Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On the poor collective memory of comic book culture

Two creator-owned self-published books by well-known authors reached the end of their publication this month.

Rasl was created by Jeff Smith and began in 2008; it ran for 15 issues in total. Although it had good press when it launched and plenty of comments about the first issue, it quickly fell off the radar of the internet's comic book culture.

glamourpuss was created by Dave Sim and began in 2008; it ran for 26 issues in total. Although it had a decent amount of press when it launched, it quickly fell off the radar of the internet's comic book culture.

I feel Rasl was difficult for comic book mavens to discuss because it involved parallel worlds, quantum theory and various mysteries. It will almost certainly be vindicated over the years as people assess the collected series as a single story, rather than as irregular installments spaced over four years.

I feel glamourpuss was difficult for comic book pundits to discuss because a) it only barely concerned itself with narrative and b) was the work of Dave Sim, who is (to put it bluntly) reviled by much of the internet's comic book culture. Unlike Smith, Sim was unable to bring his series to a proper ending; he hopes to eventually finish the segments featuring "the Strange Death of Alex Raymond" as a graphic novel, but was left uncertain about his future in the comics industry.

The recent brouhaha surrounding Before Watchmen has had an interesting effect on the creator-owned comic book business as publishers of creator-owned material (notably, Image's Eric Stephenson) have publicly called out the exploitation of employees by Marvel & DC. Just this week there was a piece in Dark Horse's comics encouraging readers to support creator-owned books. It's fine that publishing groups like Image, Dark Horse & IDW can put up a united front, but what about the self-publishing creators? Smith & Sim are both perfect 10s on the scale of creators rights.

And yet, it's so easy to forget creators like Smith & Sim are on the marketplace because they don't have the marketing resources of the publishing groups. It's also easier for comic book fans and retailers to focus their attention on products they understand, not challenging material like Rasl and glamourpuss. There has been no dearth of Batman comic books for the previous 70 years (I think there's been at least one Batman comic per week for the last 20 years?) so one would think "Batman, chapter 2,096 of Infinity" wouldn't be newsworthy. However, the numbers don't lie: our comic book culture has room for books like Rasl and glamourpuss to co-exist with Batman, but overall, we'd much rather have Batman; we understand Batman.

None of this thinking is doing wonders for my sense of optimism regarding comics. Still, something will come along to take the place of Rasl and glamourpuss, just as these books followed Bone and Cerebus. At least this has been a fun journey!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Happy birthday, Jack Kirby!

Having died 18 years ago, Jack Kirby is hardly in a position to care whether we still observe his birthday - but as one of the single most influential men to ever venture into the world of comic book art, we owe him more than he ever received in his lifetime.

I didn't really begin to examine how I felt about Kirby until I discovered the Eternals. During my earliest days on the internet, I was there writing up summaries of the Kirby series on message boards and writing a Geocities page on the characters and their world. Above is the splash page to Eternals#13, my favourite issue of the series. Three teams of astronauts venture into space where the great mothership of the Celestials lies: one team is there to explore; one team seeks the Celestials' destruction; the third has come to save the world.

Check out the Comics Reporter for some nice samples of the King's art!

Monday, August 27, 2012

The enlightened man, circa 1935

Beware - non-PC language below!

From One Night on TV is Worth Weeks at the Paramount : Popular Music on Early Television, by Murray Forman:

"We should eliminate the word 'nigger' whenever possible. Of course, these darkies put a lot of pressure on us and they are sometimes too exacting, and there are certain songs where the word 'nigger' must be used. However, it is wise to cut it out as much as possible."

-John Royal, vice president of programs at NBC, 1935.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Bitter Fruit: wrapping up Archie's Shadow comics

My series "Bitter Fruit" ran for 12 installments on this blog, ultimately detailing the contents of all eight issues of Archie's 1964-65 Shadow comic book; obviously, I named it after the 1930-50s Shadow radio program phrase: "the weed of crime bears bitter fruit!"
  1. "The Shadow vs. the RXG Spymaster!!"
  2. "The Eyes of the Tiger!"
  3. "Shiwan Khan's Murderous Master-Plan!"
  4. "Margo Lane's Honeymoon!"
  5. "Shiwan Khan's House of Horrors!"
  6. "The Princess of Death"
  7. "The Diabolical Dr. Demon!"
  8. "The Human Bomb!"
  9. "Menace of Radiation Rogue!"
  10. "The Incredible Alliance of Shiwan Khan and Attila the Hunter!"
  11. "The Shadow Battles... the Brute!"
  12. "The Shadow Versus: ...Radiation Rogue, Dr. Demon, Attila the Hunter, the Insidious Elasto and the Diabolical Dimensionoid in the Game of Death!"

What exactly was I hoping to accomplish by looking back at the series? I suppose my interest came primarily from being a fan of the Shadow radio program and having heard in a few places how Archie's Shadow was one of the worst comic books of the 1960s. As I noted in the first review, I read each story for the first time as I reviewed it (I composed each paragraph after reading a page or more of the story). My hope was to discover either:

A) Archie's the Shadow wasn't nearly as terrible as people claimed!

Or:

B) Archie's the Shadow is terrible - but in a fun way!

It probably comes through at least some of the time during my reviews - I tried to either make light of the proceedings or attempt to find something good about the comic. But never mind my hopes... what is my final judgment of the Shadow#1-8?

It is a textbook example of a bad comic book series.

First, take our protagonist... please!

As a fan of the radio program, I'm used to the Shadow being Lamont Cranston, "well-to do young man about town," an amateur sleuth who secretly fights crime as the Shadow by "clouding men's mind so that they cannot see him." Instead, this comic book version of Lamont Cranston is a wealthy playboy who owns a bank and museum and is secretly an agent of the US government (originally the Secret Service, later changed to C.H.I.E.F.), but extra-secretly is the Shadow, with the power to cloud men's minds so that they cannot see him, read men's minds, erase memories, plant hypnotic suggestions and fabricate elaborate illusions; plus, he carries a variety of special gadgets, from his multi-purpose Shadow-Gun to boots which let him fly.

I think "wealthy man who is secretly a super hero" is a sufficient hook for a super hero book; the secret agent material adds almost nothing to the series, except to occasionally give Lamont superiors who send him on assignments. The series was incredibly inconsistent in using the Shadow's powers; he almost never seems to think of the appropriate time to become invisible or read his foe's mind. The addition of gadgets in later issues only make his Shadow powers superfluous - instead of "remembering" he has powers to get out of a bind, he "remembers" he's carrying a gadget which is precisely suited to resolving the problem.

The Shadow's greatest hurdle in these issues is that he doesn't struggle; he has allies, powers and gadgets beyond reckoning, but no personal troubles. His money offers no burdens, his secret agent and super hero work never interfere with his own desires, he can solve any problem without needing someone else's help (even if he has to mind-control someone into dying, re: "the Brute") and he treats his supporting cast as (at best) nuisances who get in the way of his work. Which brings me to...

If a hero is as rich as their supporting cast... Lamont Cranston is a pauper.

But who does make up the Shadow's supporting cast? There's his chauffeur Shrevy up above, along with his secretary Margo Lane, both familiar characters from the radio dramas. Further, Lamont's superior intelligence agent, Weston, is another person heard on the radio. Beyond that, Lamont had agents of his own (in "the Brute," at least) to gather intelligence. None of these characters know Lamont is the Shadow (even though Margo held his confidence on radio).

Lamont cares about his friends to the extent that he'll save them from his foes; however, he also erases their memories and manipulates their actions (re: "the Human Bomb") when it suits his needs. It isn't clear why Margo or Shrevy care for Lamont beyond their duties as his employees. Lamont treats them as subordinates. But the supporting cast's lack of impact on the series could be mitigated by the use of antagonists.

Every good hero deserves to fight the same villain every month?

Out of 8 issues, only one doesn't feature an appearance by Shiwan Khan. In 12 stories total, the Shadow battles Shiwan Khan 7 times; Attila the Hunter, Radiation Rogue and Dr. Demon each twice; the Human Bomb, Dimensionoid, Elasto and the Brute each once. He's also allied with Princess Lua in one story and pit against her in another; plus, there's a vast collection of minor thieves and spies.

