Showing posts with label Amazing Race. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Amazing Race. Show all posts

May 11, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Beacon of Hope"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

When evaluating the cast of each Amazing Race season, it’s easy to look at two strong guys and expect them to blow through the race. When this pair includes professional athletes, that chance seems even greater. The interesting part is that physical competitors frequently go out early. They could be poor navigators, struggle with intricate tasks, or just hit a run of bad luck. When an imposing team does get it together, the results can be predictable. Max and Katie won three straight legs heading into the finals, but it still feels like Bates and Anthony’s race to lose. They succeeded by following other teams and then rolling on the challenges. That’s hardly a bad strategy if they follow the right people (they did). Even with a few hiccups, the hockey players breeze to the finals and then turn on the after burners. They’re hardly the least desirable winners and gracefully take the top prize by a considerable margin. While no drama exists at the final task, there’s still plenty to like with the finale. The challenges feel more inspiring, particularly in the first hour. Caroline and Jennifer struggle in the second-last leg and lose despite more inept play from Mona and Beth. Both are clearly not serious contenders in the final leg, which becomes a two-team race between the season’s top competitors.

Teams begin by boarding a ferry and traveling to Belfast in Northern Ireland. Everyone wants Beth and Mona out, but there isn’t the same unity among the top three teams as last season versus the Beekmans. Everyone realizes that it’s an individual game. This is not a strong season, but the good-natured way they approach the game has been refreshing. Even when the stress picks up, there are few squabbles. The Roadblock is a unique activity called bog snorkeling that involves swimming through nasty water. This is a silly task that seems unpleasant but hardly impossible given the four-minute time requirement. Even so, it causes problems for several participants. Mona nearly has a breakdown because of her fears of the cold and dirty water, which make this a double whammy. Her struggles are nothing compared to Jennifer, who hurts her chances but jumping into a random pond for no reason. Quitting becomes a possibility, but she pulls through and finishes the Roadblock. They’re way behind and will need a lot of help to make the final three.

The top three teams race to the Detour and pick “Tray It”, which requires them to serve meals and recreate the final dinner of the Titanic. This is more than just a physical task and involves closely reading the sign. Max and Katie wisely discover the twist, but Mona repeatedly sends Beth with the wrong food. It’s a good reminder that sometimes it’s wise to slow down and figure out the challenge. Anthony also struggles with all the dishes and sends Bates into a rage. He seems ready to drop the gloves and brawl, but his partner saves the day. They finish second behind Max and Katie, and it comes down to a two-team race for the last spot. Caroline and Jennifer’s difficulties get worse due to bad navigation, but they recover and blow through the “Spray It” challenge. Painting a specific graffiti image takes time but lacks all the running and headaches of the food. The editors try to introduce drama into the finish, but it’s clear the roller derby moms will survive. The likable country singers hang in there right to the end, but it isn’t enough to avoid Phil’s wrath.

The remaining three teams go on quite a journey to drink a pint at the Euston Tap in London. After an eight-hour ferry ride, they don’t even finish the beer! The final destination city is Washington, D.C., and the first location is the Lincoln Memorial to the spot of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This serious moment is followed by a goofy joke where the clue tells the racers they’ll be meeting Barack Obama. Past seasons have used Wayne Newton, so who knows what will happen? Everyone feels dumb when they realize their destination is a hokey tourist spot where they’re “photoshopped” into a picture shaking hands with the president. They humbly exit and venture to the Tidal Basin for another Switchback. This Roadblock comes from the dreadful Family Edition and sends players through a swarm of secret agents to find the one with their clue. It’s very random for the finale and plays a key role in Max and Katie’s demise. He inexplicably falls way behind in this challenge, and they never recover.

The next step in this challenge-packed leg is a visit to Nationals Park for a high-flying game of catch. One player uses a zip line way above the field and drops a ball to their partner on the ground. The big obstacle is the mascot outfit worn by the receiver. It’s nearly impossible to see or maneuver in the bulky costume. Creepy mascots of George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt dance around and liven up the proceedings. Bates and Anthony have a clear edge at this point, and it only grows while the others struggle at the stadium. They venture to Hains Point for the final challenge in a giant ball pit full of globes. Certain balls spotlight the countries they visited, which needs to be put in order. It’s a silly task that could have been dramatic with direct competition. Instead, Bates and Anthony finish before the others arrive and win the million-dollar prize. This finale includes entertaining tasks that show more creativity than much of the season. Even so, the predictable finish makes it hard to go over the moon about this race. They producers need to go back to the drawing board and re-consider every part of the show. Using minor tweaks like adding an Extra Pass is hardly a game-changing move. It’s still entertaining television, but it will take some major upgrades to push The Amazing Race back to the pinnacle of its glory days.

