting the easily-upsettable Rachel. Art & J.J. are already at work on the sushi challenge, but J.J. is flummoxed at trying to identify pieces of sushi by name. Rachel & Dave set to work at the photography challenge and have trouble convincing people to pose for them, but after some early attempts at asking people in a friendly manner, they start forcing people to comply, practically dragging them behind the sumo wrestler stand-ees.

Vanessa & Ralph's taxi driver gets lost trying to find the sushi challenge and Vanessa accuses Ralph of getting "nostalgic" when he starts admiring their surroundings instead of obsessing about the Race. At the photography challenge, Rachel & Dave have finished and head to the Pit Stop location, Osaka Castle. Art & J.J. finally complete their sushi bingo, eat their sushi and head to the Pit Stop.

Vanessa & Ralph finally arrive at their Detour, while Brendon & Rachel struggle at the challenge; Rachel loses her cool a few times, but Brendon actually holds his ground for once, firmly trying to keep control of the situation. At Osaka Castle, Rachel & Dave take first place, tying the Amazing Race record of seven victories (set by Nick & Starr in season 13) and winning a trip to New Zealand, which Phil personally vouches for. And, of course, they're in the final three for the last leg. Art & J.J. arrive at the Castle, but can't find the Pit Stop.

Brendon & Rachel finish the Detour ahead of Vanessa & Ralph and head to the Pit Stop. They arrive as Art & J.J. are still looking for Phil. Soon, Vanessa & Ralph pull in and one wonders... how did Rachel & Dave find Phil with seemingly no difficulty? Finally, Art & J.J. locate Phil and claim second place. Art hugs Phil, prompting:

J.J.: "Don't molest Phil!"

Art: "I have to!"

Brendon & Rachel are in third place, leaving Vanessa & Ralph as the eliminated team. Vanessa squeaks in one final "cheese & crackers" as they arrive at the Pit Stop. Phil congratulates Vanessa for not giving up on the Roadblock, demonstrating the exact attitude Phil has consistently demanded from the Racers; I concur, teams who don't give up on difficult challenges have a lot of traction with me too. The last three teams are left waiting for the final leg to begin, Dave declaring it "Operation: Amazing Race." So, let's start that final leg!

Rachel & Dave leave Osaka Castle with directions to visit Honolulu, Hawaii and find their next location using a riddle which mentions "twins." This is supposed to lead them to the Twin Towers. Of Hawaii, Dave says "It's a Great Place to Become Millionaires," providing the final episode's title. All three of the remaining teams wind up on the same flight to Hawaii, as you'd expect. J.J. really wants to win: "Second place would feel like such a waste."

Arriving in Honolulu, Rachel/Dave & Art/J.J. both seem to have ditched their bags so they can travel faster, a tactic many teams have used in previous seasons; Brendon & Rachel still have their bags, suggesting they don't know about this. Rachel & Dave's taxi driver knows about the Twin Towers but Art & J.J.'s doesn't, so they follow Rachel & Dave's taxi. Dave befriends his taxi driver, recognizing him as a fellow veteran and the driver obligingly shakes Art & J.J.'s taxi. At the Twin Towers, Rachel & Dave are instructed to rappel to the top of one of the skyscrapers then search the horizon for a flag marking their next location; then they have to rappel back down to the bottom of the tower. Brendon & Rachel catch up Rachel & Dave, but Art & J.J. are lost; the other two teams are pleased by this. Art & J.J. are sent way off-course by locals who don't understand the riddle.

Big Brother's Rachel finds the rappel very difficult, not only from the physical demands on her but also because it means traveling to a terrifying height; she has to psyche herself up to keep moving. Rachel & Dave finish the task well ahead of them. Elsewhere, Art & J.J. finally locate a passerby who directs them to the Twin Towers. As Rachel & Dave head down the tower Rachel declares, "Honey, you look like my super hero!" and the ever-humble Dave answers "I am!" Brendon & Rachel finish the task before Art & J.J. arrive and decide they have a 50/50 chance of winning the Race now; Rachel has some newfound confidence from this. As Art & J.J. begin the task, we're reminded J.J. is afraid of heights. Art, however, calls it "getting my Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol on"

At the flagged location, it's Roadblock time for Brendon & Dave, who must each use a katana to shave a block of ice to fill up a bucket, then present the bucket to Hawaii Five-O actor Taylor Wily. Dave's Rachel looks at the Twin Towers in the distance and sees Art & J.J. climbing down; "They look like little bugs! I want to squish them!" Dave finishes the Roadblock and follows his clue to travel on foot to a nearby baseball field where a helicopter will ferry them to their next location. After they leave, Art & J.J. arrive and refuse to speak to Brendon & Rachel; J.J. takes the Roadblock.

Brendon & Rachel finish the task, but Rachel doesn't understand the clue and they return to their taxi, who brings them to a baseball stadium. By now, J.J. is done the Roadblock and, reading his clue correctly, leads Art to the helicopter. Arriving at the stadium and finding nothing there, Brendon asks Rachel to read him the clue and when he hears "travel on foot" realizes the mistake. They have to return to the Roadblock site and Brendon is agonizing over the error. "Okay Brendon! Brendon stop freaking out! I'm sorry! Trust me Brendon, I want to shoot myself right now too!" Once again, Rachel shuts down when she makes a mistake; she has no problem blaming Brendon when she thinks he's done wrong (such as the previous leg's bus incident), but when she makes a costly error she expects him to simply move on; she talks to him as though by complaining, he's the one who made a mistake. She even says "We made a mistake," emphasis mine. "I don't want crazy Rachel," says Brendon.