Shiwan Khan was the only villain who originated in the Shadow's pulp novels; he appeared four times within two years, yet developed a reputation as the Shadow's greatest foe, even though the Shadow had made more than 300 novels by the time of the Archie comic. Using Shiwan Khan demonstrates the creators had some interest in the character's published history, but I don't see why he needed to be in 7/8 issues; surely the Shadow had other pulp villains who were worth revisiting? Although many other villains were introduced in the comics, usually they served as an accomplice to Shiwan Khan and were eventually betrayed by Khan.

Because the Shadow is repeatedly shown as exceedingly capable - with a gadget to stop anyone - it's hard to imagine his enemies giving him any real difficulty. Even the Brute, the one foe who overcomes everything the Shadow throws at him, is ultimately defeated by the Shadow's mental powers. Some of the Shadow's enemies do have ideas about evading his powers, such as wearing special goggles (Dr. Demon) or painting eyeballs on their eyelids to fool the Shadow (Khan, in "Radiation Rogue"). However, the Shadows powers and gadgets ultimately win out and the villains are often at each other's throats; even when the stakes are high (Khan having nuclear weapons in "Master-Plan"), the Shadow sleepwalks his way through their schemes. And boy, such schemes...

But I haven't even started on the plotting, such as it is. 'Or his sister, Hiwan Khan?'

The series was initially written by Robert Bernstein (issues#1-3, stories #1-6), later by Jerry Siegel (issues#4-8, stories #7-12). I don't know what the workings of Archie Comics would have been at the time - did they use full scripts or "Marvel method?" How much involvement did the editor have over the finished product? Actually, I don't even have the writing credits because Archie didn't supply any; the Grand Comics Database claims Bernstein & Siegel wrote these comics, but they don't explain where their source of information came from.

Under Bernstein, the series was an average secret agent comic book where the author was seemingly forced to make his protagonist an old pulp hero. In Bernstein's last issue, the transition to super hero was made complete; perhaps it had something to do with Bernstein's departure? Perhaps Bernstein's stories were originally written for a secret agent comic but were rewritten to include uses of the Shadow powers and appearances by familiar pulp characters?

By the time Siegel arrived, the series was a super hero extravaganza. Siegel, as co-creator of Superman, really ought to have been up to the concept; after all, at the time he had 25+ years of experience writing comic book, most of them super heroes; he'd worked for every major publisher and self-published. He was not only one of the fathers of the super hero genre, he was one of the fathers of comic book storytelling - full stop! And yet, one wouldn't assume the Shadow#4-8 were written by an experienced professional. The storytelling is so crude it could have been published in 1940, when the medium was young. At times, Siegel's storytelling suggests he has contempt for the very comic he's been hired to write (see the image at the top of this post). The last two issues are filled with smarmy dialogue suggesting the writer can't believe he's wasted 25+ years writing forgettable nonsense for children. And this led to...

The series struggled to extricate the hero from dilemmas without resorting to contrivances.

Even under Bernstein, the Shadow would seemingly forget his powers, especially his trademark power - to become invisible - and thus ignore obvious solutions to his problems. Under Siegel, the situation worsened as the Shadow would use his powers in ridiculous ways (the porcupine-man illusion from "Radiation Rogue") or spring out a variety of gadgets, most of which were not properly set up in advance. The Shadow's Shadow-Gun, belt buckle ray beam, "weakness gas," spring-loaded boots and jet boots would appear as the Shadow needed some quick means to get out of a problem. Other villains have an Achilles heel which isn't brought up until the Shadow exploits it (as in "Game of Death," above). I submit that when the protagonist has vast mental powers and sleuthing abilities, he shouldn't need a deus ex machina to overcome every obstacle. Even if I could forgive the short-cuts in plotting...

Artwork was, at the best of times, functional.

The GCD identified the artist of the first three stories as John Rosenberger; Paul Reinman drew all of the covers and the stories from the fourth on up. Initially, I was very pleased to have a little Reinman art because he demonstrated a minor Kirby influence. However, looking back, Rosenberger was the most consistent artist in terms of panel-to-panel continuity. When Reinman became the artist, important events kept happening off-panel and the lines of perspectives between characters and objects were skewed (such as the size-changing house in "Game of Death"). At times, Reinman could be quite stylish, but for a man of his experience (he'd been in comics almost as long as Siegel), there's no excuse for the quick short-cuts he would take in storytelling (unless it was to match the short-cuts Siegel was making in the plotting). It seems as though Reinman was trying to work outside his limitations, perhaps penciling/inking more pages than he was comfortable with; Kirby had the talent to take on multiple assignments at once without suffering too much (depending on who finished his art), but Reinman seems to be cast adrift on the Shadow, becoming sloppier as he goes (such as the above sequence where the missile's location relative to Dr. Demon changes between panels). Perhaps a good inker could have saved some of Reinman's dignity. But even then...

The series' dialogue becomes increasingly erratic as the book continues.

In my ignorance of the process around how these comics were made, I wonder how much of the awkward dialogue came about because the artists weren't delivering what the plotter asked for. Perhaps the plotter's stories weren't paced properly for the artist, perhaps the plotter forgot certain details he'd intended for the artists to employ. Whatever the reason, dialogue in latter issues of the Shadow is practically at war with the images on the page. In the above sequence from "the Brute," the villain suddenly emits gas to counter the Shadow's gas attack. The Brute had not previously been seen carrying gas cannisters and thus the script has just one panel to establish the Brute has gas and it works to counter the Shadow's. Also, the Brute has to climb out of the pit, all in a single panel!

"The Brute" also has some of the laziest scripting, such as the panel which establishes the location of one scene as "you-know-where" when the audience does not, in fact, know where the scene is set. It's a clumsy attempt at the ingratiating style Stan Lee employed in his scripts, but only serves to highlight how little interest the scripter has in telling the story.

In conclusion

The greatest value of Archie's Shadow is to illustrate how many things can go wrong with a comic book. Between these eight issues, you can find failures in just about everything shy of lettering and colouring. It stands as a curious artifact from the period where Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko were challenging the cliches of the medium while most of their peers were simply clueless.

But is this one of the worst comic books ever made? Not exactly... it is entirely readable. I think a large part of why this comic book developed its reputation is because when the 1960s comic book revolution was occurring, it was stuck in the past; further, it put the Shadow into a ridiculous spandex costume, which no self-proclaimed Shadow fan could sit still for. But heck, the silly tights weren't the worst thing about this comic, as I've observed. The Shadow would eventually star in a number of well-received DC comic books from the 70s to the 90s, then return for the current Dynamite series; he's lived down this blip in his career rather well. As to Siegel and Reinman ...well, some people still give them grief for their other, better-known Archie super hero comics, which have also been called "worst of the 60s" or "worst of all-time." The best thing we can say about Siegel & Reinman is: no one talks about this particular side trip in their otherwise-respected careers.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Charming & troubling: Archer & Armstrong#1

I confess, there's something comforting about Valiant's new Archer & Armstrong#1. I haven't read anything of (or about) the original series, but since I stopped reading Marvel & DC earlier this year, this is the first I've seen of familiar "Big Two" talent like writer Fred Van Lente, artist Clayton Henry and colourist Matt Milla in some time. With the book's evident mismatched buddy comedy setup, it even seems like a natural substitute for fans of Van Lente's Incredible Hercules. However... well, first let's discuss the premise.

Obadiah Archer was raised in a creationist amusement park (that is, a park which depicts humans and dinosaurs side-by-side as young Earth creationists maintain) along with more than a dozen foster brothers and sisters. Having been trained as an expert fighter, Obadiah is chosen to seek out his parents' greatest enemy: a mysterious man called Armstrong who could be thousands of years old, but these days is a drunken poetry-quoting bouncer (at an establishment which apparently can't afford sober security). By the climax of the tale, Archer learns his parents are allies of the 1%, a secret cabal who literally worship Mammon and seek to destroy Greece.

One hopes the first issue of an ongoing series will give you some idea of what to expect on a regular basis. Based on this first issue, I can only assume what the series will be like; Archer & Armstrong will surely become allies at some point, but they aren't such by the end of the issue. We'll eventually learn who and what Armstrong is, but for the purposes of the introduction, he's an old drunken poet. Archer will probably learn to acclimate to the world outside his parents' amusement park with hilarious, tragic and/or tragi-hilarious results. Archer is somewhat appealing as a naive sort as his point of view directs this issue's narrative, but at best he's a right-wing caricature like a Saturday Night Live Sarah Palin sketch.