May 5, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Working Our Barrels Off"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

This week’s Amazing Race splits the five remaining teams into two groups and forces one to scramble to avoid elimination. The interesting part is how they end up divided by several hours during the jaunt through Scotland. The leg begins with the warning that a U-Turn is ahead, but that plays only a minor role in the outcome. It’s the lack of diligence from Joey and Meghan and the roller derby moms that pushes them to the back of the pack. After grabbing what’s apparently the best flight, they celebrate and prepare to grab the top two spots. This type of error happens nearly every season, and it’s easy to understand why they feel complacent enough not to look for better options. The saving grace for Mona and Beth is the fact that they aren’t the only ones to make the mistake. They power through both Detours ahead of Meghan and Joey and live to see another day. It’s clear that the top three teams are working together and will make it difficult for them to make the final leg. The Beekmans proved last season that just surviving is enough, and there’s always a way even when the other remaining teams have banded together. The question is whether enough luck exists for history to repeat itself in back-to-back contests.

Teams fly to Edinburgh and drive yet another Ford vehicle to the Gosford House. This is the location for the Roadblock, which requires the players to play a note on bagpipes for several minutes while marching with the Royal Scots. It seems easy for Max and Bates, but Jennifer struggles mightily. The judges don’t seem to hold them to a very high standard; bagpipes are no joke. It’s nice to see a challenge that’s more of a cultural encounter than a nasty experience. The teams enjoy the experience of visiting the stunning castle, and that’s never a bad thing. The downside is that the task has little impact on placement, especially among the top teams. This isn’t a case where the trailing pairs have a chance to make up time. They’re in the back unless something crazy happens. Searching for the clue inside the fireplaces of the Craigmillar Castle is a fun touch but offers few opportunities for a change.

The Detour options are “Tasty Puddin’” or “Whiskey Rollin’”, and the choice is easy. Who wouldn’t want to eat some delicious pudding? Unfortunately, that task actually involves prepping haggis, but it’s still the better choice. Max and Katie realize the hockey players will go for the strength task, so they wisely go the food preparation route. For no reason other than being silly, the producers add a Robert Burns impersonator to do a stirring rendition of his poem “Address to a Haggis”. He’s an energetic character though slightly creepy at the same time. It’s probably impossible to extol the virtues of haggis without sounding a little strange. The other Detour involves rolling eight heavy barrels of whiskey to a party. It’s a task that seems faster, but even the hockey players take a good amount of time with it. Bates shows his crazy strength by lifting the barrel over his head, while others struggle to even move the bulky object. The country singers wisely choose the haggis, which may be grisly but seems pretty straightforward.

The remaining two teams both choose “Tasty Puddin’”, which means Meghan and Joey are in trouble if they can’t gain an edge with the haggis. They’re fit but lack the strength of Mona and Beth, so the Double U-Turn doesn’t give them a chance to slide into fourth. In fact, it takes both YouTube hosts to even move the barrels. That strategy isn’t going to gain any time. Max and Katie and the hockey players both exercise the U-Turn to knock out the other alliance. This makes sense on the surface, but it really doesn’t benefit Max and Katie to knock out a weaker team. They’re still facing off with Bates and Anthony, their biggest competition going forward. On the other hand, the spread between flights makes it a waste to try and take out the hockey players. Picking them would just antagonize the laid-back guys, who would still survive and maybe fall back a spot. Since a bunching is inevitable at the start of the next leg, the gain would be nonexistent. Going with their original plan is the right choice and keeps everyone happy.

Looking towards next week’s two-hour finale, it’s easy to put money on the hockey players because of their physical strength. However, that assumes the final challenges are based on that attribute. Other teams are better at navigation and have shown they can move quickly enough through challenges. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Bates and Anthony go out in the first hour. Mona and Beth are the clear underdogs and most likely to exit first, but anything can happen. They overcome a Speed Bump and problems with directions to survive, which shows their resilience. The extra task is a form of Scottish bowling called Skittles, which is easy but takes more time than other Speed Bumps. This isn’t on par with sitting on a block of ice or riding in a traveling sauna. There’s a little skill to rolling a strike using a ball without finger holes. Will their scrappiness be enough to win them the million? This prospect is doubtful, but there’s no clear favorite at this point. My pick is Max and Katie, though nothing would be shocking in this unpredictable season.

May 1, 2013

Podcast Spotlight: Rob Has a Podcast

My Survivor enthusiasm began all the way back in the first season when I caught the last few episodes. It was already a full-fledged phenomenon by that point, and I joined viewing parties with friends during the Australia and Africa seasons. The reality competition’s popularity has waned over the years, but a consistent fan base has remained and kept it rolling through 26 installments. My interest has been strong, though I did wonder during the low points if I should jump ship. Starting with the crazy Heroes vs. Villains season three years ago, the show has become must-see viewing once again. My interest has shifted more to the strategic side of the game, especially since I started writing recaps for Sound on Sight. Expressing my thoughts about the latest twists wasn’t enough, however. Was there a community of fans out there who enjoyed the show in the same way? Thankfully, I discovered the perfect outlet for my Survivor mania. One of its most acclaimed former contestants actually does a podcast covering the show and reality television in general. I started listening a few years ago, and it’s easily become one of my favorite podcasts.