The helicopter brings Rachel & Dave to a beach where their next clue tells them to perform a rescue simulation using a waverunner; one must drive the waverunner, while the other rides behind on a board and rescues the "distressed swimmer" in the simulation. Rachel opts to drive against Dave's wishes, but she observes he'll be better at rescuing the swimmer than she would; sure enough, they finish the task with no real difficulties and return to shore.

Brendon & Rachel still haven't reached their helicopter and are in a shouting match with each other as Rachel refuses to run. She'd be better at running if she didn't have to carry her bags... pity they didn't think of it. They finally reach their helicopter, but are barely able to speak to each other.

Rachel & Dave are directed by their next clue to find the Coral Kingdom Gate and follow a marked path; they board a taxi. Art & J.J. arrive at the beach and finish the rescue simulation easily and head to a taxi. Brendon & Rachel perform the simulation last.

Rachel & Dave's taxi lets them off at the wrong location, but they take off on foot anyway. Art & J.J.'s driver brings them to the Gate and they start on the marked path, not realizing they're currently in first place. Rachel & Dave wander up to a location on the Race they aren't supposed to have reached yet, discovering a dock with boards and oars along with instructions to paddle surf across a lake. Even though they haven't followed the marked path, Rachel & Dave appear to have been done in by tunnel vision and head across the lake.

Back on the correct path, Art & J.J. arrive at the final Roadblock of the Race; as on previous finales which had two Roadblocks in a single leg, the person who didn't perform the previous Roadblock must perform this one, even if the team has managed to keep an extra Roadblock slot open through Fast Forwards or Express Passes. In this challenge, one team member must ride a land sled (a long and slender device) down a hill to a marked line without falling off; then, the team member must bowl a lava rock across the ground and into a pouch. Since J.J. performed the ice task, Art has to perform the sled and bowling task; he falls off the sled a lot, finding it immensely difficult.

Elsewhere, Rachel & Dave finish crossing the lake and run to the Finish Line, where Phil and the 8 eliminated teams are waiting. However, Phil informs them they haven't won the Race - they still have a Roadblock to perform and must return to complete it! And thus, we have an Amazing Race first; we've seen teams run to the Pit Stop without finishing a leg before, but this is the first time a team has tried to check in at the Finish Line without finishing the leg! Rachel & Dave return to try and find the Coral Kingdom Gate entrance.

Rachel & Dave reach the Roadblock and Art & J.J. are astonished to see them; Rachel takes on the Roadblock and proves much better at it than Art, quickly completing the sledding. I think her advantage was simply being lighter than Art. Rachel finishes the bowling task and she and Dave head off in an ATV back to the paddle surf task. Brendon & Rachel arrive at the Roadblock next, with Rachel taking on the Roadblock and she also finishes the sled before Art. However, Art finally completes the sledding, then completes bowling before Rachel, drawing them back into second place.

Rachel & Dave return to the Finish Line and win the Amazing Race and the $1 million. They ran a very competitive race, but it's difficult to feel pleased with this outcome; although Rachel enjoyed the traveling and adventure, Dave seemed impatient and upset while racing and only able to enjoy the experience when reflecting on it afterward. They've set a new record for legs won (8 legs), but the reactions I've seen online suggest they are not a widely like team.

Art & J.J. claim second place; I liked these two overall, but J.J. was, like Dave, too competitive and resorted to trash-talking too often. Their friendship seemed healthier than Rachel & Dave's marriage, but I've seen from reactions online how J.J.'s attitude alienated viewers.

Finally, Brendon & Rachel claim third place; Brendon hopes with the Race over, perhaps now he and Rachel can be friends with the other teams. Here we have yet another team which the fans weren't wild about. To their credit, they seemed to enjoy the actual adventure aspect of the program (unlike Dave), but Rachel was simply terrible at competition; she succeeded at virtually everything she attempted, but not without copious amounts of whining and complaining. Again, this is a team which alienated viewers.

Even the producers sense the real stars of this season were fifth place team Bopper & Mark. Says Bopper: "Everything I went through on this Race, I done it for my little girl, if i had it to do right now, I'd do it all again." That sounds like a lead-in to the next Amazing Race: All-Stars! Dave declares "Operation: Amazing Race" a success. I wish him luck with "Operation: Happy Marriage."

Although I sense many Amazing Race fans were unhappy with this season - mainly because of the top three teams - I give it a passing grade. What made this a great Race was the design - the locations visited, the challenges, the difficult clues and how the Race seemed to become more intense as it went on. For instance, the first non-elimination leg was followed by a leg set in a different country, giving the last place team a chance to catch up during the travel times. The last two NELs were followed by a leg set at the same location, giving the last place teams no easy opportunity to catch up.

I rank season 20 as "above average," but don't place too much stock in my opinion; I think the best seasons were 1, 7, 13 & 17 and I really like 3, 6, 10 & 18 - Amazing Race fandom seriously disagrees about the quality of some of those Races.

Next: That's it for season 20 of the Amazing Race and season 21 shouldn't be due until the fall. In the meantime, I'm considering covering Amazing Race: Australia season 2 on the blog, as Amazing Race posts are the most popular blog entries I've made thus far. The Australia start date hasn't been announced yet, but it should begin within two weeks. Watch this space!

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