My summary can't adequately describe the humour in this book. Beyond creationism (including the Great Flood) and the 1%, there are also jokes about obesity ("You can do the educational rides after second lunch!" get it? the joke refers to how overweight the average American is) and homeschooling, but every gag feels too entirely on the nose. It's essentially a one-joke premise: what if the exaggerated version of reality as seen on Fox News and ridiculed by the Colbert Report were the setting of a super hero comic?

I don't really identify with the fundamentalist Christian movement of the USA, so I'm game for a few good jokes about a creationist amusement park (in the real world, Kentucky's governor is trying to make this a reality). But the "joke" is as toothless as a 21st-century Simpsons episode: look! A creationist amusement park! That's it! That's the joke! Similarly, I thought the concept of the 1% would be very funny when I first heard of it, but when they finally emerge (on the last page), it's just to make the most obvious jokes about uber-privileged Americans (such as referencing Wall Street). The only moment I found genuinely amusing was the 1%'s plot to destroy Greece in order to save the Euro, but it belongs in a panel from Van Lente's Action Philosophers! or Comic Book comics - it's too ridiculous for the rest of the book.

Since the humourous (quasi-satirical) premise of this series is presumably what will set it apart from other super hero books on the rack, I wish the comedy had been a little looser, less grounded in reality (just as the premise is exaggerated from reality). Henry is perfectly suited for a super hero comedy (he already has the comedy version of Alpha Flight on his resume), but he doesn't even sell the visual of the creationist amusement park as a comedic effect. His work here looks too entirely like Salvador Larroca or Greg Land, bereft of most backgrounds and relying on the colourist to fill in the details.

I'm willing to try the second issue of Archer & Armstrong out of interest in Van Lente's work, but if none of my concerns are addressed, it will be my last issue. At one point I thought, "what this comic needs to be more like Barack the Barbarian!" Then I thought, "...we're doomed."

Friday, August 17, 2012

Shockingly good: Godzilla - the Half-Century War#1

Here are two selling points: Godzilla and James Stokoe. To the former... I have a passing interest in Godzilla from the movies, but I consider myself a casual fan; I haven't really enjoyed any of the Godzilla comics I've sampled. The the latter... I haven't read any of Stokoe's books despite the rave reviews surrounding Orc Stain (by the time I changed my mind, the early issues were sold out).

However, people on the internet have been talking about IDW's Godzilla: the Half-Century War, so here was a potentially good point to jump into Stokoe's work and find out what I'd been missing. I was prepared to be unmoved by this comic, but I was not prepared to fall head-over-heels in love.

Even a lightweight Godzilla fan such as I can see how much love Stokoe has for the franchise. My favourite Godzilla films are Godzilla 1985 (1984) and Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002). I find the worst part of a Godzilla film is usually whatever plot the human characters are involved in, but these two pictures have very good human plots with characters you actually root for as they stand up against Godzilla (as opposed to yelling at the screen, "Eat them all Godzilla! They're too stupid to live!"). Similarly, Stokoe's Godzilla: the Half-Century War is grounded from the perspective of Ota Murakami, a hapless tank crew member who finds himself living through the events of the original Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956).

Stokoe is a... what, quadruple threat? Writer, artist, colourist, letterer. His Godzilla is loaded with details, but it doesn't overwhelm the characters or the action. Appropriately, some of his cues are from manga (ie, facial expressions, some dialogue balloons). As a minor fan, I certainly appreciated the "krsh!" sound effect as Godzilla powers up his atomic breath...

...But where I caved in was the depiction of Godzilla's roar. It seems Stokoe drew it in the same shape as the wave pattern from an audio recording of Godzilla roaring in the films. This is... wow. Oh, wow. How often do I get to see something done with the language of comic books that's new to me? Something I haven't seen done before? Outstanding.

Godzilla: the Half-Century War will only run five issues, but promises to feature different versions of Godzilla from over the decades. I'm committed to seeing this one through; beautiful art, lettering, colours and likeable characters; I only wish this were an ongoing series! Once again, IDW has a winner in my eyes; the sooner the industry starts taking cues from them, the sooner we can get back fun, quality books of merit across the line.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Amazing Race: Australia season 2 recap - an overview

The second season of Amazing Race: Australia has come to an end; before I go on hiatus from Amazing Race recaps until the debut of the US version's season 21, I'm taking an overview of the entire season.

The Host

Let's begin with Grant Bowler, the series host. On the debut season I found did well at delivering the informative spiels (the significance of a location, the Detour details, etc.), but was stiff when it came to interacting with others. On this season I found... little had changed. In the finale, Grant did show some personality when he hugged the winners at the Finish Line, but I would like to see him unbutton his collar in the future, just as the original series' Phil Keoghan did; Phil is now beloved for clips where he tests out a Detour or Roadblock himself, raises an eyebrow for emphasis, banters with the teams and dispenses relationship advice. I hoped Grant would warm up to that this season, but... not so much. Perhaps production wants to keep him aloof, but I'd like to see him act naturally.

The Cast

Casting was decent, but skewed to younger Racers, probably to attract demographics in Australia. The "old" team (Kym & Donna) were, what, in their 50s? Their youthful attitude hardly set them up as the season's codgers. Many of the contestants seemed to be in their 20s, so that Shane & Andrew gradually became the oldest Racers on the course.

Beyond that, there was a good male-to-female ratio (4 all-male, 3 all-female, 4 mixed) and good mix of family members and friends; also, they avoided stunt-casting minor celebrities which is a minor problem with the US version. I looked for the best in each cast (albeit, Paul & Steve tasked me) and was surprised at how much I enjoyed seeing Lucy & Emilia on the screen, to the extent that their elimination killed a lot of my interest in the finale. Special props to Sticky, who didn't make a big deal about his "handicap" and outside of one challenge (milking in leg 2) didn't demonstrate any difficulty at tasks despite lacking one forearm. His quiet confidence was a real treat compared to some of the "I have to prove myself" disabled Racers of the past.

The Race Course

This season's course was far superior to the previous, in that they actually circumnavigated the globe! Even the US version sometimes struggles at creating a course which wraps around the world, so major props there; they even succeeded at visiting Cuba, a location which the US version has never visited (and perhaps never will). It's interesting to note how because the Australia variant begins down under, many of the early legs were based in unusual, challenging Asian locales and it was a few legs before the Racers arrived in places with simplified navigation and English-speaking populations. Often on the US version, it's the reverse.

It was especially nice to see Canada, which has seldom been visited on the US show (when it was brought out in season 5, it was only for half a leg on the way to the Final Destination). It's a little too much like the USA for their own version, but for Australians, it made for two great legs. I think every season needs at least one leg in snowy climes just for the those Racers who will be seeing snow for the first time.

The Detours

According to the Wikipedia article, we were denied seeing several Detours and Roadblocks; I certainly noticed the absence of Detours in some early legs, but thought production was going easy on the teams. Nope, apparently they just had more footage than they could use!

On many occasions, I felt the Detours were a little simple (like counting limes or arranging jewelry in leg 5), but some legs did make it difficult for teams to recognize which task would be easiest (like the Chinese restaurant options in leg 11); this, ideally, is how Detours should function as it allows teams with particular strengths to surge ahead by choosing the less likely option.

The Roadblocks

The Roadblocks were an interesting mix; some required no real skill (the whirling dervishes in leg 6); others demanded physical strength (the waterfall climb in leg 10); still others took a sharp mind (the stairs in leg 3).

Other Tasks

The only Intersection of this Race (leg 6) was immensely frustrating because it slowed teams down, as the Intersection always does. It's an interesting idea to have teams work together, but I don't think it's ever really gelled on any version of the show; speaking from the audience, I'm not intrigued by the sight of teams sitting around waiting for their competition to arrive. Ah well, at least there was only one, compared to last season's two Intersections.

The only Fast Forward of this Race (leg 9) had the teams pose nude; it led to a little bit of comedy, which is about all you can hope for. Still, a second Fast Forward would have been nice, just to make the legs a little less predictable.

There were a lot of additional challenges this season, from building a raft (leg 1) to selling kitchenware (leg 12). They really ran the gamut and worked well at increasing the difficulty of each leg, as teams might be able to predict one Detour and one Roadblock per leg, but have no idea how many additional tasks there could be. Some, like the Bollywood number (leg 2), actually did delay teams.