Rob Has a Podcast takes a light approach and has great fun delving into everything that happens each week. It’s very entertaining and makes keeping up with the show more enjoyable. The main reason is the self-deprecating host, who clearly loves the world of reality television. This isn’t a case where a former contestant can’t get over his past experiences. Instead, Rob Cesternino has found a clever way to use his insider status and create something entirely different in the process. The show has taken off in the past year, and this popularity has helped him to bring in big-time guests. Jeff Probst took an hour out of his hectic day to talk with Rob, and that’s just one of many great examples. Russell Hantz makes frequent appearances, and I’m sad to admit that my negative stance towards him has softened after hearing these discussions. Rob’s secret weapon is his wife Nicole, who brings so much energy to each appearance and has a big personality that’s just right for this podcast. Their back-and-forth discussions go beyond the show and are a lot of fun.

Every Thusday morning, Rob gets the chance to interview the player voted out that week. The conversations are usually 15-20 minutes and provide valuable insights about what we didn’t see on the screen. Later that day, a feature guest joins for several hours to go much further into the happenings. Recent stellar examples include Jonathan Penner, Sophie G. Clarke, Marty Piombo, and Sandra Diaz-Twine. Few guests disappoint, and even the rare awkward conversations are usually entertaining for that very reason. If that wasn’t enough, Rob and Survivor Tocantins runner-up Stephen Fishbach record the live “Survivor Know It Alls” podcast on Wednesday nights right after the episode. Their immediate reactions are a treat even when the episode fails to bring fireworks. When we have a case like Phillip’s surprise exit two weeks ago, their excited responses just add to the fun. Looking beyond Survivor, Rob also covers The Amazing Race with his resident expert Jessica Liese every Sunday. It’s hard to keep up with the crowd of great podcasts each week.

The main reason for Rob Has a Podcast’s success is the way it remains smart while having a great time. There’s plenty of silliness on display, including some ridiculous impressions of Probst, Penner, and Boston Rob from the jovial host. Even so, the conversations also treat Survivor with respect and really explore the strategic decisions made by the contestants. It’s geeky but in the best way possible. If the idea of chatting about the show for hours sounds like a good time, this is the podcast for you. Rob frequently includes questions from listeners in the discussions, and it’s clear that he’s building a community of passionate fans. While the everyday person may ask “Is that show still on?” and anger people like me, there still are plenty who can’t get enough of Survivor. The show’s long-running success is because of this group, and Rob Has a Podcast is just the place for them.

April 28, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "The Ultimate Fun House"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

This week’s action-packed episode of The Amazing Race reveals the best and worst aspects of the current incarnation of this long-running show. After 22 seasons, it’s impressive to see challenges that still feel creative and exciting for devoted fans. On the other hand, there are warning signs that the producers are drawing the wrong conclusions from the consistent success. They seem convinced the audience is fascinated by the showmance between the hockey players and Caroline and Jennifer. While mentioning it is fine, repeating the same types of conversations feels unnecessary when so much is happening in the competition. Even if they make the finals and are competing directly for the million, the story isn’t going anywhere. A much bigger moment has Bates waking up on the train to Dresden, Germany and realizing that his bag is gone. Thankfully, he keeps his passport and avoids that disastrous fate. Bates laughs off the challenges ahead, but it’s a pretty big deal to lose everything. This moment is only shown briefly yet has a lot more interest than flirting with the girls. The teams just aren’t that engaging to make a possible romance exciting.

Even so, there’s still plenty to enjoy in a brisk episode that ends with a tight footrace to the mat. This is obviously a non-elimination leg, which limits the suspense of nearly seeing Anthony and Bates finish last. They end up just edging Mona and Beth, who drop to the bottom after some serious navigation issues. Losing his bag could have given Bates the edge to keep the guys ahead. This leg’s show-stopper is a head-first drop from the top of the very tall Park Inn Hotel that looks terrifying. Teams hang from the edge of the skyscraper and are dropped mechanically like the elevators in the Tower of Terror at Disney World. It seems a bit safer than a bungee drop yet provides a more dramatic image. On the opposite end of the excitement is the trivia “challenge” inside their new Ford Fusion cars. This is a great change of pace in theory, but the questions are so easy that it becomes comical. The first question lists five presidents, so there’s at least a chance of missing them. Its follow-up is ridiculous because the answer is so obvious. The question asks about the Russian leader at the time of Reagan’s “tear down that wall” speech. The options include Mikhail Gorbachev and other choices that aren’t even people like the Brandenburg Gate. It’s like an episode of Celebrity Jeopardy! Amazingly, no one seems to struggle with this question.

The episode’s highlight is a wonderful maze under the Salon Zur Wilden Renate dive bar in Berlin that’s full of strangeness. While it freaks out straight-arrow racers like Max and Jennifer, it’s a truly inspired location. Only Joey recognizes the greatness and talks about wanting to return to that spot. The Roadblock forces players to crawl through tight spots and locate the white room for their clues. It’s a claustrophobic spot that includes light effects, mirrors, and even a creepy doll. Traversing it while drunk is not a good idea. The bar contains the expected silly denizens, and another trivia question forces racers to interact with them if they don’t know the answer. The “ich bin ein berliner” quote is pretty basic knowledge, but several clearly have no idea without some help. It isn’t multiple choice, so kudos to the producers for at least making it a bit harder. Beth and Bates end up in the maze at the same time, so their space is extremely tight. They work together to escape and both plan to win in a footrace. That’s a wise move for only one of the two teams.

Prior to the Roadblock, teams compete in a Detour with a choice between “Train Trials” and “Font Follies”. The first task sends them to the Deutsches Technikmuseum to put together a toy train. Meghan and Joey pick it and realize it’s tougher than expected. They have fun with it and enjoy being away from the stress of the other players. Everyone else decides to transport large letters by foot to Berlin’s Museum of Letters. There’s a strategy to selecting the letters that are easiest to carry. Picking a lowercase “o” is much wiser than an “s” or a “k”. There’s also a chance of breaking their cargo, which requires them to go back to the beginning. Anthony’s letter falls over and does just that, which forces them to scramble and build the train tracks. They struggle even more than Meghan and Joey and seem destined for last place. It’s interesting to note that no one seems concerned with finishing last, so they probably assume this is a non-elimination leg.

This episode offers another reminder of how alliances can be a crutch on The Amazing Race  Caroline and Jennifer waste time trying to decide if they should stick with Bates and Anthony. They also have problems after losing the guys when following them to the next clue. With only five teams remaining, it doesn’t make sense to stick together. The chance of slowing down and ending up fighting for the last spot is too likely. Max and Katie are playing their own game and getting better as the race moves along. They blow through this leg and take their first victory by a sizable margin. Meghan and Joey recover well and grab second to show they’ve recovered from last week’s troubles. It’s still anyone’s game and should provide a lot of excitement in the impending battle to reach the final four.

April 21, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "My Cheese is Out of Control"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

The challenge when analyzing teams on The Amazing Race is realizing that survival is all that truly matters. Pairs have bumbled their way across the globe but ended up winning it all because they never finished last. The latest players to fit this description are Chuck and Wynona, who have remained near the back of the pack throughout this season. Even when they’ve finished higher, it’s been the result of struggles from other teams. This week, their luck finally runs out because of a penalty at the mat. The amazing thing is that they almost survive once again. When an exhausted Joey and Meghan struggle to find the Pit Stop, it gives the Alabama couple another shot to grab a life boat. This time, they aren’t so lucky and face an unfortunate exit. Even when a team’s clearly overmatched by the competition, it’s rarely fun to watch them go out this way. Standing helpless at the mat, they watch as the YouTube hosts arrive and are awarded with the fifth spot.

The difficulty in watching Chuck and Wynona is noticing the huge disparity in their excitement about the race. She’s physically weaker, but that isn’t the main problem for them. Instead, it’s her downbeat attitude about every new task that makes it painful to watch them. This race includes some strong players, but there are few superstars within this group. Chuck is capable and willing to dive into anything, and they might have a chance if Wynona could take a different approach. She psyches herself out right away, and that makes their success nearly impossible. He has gotten nastier with his comments in the past few weeks, so that probably doesn’t help her outlook. Even so, it has to be frustrating to hear frequent complaints about her weaknesses. One of the best aspects of this show is watching teams go way beyond their comfort zones and overcome a difficult challenge. Chuck and Wynona could have been fan favorites with an attitude change. His outrageous mullet and unique skills make them prime candidates to achieve that label. Instead, they became frustrating and lose the underdog story because of a poor attitude.

The episode begins with a large amount of material that plays no role in the outcome. There’s a flight to Switzerland and multiple train rides, but the group ends up bunched together. The YouTube hosts and roller derby moms miss a connection, but later operating hours keep them even. Fifteen minutes have passed in the episode before a task separates the teams. Thankfully, there are some exciting challenges that make up for the slow start. Teams must choose a very cute St. Bernard rescue dog and deliver it by train to a rescue guide. This episode takes place among the Bernese Alps, and the scenery is amazing. The Roadblock sends players up the Eiger peak to retrieve a Travelocity Roaming Gnome. It’s a simple task of walking across a wood plank, but it’s complicated by the serious heights. Looking down isn’t wise. Most players roll through it, but Wynona struggles mightily. Her confidence is at an all-time low, and moving gingerly through this task keeps her downbeat. Chuck doesn’t help matters but harping on her slow speed either. They fall behind and slow down a waiting Joey and Meghan, so it’s clearly a two-team race to avoid elimination.