Penalties, U-Turns, Yields and Other Punishments

I have never seen a season of Amazing Race where the U-Turn was such a non-factor; because the Dubai leg (leg 4) was so challenging for teams to navigate, Paul & Steve avoided elimination by being better navigators than three other teams. The Blind U-Turn in leg 5 came immediately before an airline flight and could have upset Paul & Steve's standing, but ultimately had no effect because the Detours weren't too challenging. A for effort, D- for execution.

Surprisingly, the Yield worked well; it was never much of a factor on the US version (hence its removal), but when Paul & Steve used it to delay Michelle & Jo, the subsequent Intersection had the hilarious result of inflicting Paul & Steve's own Yield upon themselves, forcing them to wait for Michelle & Jo to catch up! Thus, the Yield didn't give anyone an advantage.

Penalties were mostly dealt with in a fair fashion; Adam & Dane were penalized 30 minutes for selling possessions and it was enough to eliminate them because teams were that close together (leg 2). The four hour penalties which James/Sarah & Ross/Tarryn suffered in leg 5 didn't eliminate them on the spot, but the resulting "Marked for Elimination" penalty Ross & Tarryn received coupled with leg 6's Intersection ensured their doom.

The one penalty I object to is Joseph & Grace's 2 hour penalty for stealing a taxi from James & Sarah; the time penalty was fair, but it was unfair to apply it at the mid-point of the leg - it should have been administered at the Pit Stop, just as Vyxsin & Kent's penalty during season 18 of the US version was in a similar situation. Let's see some consistency amongst all the iterations of the show, yeah?

Last season, Grant had to eliminate one team before they reached the Pit Stop; this season, it happened twice (legs 4 & 11). It probably speaks to the difficulty of those legs, but coupled with two teams quitting the Roadblock on leg 5... boy, a lot of teams wore themselves out of commission.

Bunching

There's no other word for it than the one used in the fan community. "Bunching" helps out production by artificially ensuring the teams don't race too far apart from each other. There is some natural "bunching," as when teams catch up to each other at an airport and take the same flight. When fans complain about bunching they usually mean things like charter flights (which control what time teams can exit an airport) and hours of operation signs (which control when teams can begin a task).

The real disappointment of bunching is that it drains the intensity of the Race. So many times during this season, I would be impressed at how a team had outpaced their competition (ie, Michelle & Jo getting to the Guilin airport with a massive lead in leg 12), only to see every other team catch up. It's one thing for teams to luck out at the airport or take a better taxi ride, it's another to see teams saved by the "hours of operation" sign, which has placed teams up to six hours behind the leaders neck-and-neck with the pack.

It makes for better TV to see the teams running side-by-side, increasing their intensity by knowing where the competition is, but I like to see teams given as much of a free hand as possible to choose their fate. I felt this season had too much bunching; not enough to ruin the season, but enough that I sighed at several points when the "hours of operation" sign reared its face.

Money

Let's recap how often teams ran out of money:

  1. Leg 1: Sticky & Sam overpay on their taxi
  2. Leg 2: Adam & Dane run out of money (eliminated)
  3. Leg 4: Kym & Donna overpay on their taxi (eliminated)
  4. Leg 9: Joseph & Grace run out of money
  5. Leg 9: James & Sarah also run out of money (eliminated)
  6. Leg 11: Joseph & Grace run out of money again (eliminated)

It suggests either the teams are being very free with their spending, or production isn't giving them enough to endure. Some of these were definitely avoidable, notably Sticky/Sam & Kym/Donna getting the prices wrong; Joseph & Grace were also undone by choosing the most expensive kind of taxi. It's strange to see money as one of the most important factors of the Race, but there you go: keep this in mind, future Amazing Race: Australia contestants!

Editing

I suppose I have more complaints about editing than anything else. It felt as though some of the information which made it to the screen didn't belong there; taking time to develop the rivalry between Kym & Donna with Paul & Steve was needless as there was no payoff; by contrast, we didn't learn about Shane & Andrew's alliance with Michelle & Jo until nearly the end of the Race but it had been going on for a long time. I would appreciate it if time spent on developing rivalries built towards future confrontations and time spent on alliances built towards future co-operations.

Then there's the "villain edit" term which fans throw about and certainly seems to describe Paul. On the one hand, he gave the editors plenty of ammunition by mouthing off about his superiority and how he'd crush the "inferior" teams. We all love a little schadenfreude, such as Paul boasting of his skiing prowess followed by clips of him slipping up (leg 10). But sometimes the editors recycled Paul's quips just to remind us, "ah, yes, he's the one we're supposed to root against!" We were also omitted seeing the friendship develop between Lucy/Emilia and Paul/Steve, something which only came out on the former team's blog. Because this friendship didn't match the "villain edit," we were denied seeing it play out on television (removing the context from some scenes where the two teams are being friendly). I would have preferred a balanced look at Paul, rather than just his most hastily-uttered soundbites. Regardless of whether his ego has its own country (it's large, you see?), he's a human being and thus a little more complex than a TV "villain."

Then there's the way the camera lingered on the female form... one couldn't help but notice the upskirt shot of Sarah (leg 1), the low shots of Sarah being lathered at the Turkish bath and close-ups of Michelle & Jo lathering (both leg 6) and the focus on Grace's jiggling posterior (leg 7). Is Australian prime-time TV just a little more (openly) perverted than US TV? Of course, when Paul & Steve went nude (leg 9), the camera backed off.

What did I like about the editing? Well, there was one improvement I noticed: last season, the editors pulled "Sweet Georgia Brown" from the US version's audio library and used it as the theme song for Racers Mo & Mos, seemingly forgetting it's the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters and was used for Racers Flight Time & Big Easy because they play for the Globetrotters! I didn't make a double take at any of the musical cues this season and enjoyed the Shane/Andrew & Lucy/Emilia themes. Good work!

Thus, the curtain comes down on my Amazing Race: Australia recaps until 2013; however, I'll be back in September for recaps of Amazing Race season 21!

Amazing Race: Australia 2-12 final episode recap

Today marks the end of season 2 for Amazing Race: Australia, which is evidently already confirmed for a third season. But let's not get ahead of ourselves... how does this Race end? We're down to just three teams: twin sisters Michelle & Jo; workmates Paul & Steve; and police officers Shane & Andrew. We left off at the Pit Stop in the Forbidden City, Beijing, China. Shall we begin?

First up, we learn during the Pit Stop, teams were transported by airplane to Guilin, China, which can't have been a terribly restful Pit Stop for them. Why not simply begin the leg with instructions to fly to Guilin? Perhaps they did, but didn't want to bog down the final episode with travel which didn't mean anything in rankings. As host Grant Bowler notes, it's certainly a beautiful locale.

Michelle & Jo begin in first place and their clue directs them to travel via taxi to Lijiang River and find their next clue amongst the fishermen. They'll have to search amongst the fishing boats to find a fisherman with their next clue, but they must ask for their clue in Mandarin. The twins are very happy to be departing in first place. Arriving at Lijiang River, they find the site won't open until 8:30 AM, which is more than three hours away; more than enough time for the other teams to catch up. As Paul & Steve depart, there's a clip of Steve reflecting on how great it's been to have the opportunity to race around the world; Paul is simply looking forward to winning and see how the other teams feel about "being beaten by an accountant and a goofball." Again, whenever Paul isn't in first place he's an underdog.

8:30 comes and the police still aren't there; apparently they fell waaay behind on the previous leg, moreso than I realized. The other two teams head to the river and don fishing gear. Jo notes how serious Paul has become of late: "Just crack a smile, mate!" Each team chooses a boat and begins paddling out to the fishermen. It seems if the fishermen don't have a clue for the team, they have a fish for them instead; Steve is actually quite pleased to get the fish. Michelle & Jo get the clue on their first attempt.

It's now time for the last Detour of the Race: "Teach" or "Learn." Teams must head to a nearby school; in "Teach," they must choose a local student to tutor and teach them to speak 10 Australian words.

In "Learn," teams must learn the same 10 words in Mandarin, as taught to them by one of the students. The twins choose "Learn" and board a taxi. Meanwhile, Shane & Andrew head out to Lijiang River. At the river, Paul & Steve finally luck upon their clue and choose "Teach," then ask a local for directions; they decide to head out on foot. Shane & Andrew arrive at the river and notice the hours of operation sign, which helps them realize they're about an hour behind the others. They soon receive their clue and decide to try "Teach;" they still have their taxi.