The week’s major challenge is a Switchback, which brings back a famous task from a past season. This one comes from the premiere of the Amazing Race 14 and involves transporting 50-pound wheels of cheese on a sled. The difficulty comes from the steep hill, which makes them nearly impossible to navigate. The extra fun this time comes from the deep snow. Climbing up the hill is even tougher than heading down, and it takes a rope to make the hike even possible. Unlike the Switchbacks in previous seasons, this one remains very difficult on the second run. Katie has an awful time climbing up the hill, and it’s even worse for Wynona. Most teams just ride the sleds and hope for the best, and they eventually reach the end. Anthony and Bates grab their third first-place finish in a row and are clearly pulling away from the pack. The top four teams finish strong, and Meghan and Joey pull well ahead of Chuck and Wynona. They decide to throw the cheese down the hill, which would be smart without the penalty. A lack of cabs and bad directions for Meghan and Joey almost knock them out. Even with these difficulties, they provide a model for the right attitude to have on the race. She is moving slowly and not doing well, but they keep moving and stay in the competition. He keeps supporting her and calls the race the best time of his life, so they aren’t just focused on the top prize.

Despite the craziness of this season, the five teams remaining are the right group. The hockey players may be the front runners, but they’ve had problems with navigating in the past. There’s no guarantee they make the final three given the unpredictable nature of this race. After a rough start, this episode provides good entertainment and a spectacular location. It’s easy to look at the massive peaks and call them “amazing”, which hasn’t been the case as often lately. Could the inconsistent show be heading for a strong finish? It’s hard to say at this point, but this episode reveals more promise for the season’s final act.

April 7, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Be Safe and Don't Hit a Cow"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

In some of its best seasons, Survivor thrives on making its strong competitors look silly. Players talk about being in control and running the show, then they’re immediately booted by the “weaker” contestants. This trend rarely happens on The Amazing Race, which frequently has teams dominate the seasons. There are notable exceptions like the Beekmans’ win last season, but it isn’t uncommon to watch a team roll through challenges and stay near the top of the pack. The audience believes the smart and physically capable players will do well, especially in the race’s first half. Those expectations have been thrown out the window in the 22nd installment. John and Jessica rolled through the early episodes and then self-destructed in stupendous fashion. David and Connor were clearly a top team but were felled by a serious injury. On the other hand, a very limited pair like Chuck and Wynona have benefited and even found a way to advance in the standings. This week, Pam and Winnie join the list and fall apart in a pretty simple Detour. After finding their groove and becoming a contender in recent weeks, they’re quickly booted right out of the race.

Beyond the surprise exit, this leg includes plenty of strange moments that fit this race’s tone. Two teams receive speeding tickets and must go to a local station to pay the fines. Apparently, Botswana also funds its police departments with speed traps. Caroline and Jen try to flirt their way out of a ticket, but the stern officers aren’t fooled. They waste a lot of time exchanging money and quickly fall towards the back of the pack. Max and Katie start in last and continue their unfortunate run by also getting a ticket. This is a particularly grumpy week for a lot of racers, and Katie takes the cake. Max does make it easy by crashing into a pole leaving the station, so it’s clear that he’s feeling the pressure. Meghan and Joey also struggle with navigation and luck out by accidentally spotting Max and Katie on the road. If not, they might still be looking for the clue. This second leg in Botswana is a bit tougher than last week, but it remains small scale and confined to a fairly limited area.

Teams start by heading to Boro Village, where they immediately learn about the Fast Forward. This placement is frustrating because it basically hands the victory to the leading team. Since there are a limited number of Fast Forwards in this race, there’s no downside for Anthony and Bates to take it. Assuming it’s a doable task, they get a free pass that’s a lot more important than the Express Pass. This challenge involves water skiing for a mile in waters that could possibly include crocodiles. Bates wonders if he can stand up on the skis, a feat that is no joke given personal experience. His concerns are unfounded, and they roll through the task and win the Fast Forward. They’re clearly thrilled and are the definite front runners at this point. Getting the chance to relax at the Pit Stop while the others struggle should also give them an edge in upcoming legs. The remaining six teams head for the goofy Roadblock, which requires them to transport goats on a makaro canoe. It’s trickier than it looks because of the balance needed to keep such a slim canoe from tipping.

This Roadblock brings out the worst in some players, particularly Mona. Wynona seems ready to quit while trying to keep them rolling, but she powers through it. This task recalls the infamous moment when Flo was ready to quit in season three. Zach desperately got some locals to help them cross the water in an even trickier vehicle. Reminding long-time fans of this nasty scene isn’t wise. Pam and Winnie maintain their second-place spot up to the Detour, which gives the options of “Brains” or “Brawn”. These are strange titles, and neither is accurate. The former is really just about spotting cut-outs of 10 animals and remembering them. It’s hardly a complex mental puzzle. This is the wiser choice since it doesn’t involve actual living things. “Brawn” involves finding a way to get the donkeys to move once their cargo is loaded. Hilariously, the method involves dangling a carrot in front of their mouths. Pam and Winnie quickly realize this is challenging and switch to the other Detour. That feels like a wise choice, but that assumes they’ll have keen eyes in that task.

This episode feels designed to set up a final battle with Max and Katie trying to survive against Joey and Meghan. They’re scrambling through the donkey challenge, and it’s tense when the animals start revolting. That’s just a smokescreen once Pam and Winnie switch Detours again, however. It’s a stunning drop because they’ve rolled through most tasks. Without their struggles, Max and Katie would have been eliminated. They also face an easy Speed Bump of doing a ceremonial seduction dance after getting their face painted. It slows them down a bit and would have been the difference. Will they recover again? Beyond the hockey players, the remaining teams all have major issues. Limited players like Caroline and Jen and Chuck and Wynona struggle every time yet still avoid elimination. The unpredictable contest might go anywhere at this point, which should provide an exciting finish.

March 31, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Scorpion King Hunter"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

This week’s Amazing Race opens with an apology for insensitivity towards Vietnam veterans in last week’s episode. Phil’s statement is a response to an outcry led by Fox News that included calls to boycott the series. While those claims seem over the top, it spotlights a challenge for a show that’s moving so quickly through other cultures. A downed B-52 bomber was used as the backdrop for a clue, and a goofy song described the wonders of socialism. The current version of this competition plays out so quickly and rarely takes a breath to consider whether it’s cheapening the countries on display. This standard may be unfair for a reality competition, but that’s the challenge for a show that’s using aspects of these locations. While the apology is understandable, it’s harder to take it seriously when it’s followed by yet another odd venture into Botswana. The local Bushmen play a key role and are used almost solely for laughs about their customs.

“Scorpion King Hunter” begins in Hanoi and sends teams flying a long way to Maun, Botswana. There’s a really simple task of determining where Maun exists before they can book tickets. Sadly, the increasingly dim Chuck and Wynona just start throwing out countries from all over the world like Australia and Paraguay. That doesn’t seem like the best tactic. Predictably, they end up on the last charter flight in Botswana despite all teams landing at the same time. The teams are only 15 minutes apart on each flight, so there are chances for improvement. After choosing three Bushmen at the Roadblock, the players must go hunting for a scorpion. These guys are very cute and fun, but it’s still a little awkward to watch the contestants interacting with them. Admittedly, most city dwellers would have a similar reaction, so it’s hard to be that tough on the racers. A notable exception is Katie, who complains about the smell while standing right next to them. That’s not cool.

The Roadblock does include the striking moment when a Bushman puts the scorpion inside his mouth. Explanations include putting it to sleep or cleaning it so the player can hold it, but he’s really just showing off for the cameras. Several contestants nearly lose it with fear, particularly Joey. His over-the-top expressions aren’t winning him a lot of fans among the cast, but he’s charming on screen. Wynona finally does another Roadblock and spends a lot of time complaining. They head for the Detour in last place and need something positive to give them a chance. Thankfully, it’s time for a challenge that’s tailor-made for Chuck’s unique skills. The Detour options are “Fire” and “Fowl”, and the latter choice is the perfect solution for an outdoor tinkerer. The task requires them to set a rudimentary trap, which seems a lot easier than making fire with zebra manure. Along with Pam and Winnie, they leap from the back of the pack and into second and third place. The reason is the much greater difficulty of the fire challenge, which only the hockey players can master. Anthony and Bates are clearly strong competitors and finally pull it together to grab the top spot.

This is one of the most glaring examples of a serious discrepancy between the Detour options in a while. Making fire requires a delicate touch and isn’t easy to master, while putting together the trap seems pretty straightforward. Four teams end up switching Detours, which shows the surprising gap between the choices. Max and Katie stick took long with the fire, and it causes their doom. While it’s a non-elimination leg, it gives a reminder that no team is safe with this cast. Because of the double leg and David and Connor’s quick exit last week, it feels like this race is running in place. It’s surprising that this is the season’s first true non-elimination leg. The lack of a departing team adds to this episode’s very light tone. When you have three barely clothed Bushmen hanging out in the back seat of a modern SUV, it’s hard to take anything seriously. The teams are having fun playing around in Africa, so it’s a breezy leg. It’s also a major shift from the tense battle to avoid the U Turn in the previous week.

The Amazing Race frequently visits famous locations, including the Hanoi Hilton and the cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The difference in more recent examples is the breakneck pace, which doesn’t give them a chance to show reverence. In season six, Gus was moved to tears by a visit to a Slave House in Senegal, and it was a touching moment. Hearing Ian talk about returning to Vietnam in season three after fighting in the war was also handled well. The producers aren’t willing to slow down the pace to take a moment and prefer to go for silliness over depth. It’s still an entertaining series, but something has been lost over the years. The latter seasons are starting to flow together and don’t have the same classic moments. It’s still a popular show that draws viewers, so it’s hard to fault them for sticking with a proven formula. However, there’s definitely more wiggle room for them to do something more. They’d rather draw a goofy laugh about Bushmen than teach us about their culture, and that’s a shame. It’s more easily digestible and provides some thrills, but the issues just offer a reminder of the much greater past achievements.