Michelle & Jo have a good map, but their driver doesn't know where the school is so they start asking for directions. Paul & Steve are still on foot and beginning to realize they're making a mistake when a local says the trip would take 1.5 hours on bicycle! They befriend a local dog as they jog along. Michelle & Jo finally reach the school and begin "Learn" with a little girl instructing them. Shane & Andrew's driver doesn't know where to go, so they ask a local to join them and translate to their driver; Shane has to sit atop Andrew so they all fit in the cab.

Michelle & Jo fail "Learn" on their first attempt because they don't get "Sheila" or "Bloke." They ask another student for help and while her pronunciations are different from the first, this time they get a passing grade! Their next clue directs them to Baisha Market, where they must sell 10 kitchen gadgets. The twins return to their taxi and head to the market. Paul & Steve find a hotel and ask the staff to call a taxi for them; they're back on track. Shane & Andrew arrive at the school and choose a little boy as their student for "Teach." He seems to be a quick learner and the cops have a bit of fun playing along with him. However, he freezes up when they take him to the test. They decide to give him another chance and resume tutoring him.

At Baisha Market, Michelle & Jo start trying to sell items; they attract many onlookers (blonde hair & video cameras probably help) and soon sell four items. Shane & Andrew bring their student in again, but he freezes up again; they decide to try "Learn" with the same boy as their teacher! At the market, Michelle & Jo sell all 10 items and receive the next clue: fly to Brisbane, Australia!

At the school, Shane & Andrew get "Learn" on their first attempt and wonder why they didn't try it to begin with; they head to Baisha Market after giving their "teacher" a toy kangaroo. Shane & Andrew see Paul & Steve arrive and realize they're not in last place; Paul & Steve begin "Learn." Michelle & Jo arrive at the Guilin airport and hope to get on their flight before the other two teams arrive. Paul & Steve mess up their first try on "Learn." At the market, Shane & Andrew start selling items to locals. Paul & Steve get "Learn" on their second attempt and head to the market, realizing they're in last place. Shane & Andrew soon sell all of their items and leave the market for the airport.

Paul & Steve arrive at the market just as Shane & Andrew leave. Steve realizes the locals won't understand him, so he emphasizes being entertaining to them to sell his wares. Shane & Andrew arrive at the airport in time to catch the same flight as Michelle & Jo, with just 20 minutes to spare! At the market, Paul & Steve finish selling their items and head to the airport. They arrive 6 minutes before the flight departs; they make it too. Man, talk about luck! Michelle & Jo are "devastated" to have been caught up to.

In Brisbane, teams race out to find marked cars waiting for them with the next clue, but Shane & Andrew take a moment to buy a good map. They're directed to find Kangaroo Point and start driving. Paul & Steve decide to follow Michelle & Jo's car because they've had trouble with directions while the twins have been very sharp. Both teams arrive at Kangaroo Point at once, with Shane & Andrew close behind. The next clue directs them to Boggo Road Gaol, a notorious prison in Brisbane, where the warden has their next clue. Jo asks a pair of locals for directions, while Paul & Steve stand over her shoulder and eavesdrop; Paul & Steve are still following the twins. While they travel in a pack, Shane & Andrew break ahead on their own.

The cops arrive at the jail first, beaming for having thought of taking a map. It's now time for a challenge to see how well they know each other; one team member enters the jail alone and arranges photos of which team members best fit certain descriptions:

  1. "Which team would lend you a helping hand?"
  2. "Which team would lie to you?"
  3. "Which team worked best together?"
  4. "Whose relationship do you envy?"
  5. "Which was the unluckiest team?"

The other team member will have to match their partner's answers without knowing who they chose (it was used on the previous season). Andrew goes first and chooses Michelle/Jo, Paul/Steve, Shane/Andrew, Sticky/Sam & Adam/Dane. Shane begins matching his answers. Michelle & Jo arrive, excited to be on a "twin challenge"; Jo chooses Shane/Andrew, Joseph/Grace, Shane/Andrew, Tarryn/Ross, Adam/Dane. Paul chooses Lucy/Emilia, Michelle/Jo, Lucy/Emilia, Sticky/Sam & Adam/Dane. Jo & Paul finish and Michelle & Steve take their turns. Jo is irritated that her next door cellmate is Paul.

Shane finally figures out Andrew's answers and heads out; their clue directs them to Archerfield Airport, where a charter flight will bring them to Fraser Island. At the prison, Jo starts getting angry with Paul, who wonders why she's upset; "Because you're so rude," is her answer, but I don't think knowingly lowering oneself to this level does her any favours. Paul doesn't initiate any of this, which serves to make Jo look even worse. Paul does stand up for himself, wondering aloud why Jo is lashing out at him now, of all times. Paul tells the camera he's only ever had nice things to say about Michelle/Jo's game play, which is true.

Michelle is also stressing out at the challenge, thinking her sister has given "stupid answers." Shane & Andrew board their charter plane and head out to Fraser Island. Steve seems to get some of Paul's answers right at different times, but never all at once. However, he finally gets the challenge correct and departs with Paul for the airport. Seeing them leave increases Jo's frustration. Michelle finally gets the challenge right when she realizes "she doesn't realize what 'envy' means," as Michelle assumed Lucy/Emilia were the team to envy. Jo despondently remarks, "I just lost us Amazing Race: Australia."

Paul & Steve take the second charter flight, with Michelle & Jo close behind. At Fraser Island, Shane is a little airsick as they arrive and find 4x4s waiting for them to drive on the beach; they follow a marked route along the beach. Michelle also gets airsick during their flight. Paul & Steve land on the island next, with Michelle & Jo's plane landing just behind them. However, the twins don't know how to drive a manual 4-wheel drive.

Shane & Andrew reach the next clue box: it's a Roadblock! One team member must venture into the water where a long row of clue boxes await them. Each box contains a multiple choice question about some aspect of the Race thus far with 3 colour-coded options; they'll have a set of matching coloured rings to wrap around the clue box, indicating their answer; they need five questions correct. Andrew opts to take the challenge, having planned to keep him in reserve because he has a great memory and the last task of the Amazing Race is usually a memory-based challenge (like the flag arrangement task of last season).

As Andrew works, Paul & Steve arrive and Paul begins the Roadblock. He and Andrew are both given pause by one question about the Pit Stop in Jaipur. Andrew gets all five of the needed and they're told to travel on foot down the beach and dig up a treasure chest which contains the $250,000 prize money! They'll have to carry the chest with them to the Finish Line on the opposite side of the beach at McKenzie Lake!

Paul gets two of his Roadblock questions wrong, just as Shane & Andrew start digging up the chest. Michelle & Jo arrive at the box and Michelle takes the Roadblock. Paul fixes his answers, but gets some wrong again; he fails on the third, fourth & fifth attempts as well and begins to forget which options he used before. Michelle gets the Roadblock right on the first attempt; she and Jo head to the digging area, leaving Paul at the Roadblock. Paul finally gets the Roadblock on the sixth effort; Paul grants the others a "well done" for outperforming him when he normally gets Roadblocks done correctly on the first time. Paul & Steve head to the digging spot. Michelle/Jo & Paul/Steve both start digging for chests and Michelle gloats about beating Paul at one of "his" challenges.

At the Finish Line, all eight eliminated teams (arranged in order of elimination) high-five Shane & Andrew as the duo run to the mat with their chest; Grant confirms: they've won the Amazing Race: Australia and the chest of $250,000 is theirs to keep! Grant wonders what they'll do with the money; they both intend to fund their children's schooling and take some holidays; Shane really wants to revisit Canada (good choice!). They dive into the lake and leap about, celebrating their victory.

At the dig site, Steve finds the chest. Paul does tell the twins to keep trying and finish strong; Michelle & Jo do locate their chest soon after. Paul & Steve claim 2nd place at the Finish Line; Paul congratulates Shane & Andrew (saying they were "beaten by the best"), while Steve thanks all of the eliminated teams for running a memorable Race and he hopes to "have a beer with them" in the future. Of the others, Paul states: "I respect every one of them, even though they might've think I'm the most unfriendliest, stand-off guy, no, it has been a honour racing with all of you. Thank you so much." Paul actually succumbs to tears as he and Steve embrace and congratulate each other; Paul's proud of himself for racing "with integrity, with honour."

Michelle & Jo pull in at 3rd place. The sisters are proud of each other and Jo takes a lot of pride in herself for pushing outside her own boundaries. In closing, Shane states he just hoped to get as far as he could and perform as many challenges as possible; winning the Race was more than he hoped for.

Right, that's over with; it was a pretty good finale, I think. Shane & Andrew's key play seemed to be purchasing a map - otherwise, the teams were always within a few minutes' reach of each other. It was disappointing to see Michelle & Jo give vent to their frustration at the end of the Race, after being pretty classy for most of the season. Paul & Steve became more likable with time - Steve, as we learned more about him, Paul, as he stopped being his own press agent (show, don't tell - he had plenty of show in him).

Shane & Andrew stalled out a lot during this Race, but they were never in the back for long and gradually moved their way to the front. They seem like a couple of good blokes with a strong relationship of mutual respect with healthy careers and family lives; good people to win the Race!

Tomorrow: Yeah, I'm not done yet; tomorrow, I'll look back over the season and discuss how I feel overall about the route, the tasks, the racers and the host. Why stop blogging now?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Found in 15 Disturbing Things We Need to Know:
"Yet to displace [the Democratic Party] with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don't want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear."

"I doubt if the Republican Party could - simply because I don't believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest."

- Margaret Chase Smith, 1950.

Amazing Race: Australia 2-11 recap

Welcome to the second of our three nights of Amazing Race: Australia! Just four teams are left, so by the end of the hour, we'll know which teams will bring it all home in the final leg!

We resume the Race at Banff Springs Hotel with police officers Shane & Andrew departing the Pit Stop in 1st place at 2:02 AM and directed to fly to Beijing, China! First, they have to travel via bus to Calgary (my home!) and use its airport. Siblings Joseph/Grace leave next, followed by twin sisters Michelle/Jo and workmates Paul/Steve and all catch the same bus as Shane/Andrew. Michelle & Jo are holding out hope to be the first all-female team to win Amazing Race: Australia.

The teams arrive in Calgary and it's nice to see them running through the ever-familiar Calgary International Airport (I think last visited by Amazing Race in season 5 of the US version?). At this point, we learn Shane/Andrew have had an alliance with Michelle/Jo "pretty much the whole way." Well, this is a fine time to tell us about it, producers! Grace declares "We don't want Paul & Steve in the top three. They don't deserve to be," which picks up on her animosity towards them for the first time in quite a while. Paul, however, believes he and Steve have fought "an uphill battle" and therefore "deserve to be in the top three." Of course, one can't "deserve" this honour, one simply achieves it. Ask some US fans if Flo "deserved" to win season 3 then watch the fur fly!

All four teams wind up on the same flight to Beijing. Arriving there, they grab taxis and travel to a marked stall on Ghost Street. Paul notes he & Steve's taxi driver quotes a price which is virtually all the money they were given for the leg! Man, the teams are really strapped for cash this season! Paul gets upset at this and decides to find a different vehicle. Joseph & Grace are already en route in their taxi when they learn how expensive it'll be; they have exactly what the ride will cost, no more... and what are the odds this is the only time they'll need money in the leg? When they arrive at the location and try to pretend they can't cover the entire fare, the driver is a little irritated. When he reaches for something in his glove compartment, Grace panics, thinking he has a gun; they still wind up paying less than he asked for, but save a few dollars.

Michelle & Jo are the first to the marked stall: Detour! The options are "Waiter" or "Wheel." In "Waiter," teams must travel to a restaurant, dress up as waiters and correctly take down the orders from a table of customers, present the order to the chefs and deliver the correct plates to each customer (fans of the US version will recall this from season 14).

In "Wheel," teams spin a Lazy Susan wheel then eat whichever delicacy lines up with the wheel's arrow; they'll have to do this four times. Michelle & Jo choose "Waiter," while the other teams choose "Wheel." This suggests Michelle & Jo have no idea how much time it took teams to overcome the waiter challenge on the US version!

As Paul & Steve begin spinning the wheel, Steve notes how he was rooting for the most disgusting items to land on Paul when he spun because then Steve wouldn't have to eat them when he spun; Steve chants "Testicle! Testicle!" as Paul spins, but Paul lands on scorpion; Paul claims he enjoyed it. Shane gets cicadas, while Grace lands on starfish. At first, Grace is excited, assuming she'll be eating a small starfish: nope, it's jumbo-size! At the sight of it, Grace shrieks, jumps out of her seat and declares, "I'm not eating that!" Hoo-boy. At this, Joseph declares they're doing "Waiter," because he doesn't think Grace has any hope at finishing the challenge.

Michelle & Jo are steadily figuring out Mandarin as they collect their orders. At "Wheel," Steve & Andrew each wind up eating Bird's Nest Soup. Paul takes fish heads. Paul is a little unnerved but thinks he has to prove to his own ego that he can do it. Shane gets springroll with duck anus... is this a typical dish or some arcane joke? Steve gets sheep testicles, much to his disgust. At "Waiter," Joseph notes how difficult the task is and asks Grace to please eat her starfish; she refuses. To solve the dilemma, Grace starts composing her own rap songs by sounding out the orders, thus committing them to memory - it works!

Michelle & Jo finish the Detour first, much to my surprise! Their next clue directs them to a foot massage parlor, where they must receive a foot massage for 10 minutes, 5 minutes per foot (another revisit of season 14). Of course, the trick is this is a very painful foot massage. Paul & Steve leave the restaurant right after the twins.

At "Wheel," Andrew gets the starfish and tears right into it. By the time he finishes, Joseph/Grace have finished "Waiter," which is again, quite surprising. Joseph & Grace ask Shane/Andrew how much they paid for their taxi; it was only 70 (Renminbi?), versus the 750 Joseph/Grace's driver demanded! They realize they made a huge mistake with their taxi. Grace declares China is "the hardest one." Joseph reminds her, "We just got here." At the parlor, Michelle & Jo begin their foot massages; this was a Roadblock in season 14, so it's a lot tougher to inflict it on both team members. Shane & Andrew start right after the twins. Michelle doubts whether Jo will be able to manage the pain of the massage when it's her turn, but Jo offers a comforting hand to soothe her tortured sister.

Meanwhile, Paul & Steve's taxi has become lost. They ask to be let out, then start looking for another taxi. Jo is in tremendous pain during her massage; Michelle, Shane & Andrew all try to encourage her. Shane recalls Jo's screaming sounds a lot like his wife giving birth to their first child (a comparison some teams in season 14 made). Andrew remarks, "I hope you were more supportive to her than you were to me!" Andrew finishes his massage and Shane begins his. Joseph & Grace begin the challenge next, with Grace going first.

Through tears, Jo points at her masseuse's button and declares, "You're mean. You have a smiley face on your front." She starts crying for morphine. Grace pulls her foot away after one minute, which means the clock is reset; she'll wind up going through six minutes on one foot! Jo finishes the task and Shane thinks there should have been a midwife present to show her her baby! Michelle & Jo get the next clue: travel by taxi to the Marco Polo Bridge and count all of the stone lions on the bridge. Shane & Andrew finish the massage a little later. Grace finishes her massage and Joseph begins; he thought Grace was making up the pain, only to discover how real it is. Paul & Steve finally arrive at the parlor, where Joseph warns them about the massage. Soon, Steve is in pain and holds hands with Joseph to get through the pain. However, Joseph soon finishes and leaves with Grace. Steve declares the pain of the massage was worse than being tattooed. Paul shows little concern, declaring, "you have to push yourself to get results." Steve wittily retorts, "Get stuffed!" Steve enjoys himself when it's Paul's turn, but Paul bottles up the pain and doesn't show it off.

Joseph & Grace are almost out of money as they head to the bridge. Their driver brings them to Marco Polo Hotel by mistake and they're officially out of money! The hotel staff give them a map so they start travelling there on foot. Michelle & Jo are first to the bridge, with Shane & Andrew right behind. However, the bridge is closed until 7:30 AM. Paul & Steve are also there when the bridge opens, but there's no sign of Joseph & Grace yet. They soon realize some lion statues have more than one lion in the sculpture, so they have to take their time to make sure they get every lion.

Shane & Andrew finish only half of the bridge then try to submit it, but to no avail; Michelle & Jo try the same thing with similar luck. Joseph & Grace are still travelling by foot. At the bridge, Michelle & Jo start shouting out random numbers to throw Paul & Steve off their game; it's worth an effort, I suppose. Shane/Andrew & Michelle/Jo fail again on their second attempts, but Paul/Steve get it on their first attempt.