March 24, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Your Tan is Totally Cool"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

Looking at the best episodes in Amazing Race history, many take place in crowded cities that knock racers out of their comfort zones. Dropping teams into a foreign culture and forcing them to maneuver adds an extra layer to the challenge. This week, the remaining eight teams head to Hanoi and clearly feel the pressure of the unknown environment. With the added weight of the impending Double U-Turn on their shoulders, everyone brings their best effort to avoid last place. Well, almost everyone. Vietnam isn’t on par with India in terms of culture shock, but there are still enough obstacles to create an entertaining leg. It may not be one of the greatest episodes, but it’s easily the best of this season. The stakes feel higher as the number of teams gets smaller. After David and Connor choose to exit the stage, removing two teams seems possible. Even when Chuck and Wynona are spared, it doesn’t lessen the excitement of this fast-paced episode. She’s a weaker physical player, but the sour attitude is the real problem. She grumbles about him for the entire leg and doesn’t recognize that he’s been working tirelessly to compensate for her shortcomings. If they’re not on the same page, Chuck and Wynona are doomed very soon.

Teams depart Bali and fly to Hanoi, and David realizes they must stop after talking with his orthopedic surgeon. They travel to Vietnam but immediately locate Phil for an emotional departure. David and Connor are likable and strong, so it’s too bad that fate dealt them a rough hand. Pam and Winnie join Max and Katie on an early flight, but they miss the operating hours for the Roadblock by a short window. Everyone catches up and starts on equal footing the next day. There’s plenty of talk about the alliance and putting the target on the roller derby moms and Joey and Meghan. John’s negative impact on the game remains, and a few players take a shot at his idiotic choice to keep the Express Pass. The editors are sparing him no mercy. The problems for his alliance show the pratfalls of separating from the main group on this show. It’s better to just play it straight and be nice to everyone when U-Turns come into play. The Roadblock involves memorizing some phrases from the performance of a song depicting the wonders of socialism. No one has a huge problem, and everyone ventures on for a special blessing as they jump through a small course. It is one of those cultural tasks that is easy to complete, but Chuck and Wynona still have issues. They repeatedly try it and don’t focus on why they’re failing. It’s pretty early for killer fatigue, but it’s really set in for the Alabama couple this week.

The big showdown comes at the Detour since the U-Turn chance awaits them after finishing. Pam and Winnie arrive first and maintain their lead right up to the end. Despite their navigation struggles several weeks ago, they’re looking like front runners at this point. They stick with the plan and pin the U-Turn on Meghan and Joey, who have a charming sad face in their picture. The You Tube hosts are the second team to complete the Detour, but they’re forced to choose the other option. They’re frustrated but thankfully avoid the frequent nasty behavior from victims of this tactic. Megan and Joey make the perfect choice for the second U-Turn and pick a weak team that is definitely behind them. Chuck and Wynona are unlikely to blow through both Detour options in time to pass them. It’s rare to see teams make the right pick in this situation and is a refreshing change of pace. They fall back to sixth place but prove their mettle by handling the adversity well.

The Detour options are “Make Your Move” and “Make Your Meal”, and both are complicated endeavors. The first requires players to set up a Chinese chess board using human pieces. If they figure out the pattern, it’s simple and the better choice. However, it could lead to confusion if they miss the general idea. The other option could take longer but is straightforward. Teams must buy a large amount of ingredients from a local market and cook a popular Vietnamese dish. The challenge is purchasing the right quantity from sellers who don’t speak their language. Max and Katie are lucky enough to locate a “Fern” (a local who speaks English and is willing to help) and move into second place. Chuck and Wynona aren’t so lucky and forget the important step of grabbing some chickens at the start. He’s running off in every direction, and she’s sitting back and grumbling to the camera about him. In fact, they’re still doing this Detour when Joey and Meghan arrive there from the U-Turn. Chuck adds to the silliness by saying “Muchas Gracias” after receiving their clue. Poor guy.

With David and Connor out, it’s hard to say who will make the final leg. The most likely trio is Pam and Winnie, Max and Katie, and Anthony and Bates, but each team has a flaw that could doom them at any time. The hockey players repeatedly do well at challenges and arrive behind other teams at the next task. Either they have a slow-moving camera guy or are really bad at navigation. They end up fifth this week and must have gone through quite an ordeal based on their relief. Although the Double U-Turn doesn’t kick out anyone, it raises the drama and delivers a very good episode. The energetic pace and intense competition are really kicking into gear and delivering one of the better recent seasons.

March 17, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "I Love Monkeys!"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

Only four episodes have passed, but this is shaping up to be one of the strangest installments in Amazing Race history. The season began with three teams quitting a Roadblock and was followed by a pair giving up due to a fear of water. David and Connor still win the two-part leg despite the fact that David has a ruptured Achilles. All of these are crazy examples, but they pale in comparison to the baffling conclusion this week. John and Jessica have clearly been one of the strongest teams in this competition. He seems bored by just avoiding elimination and has been focusing on alliances and other strategy. They earned the Express Pass in the opening week, but it ends up being the crutch that spells their downfall. The key with this reward is not waiting for the perfect time to play it. If there’s any doubt that elimination may happen, why take the chance? Believing the roller derby moms are behind them, John and Jessica stumble through the Detour and fall short at a deceptive Roadblock. He seems like the real culprit and repeatedly insists they’re in good shape, even after elimination. Phil’s “oy vey” comment before the end credits shows the peculiar nature of this surprise exit.