It's now time for the Roadblock! Set at the Great Wall of China, one team member must pass through nine rows of warriors; only one warrior in each row will allow them to pass. If they're stopped three times, they'll have to start over. Michelle/Jo & Shane/Andrew share some information and soon both teams have the right number of lions. Paul, Jo & Andrew will be performing the Roadblock for their respective teams. However, when Shane/Andrew ask Michelle/Jo's taxi driver to help theirs with directions, they refuse. Shane & Andrew are a little stunned by this turn of events.

Joseph & Grace arrive at Marco Polo Bridge and start counting their lions. Paul & Steve arrive at the Great Wall of China, something Steve has already wanted to see. Paul starts working at passing the warriors. Michelle & Jo arrive next and are a little "devastated" to find Paul & Steve are ahead of them. When Paul is waylaid after three strikes, Jo begins alternating against him for the challenge. Elsewhere, Shane & Andrew get a local to help direct their taxi driver, who has brought them to the wrong freeway. At the bridge, Joseph & Grace seem to get the task in one attempt; Joseph agrees to take the Roadblock. Their plan is to take a taxi to the Wall then beg for money to pay for the bill.

At the Roadblock, Jo lands at the final row with just one strike left; unfortunately, she doesn't make it. Paul winds up in the same situation, but makes the right guess. "I got it wright. Naturally." is his modest response. Departing, he tells Jo he didn't get it; she realizes he's lying. Paul & Steve are headed to the Pit Stop: the Forbidden City! They head out in their taxi.

Jo finishes the Roadblock on her next attempt; she's both proud and angry to have finished the challenge, but not overtaken Paul. After climbing all the stairs Joe remarks, "I have a better bum than you Michelle, I can tell you now." Shane & Andrew arrive at the Great Wall and dismiss their perpetually lost taxi driver. Andrew begins the challenge.

Michelle & Jo's taxi driver is a little wiser than Paul & Steve's and they make it into the Forbidden City first! At the Pit Stop, host Grant Bowler rewards Michelle & Jo with 1st place! It's certainly high time they earned it, especially after their excellent work on this leg. They are in the final three teams now and Grant also gives them $10,000 from Southern Cross Travel Insurance. "We're ready for the final," says Michelle. Paul & Steve arrive a little later and take 2nd place. Paul notes they hoped for first place but "we can take this all the way and what an accomplishment to brag about after."

At the Roadblock, Andrew reaches the final row with two strikes left; he loses one, but luckily gueses right with his last guess! He and Shane make way to the Pit Stop, but have no taxi to carry them. Joseph & Grace fall asleep in their taxi and wake up at the Great Wall... but evidently nowhere near the right spot. Shane & Andrew finally get a taxi and head out. Andrew becomes a little emotional when he considers everything he gave up at home to go on the Race, but now considers they might be due for elimination. However, they arrive in 3rd place. "Now it's time to win," says Andrew.

It's dark and Joseph & Grace still haven't found the right location for the Roadblock. As they argue with their driver, Grant arrives to inform them they've traveled into Inner Mongolia. With three teams checked in, he eliminates the siblings by their taxi. This makes the second time Grant's performed this duty in this season. "I didn't think a brother/sister combination could survive this long, that's a severe challenge in itself," says Joseph. Overall, Joseph is impressed to have discovered how capable Grace is, while Grace admires how Joseph has kept her safe through the journey.

I warmed up to Joseph & Grace at first, even though Grace's toying with Paul was childish. However, ever since they stole James & Sarah's taxi in Paris - coupled with Grace's false apology - I've been indifferent to them. Overall, they were okay Racers who could have gone the distance, but Grace could have used an attitude check.

We're down to our final three:

  1. Michelle & Jo: They seemed very tense on this leg but it was great to see them find advantages in unexpected places (the Detour, the taxi) and finally take home the 1st place I felt they could have had at almost any point in this Race.
  2. Paul & Steve: Paul's old overconfidence is returning now that he's in "proving myself" mode, but he's not taking it out on other players, which is nice. His indifferent reaction to Steve's pain at the massage was not the mark of a good friend though, I think.
  3. Shane & Andrew: Like Paul & Steve, these two have fallen on old habits - getting lost, mainly. They're still pretty strong and could possibly even win; I'm just glad one 100% likeable team is in the finish.

Tomorrow: Back to Oz for the finale of Amazing Race: Australia season 2!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Amazing Race: Australia 2-10 recap

With the Olympic Games over, Amazing Race: Australia is back on the air; this is good news, except the network intends to air the final three episodes across just three evenings! Yeesh, I'd better get right to the recapping...

We resume the Race in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; there are now only five teams still racing and we're due for two more eliminations! Workmates Paul & Steve head out in first place at 10:11 PM with their first clue directing them to travel by bus to Banff. Banff?! Sheesh, that's a good long bus ride. Why not tell the teams to drive themselves to Banff? Further, they're using charter buses again, leaving an hour apart. Steve is very excited, having visited Banff on his own in the past. Paul thinks police officers Shane & Andrew are their biggest rivals now, but he still admires their effort; boy, why wasn't Paul being edited this nicely about, oh, 9 episodes ago?

Shane & Andrew are almost two hours behind Paul & Steve when they exit the Pit Stop. Shane acknolwedges they have a reputation as being "stupid cops." They wind up signing on the first charter bus with Paul & Steve; the other three teams are placed on the 2nd bus. Twin sisters, Michelle/Jo, siblings Joseph/Grace and sisters Lucy/Emilia are on the latter vehicle. Shane describes being on the first bus with Andrew, Paul & Steve as putting the "heavyweights" out front. The two teams trade a few friendly barbs with each other; as Paul does some boasting about his experience with winter sports, Shane opines "if Paul's head gets any bigger it's gonna explode."

The 2nd bus is clearly the fun bus; the three teams of siblings start having some fun as the ladies fix each other's hair; discovering Michelle & Jo wear extensions, Emilia puts them on and pretends to be their third sister, then goes on to masquerade as Jo claiming, "You know me 'cause I've got better boobs." The teams are also very smitten with the countryside.

In Banff, the first bus arrives and Shane/Andrew & Paul/Steve race to Wild Bill's saloon, where they find their next clue: teams must now don flannel western garb and ride a mechanical bull for up to 60 seconds (both team member's total); if they choose to remain on the bull beyond the 60 seconds, the team with the most time accumulated will receive a bonus prize. I suppose the danger is, staying on the bull will slow down their racing progress; it's actually a pretty good balance for a prize. Shane & Andrew begin the task first and finish first; they decide to go for the bonus prize and keep going; this seems to fire up Paul & Steve too.

Meanwhile, the second bus has arrived and the other three teams head to Wild Bill's. Paul & Steve decide to leave the challenge after collecting 78 seconds because Paul's hand is being cut up by the ropes on the bull. Shane & Andrew decide to leave after 149 seconds. Their next clue directs them to the Junk Yards at Rundle Mountain, but it won't open until 8:30 AM. Since it's still night, the two leading teams wait at Wild Bill's as the other three teams begin the challenge. Jo decides to beat Paul & Steve's 78 seconds at the very least; Lucy/Emilia & Joseph/Grace agree, each wanting to beat the front runners at something. "Let them have their fun," says Paul. Michelle & Jo end at 101 seconds, Lucy & Emilia at 80. Paul & Steve later share some banter with their friends Lucy & Emilia:

Steve: "I do my riding better in the bedroom!"

Paul: "Lasts about the same amount of time, 15 seconds."

Joseph & Grace are still riding the bull; Grace really wants the special prize and as Joseph is pretty good at the task, they keep going. When Shane & Andrew see the siblings are starting to catch up, they resume riding (which they're allowed to do) and begin collecting more seconds. So, now it's a race to see who gives up first! Shane's hand is getting bruised, but so is Grace's; when Shane & Andrew reach 201, Joseph takes charge and declares they should give up before Grace injures herself any further. "You need to think about the other legs," is Joseph's rationale to Grace. Joseph & Grace congratulate Shane & Andrew, who are pleased to have held out just long enough. Shane & Andrew are given the bull-riding prize, which is a 30-minute headstart over the other teams! Hey, it really was worth holding out for, considering the circumstances! It isn't much, but Andrew notes many legs come down less than 30 minutes difference between teams.

In the morning, teams drive themselves to the Junk Yards. Shane & Andrew's headstart means they enter at 8:30 - but no one else! The other teams are held back until 9:00, which is a little stinky; it's not so much a headstart as a "hold the others back." Now, it's time for the Roadblock: one team member must climb up a frozen waterfall (a popular Amazing Race task in icy climes). Shane takes the challenge and begins climbing, a little worried about his bruised hand from the bull riding. At 9:00 the other teams enter the task; Paul, Lucy, Joseph & Jo take the Roadblock for their teams. Shane has already reached the top and grabbed his next clue; they leave the task before the other teams begin.

Now it's time for the Detours: "Search" or "Ski." In "Search," teams head to Lake Louise and use an avalanche rescue beacon to search through snow to find its receiver.

In "Ski," teams head to Lake Louise and must both ski downhill through a flagged obstacle course without making any mistakes. Shane & Andrew choose "Ski." Back at the Junk Yards, Paul begins talking about his strategy for climbing, hoping to use his weight and strength to his advantage. Jo tells him, "I think I'm just gonna use Paul's head there, I'm gonna (makes 'stabbing' noises & gestures), that's how I'm gonna get up, Paul!" Reflecting on this, Paul can only say, "...Gee, that was a nice thing to let me know!" The other four teams begin their Roadblock; Michelle points out to Steve how Jo has outpaced Paul and Steve admits, "His pride will be wounded!" Paul does manage to overtake her, thanks to his superior strength. Meanwhile, Lucy is saying "I'm not going to die today," to herself. Paul beats the other three teams to the clue, but Jo is fast behind, followed by Joseph.

Shane & Andrew are donning their equipment for "Ski," while Lucy is still on the Roadblock and very frightened. Lucy finally makes it to the top, deeply impressing Emilia. At "Ski," Shane hasn't skiied since he was 18; Andrew hasn't so much as been in snow before. "He was like a baby giraffe trying to find his feet," is how Shane describes Andrew's skiing. As Paul & Steve head to "Ski," Steve admits he didn't ski on his previous visit to Banff, but Paul is still very confident in his skiing prowess. Being gracious, Paul agrees to do "Search" for Steve's sake.

Shane & Andrew finish "Ski" on their second attempt and receive the next clue: journey to the Great Divide and navigate a dogsled through a course. As they depart, Andrew wonders why Paul & Steve choose the slower Detour, given Paul's skill at skiing. Michelle, Jo, Joseph & Grace are all preparing for "Ski," but none have skiied before and can't even figure out how to put their skis on. Grace collides into a snowboarder and then hits on a great idea: ask him for skiing instructions (as none are provided for the teams). Grace's charms work for her once more as he happily explains how to ski. Grace finishes the course before the other three Racers. Grace worries that Joseph won't listen to her instructions because she's the younger sister; she manifests this concern by yelling at him to listen to her.

Paul & Steve have had zero luck at "Search" and finally decide to switch tasks, which means going back to the entrance at Lake Louise to pick up skis then back up to the ski hill. Lucy & Emilia are just beginning "Ski," even though Emilia admits they were both terrified of skiing going into the leg. They ultimately decide to try "Search." Joseph finally waddles to the bottom of the hill, following Grace's instructions; they head to the Great Divide.

At the Great Divide, Shane & Andrew are super excited as they begin the dogsled challenge. Paul & Steve begin "Ski," with Paul sharing pointers to Steve. In a voiceover, Paul boasts of his skiing prowess, but the editors muck with him, showing him slipping over on the snow and smacking Steve in the head with his ski pole (which is actually a little scary, given how close the pole comes to Steve's eye). Michelle finishes the course, followed by Paul. Jo is struggling, but not as badly as Steve.

Shane & Andrew collect their next clue, which is found hanging in a fir tree and are directed to the Chateau Lake Louise to find their next clue inside of an ice sculpture. They return to their car and begin the drive. Back at "Ski," Jo finishes the course ahead of Steve, much to the twins' glee. Both teams head to the Great Divide. Lucy & Emilia are getting flustered at "Search," unable to understand how to use the beacon. "I will dig all the freaking snow in all of Canada and Alaska! I will find it!" vows Emilia.

At the Great Divide, Joseph & Grace begin the dogsled course. Grace likes the dogs, but complains about one who poos while running, although she admits "that's one talented dog." At the Chateau, Shane & Andrew find their clue and find the tools provided for them to retrieve the clue are pretty silly - things like a tea cup. They choose a bottle opener and start chipping the clue free of the ice. Lucy & Emilia finally locate their transceiver and head to the Great Divide.

Michelle/Jo & Paul/Steve begin the dogsled course just as Joseph & Grace exit. At the Chateau, Shane & Andrew retrieve the clue and are directed to the Pit Stop: the Banff Springs Hotel! While Michelle & Jo race behind Paul & Steve on the dogsled course, they reflect on how disappointing it is to be behind them "all the time" (a slight exaggeration). At the Chateau, Grace chooses a stiletto heel shoe to break out the clue, which works very nicely.

At the Banff Springs Hotel, Shane & Andrew go running to the Pit Stop in white cowboy hats; for an instant I thought I was looking at Jet & Cord from the US Amazing Race! Host Grant Bowler greets them alongside a uniform-dressed RCMP officer. Grant awards 1st place to Shane & Andrew along with $10,000 from Swisse. "The stupid cops are just starting to warm up," Shane declares. Joseph & Grace retrieve the clue and head to the Pit Stop.

Paul/Steve & Michelle/Jo arrive at the Chateau and the former team begins trying to break open the marker to the clue which Shane & Andrew already removed! Their tunnel vision is such that they don't notice the other markers along the way have clue envelopes located beneath them. Michelle & Jo realize this and keep it to themselves as they quietly go after their own clue. Paul & Steve knock the marker on to the ground, so they resume bashing it on the ground.

Lucy & Emilia perform the dogsled ride at the Great Divide then head to the Chateau. Paul & Steve finally smash the marker into pieces and still don't realize what it means as they look around confused. Michelle & Jo collect their clue and head to the Pit Stop, absolutely ecstatic at beating Paul & Steve. Even after the twins leave, Paul & Steve have no idea how they did it and keep hammering at the pieces. Steve finally gets up, walks past the other markers and sees they still have clues beneath them. They laugh at themselves, but realize they've senselessly squandered time. Paul does think Steve "laughed a bit too much."

At the Pit Stop, Joseph & Grace claim 2nd place and Michelle & Jo are 3rd. Paul & Steve finally get their clue and head to the Pit Stop. Lucy & Emilia arrive soon after and see the shattered remains of the marker Paul & Steve destroyed, causing them to wonder what happened. Emilia assumes Paul & Steve tore at the marker with their hands and teeth. They quickly get their clue out using the shoe, icepick of choice!

Paul & Steve claim 4th place and admit to Grant they made a lot of mistakes. Lucy & Emilia start tearing up as they head to the Pit Stop, knowing their time must be up. Sure enough, Grant has to eliminate them. The sisters hug and cry. Lucy sums it up: "As much as you sit there and you curse the Amazing Race for making you do all these things, after it's done, you get to look back at it and you go, hee! I did that! I did that!"

It's an immense pity to see Lucy & Emilia go; they had heart, determination and loved the experience of testing themselves. They're everything I point to in what sort of teams I like to see on the show: devoted to each other, driven to succeed, overjoyed by the world around them. By all rights, they should have been eliminated in leg 1; making it this far is a fine achievement.

We have just four teams left!

  1. Shane & Andrew: Before the season started, I assumed these two would place at the top for at least half the Race; I was dumbfounded at how... dumbfounded they seemed in the early legs. In the past few legs, they've shown the strength and intelligence I figured them for and it's good to see them reach the brass ring.
  2. Joseph & Grace: Grace needs to express herself to Joseph without resorting to shrieks (ASAP!), but otherwise they were decent enough this time out, especially in how Grace learned skiing.
  3. Michelle & Jo: Jo showed some moxie when she managed the Roadblock, something Michelle has repeatedly wanted to see from her (and she's kept delivering). Their repeated harping on Paul & Steve was tiresome, but probably necessary to keep themselves motivated.
  4. Paul & Steve: Wow, they fell pretty far this leg and all due to bad decisions they made; it's a good reminder that in the Amazing Race, the positions can change without warning. Which sets us up for...

Next timeTomorrow: The series heads to China for the penultimate leg!