The editors gleefully telegraph John’s fall by repeatedly showing his arrogance. It’s hard to blame them, though. He makes it really easy by speaking frequently about his amazing skills. When talking about his attention to detail, John clearly explains that she isn’t so good, but he is awesome. Meghan and Joey are set up as an obvious counterpoint to them; the YouTube hosts look surprised every time they do well. Beyond the obvious enjoyment at watching an arrogant guy fall, the result shows the limited impact of making an alliance on the race. It may get them a better flight, but it means little in the final scramble to reach the mat. It also shows the dangers of thinking too hard about strategy. Even after their problems at the Detour, John and Jessica can still move on if they use the Express Pass at the Roadblock. Instead, he insists they’re fine despite all the evidence to the contrary. If there’s any doubt about their placement, a team should always expect the worst.

Last week ended with a cliffhanger of whether David would continue to race on crutches. When he immediately dismisses the idea this week, it’s clear this was a cheat by the editors. Shame on you, Amazing Race producers! Experienced viewers didn’t fall for this ploy. The clue from Phil sends teams to Bali to continue this honeymoon version of the race. Will they ever visit a crowded metropolitan area? The front group finds a flight that lands almost four hours ahead of the others. Max and Katie are the big winners by calling ahead to a travel agency and leap back to the front. They have a strong week and appear to be a top contender. John and Jessica also find a better flight with Joey and Meghan to get within two hours. Teams are raring to go, but their fate rests in the hands of a monkey. Their chosen ally must eat through a coconut to reveal their next clue. It’s a clever move, particularly when the monkey decides to make a run for it. The Detour choices are “Fruity Top” or “Sandy Bottom”, and nearly everyone chooses the first option. It involves constructing a large religious offering of fruits called a gebogan. It takes a while, but only John and Jessica have serious problems. They eventually choose the other Detour while everyone in America yells “Use the Express Pass!” at their screens.

“Sandy Bottom” looks harder from a physical standpoint but actually doesn’t seem too challenging. Mona and Beth show their mettle and gain some ground on the trailing group. The final task of this grueling double leg is a Roadblock at Uluwatu Beach. It’s a rare case where it tests knowledge of previous legs before the finale. Players navigate a large group of surfboards to locate something they’ve encountered in a previous leg. The brilliance of this task is requiring them to locate Phil to discover if their answer is correct. He isn’t easy to find and is a long way away, so taking random guesses is not a wise move. Another less sportsmanlike option is just stealing a glance at another team’s board; this move helps Connor to edge Winnie and grab a first-place finish. Caroline tries the random approach and picks general answers, and the failures push her to the edge. They still finish in fourth, but it’s clear they might not be ready to make a serious run. It comes down to Chuck versus John for the last spot, and the tenacious Alabama guy stays alive. Watching him crawl through small rock openings and run all over the beach makes it exciting to see him continue. That guy is great television.

Eight teams still remain in this race, yet it’s very difficult to see much differentiation among the teams. The hockey players seemed like one of the stronger pairs, but they stumble into seventh this time. Pam and Winnie nearly took a water craft right out of the competition a few weeks ago, yet they could be true contenders. This unpredictability could deliver a strong finish for a head-scratching season. When teams eventually leave the attractive islands of the Pacific, they’ll likely have to show more determination to survive. Regardless, there are sure to be more surprises in the coming weeks.

March 10, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Like James Bond Again"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

When 58-year-old David O’Leary apparently ruptured his Achilles tendon at the end of last week’s leg, his departure felt certain. How could he possibly continue? The guy is in excellent shape, but this type of injury is no joke. The Amazing Race requires great stamina and speed, and there’s little chance he can skip every physical challenge. This week, the doctors confirm that David ruptured his Achilles and the muscle around it, so they seem doomed. However, crutches and a walking boot allow him to continue. They’re living on borrowed time, but it’s remarkable they can even keep going. John and Jessica help out with the Express Pass, which sends them first to the mat. The young couple wisely sees a solution to their dilemma with handing out the prize. They can honor their original deal without aiding a strong team. David clearly needs the rest after the exhausting leg, but evil Phil’s bad news has him questioning his future. This is a dreaded double leg, and “to be continued” flashes on the screen while David contemplates his fate. While they’ll probably keep racing, it’s clear the odds are stacking up against them with this latest twist.

This episode is packed with action and moves rapidly. After learning more about David’s injury, the teams take a long trip to Christchurch, New Zealand with multiple stops. Chuck and Wynona make an error in the final stage, but it only hurts them a little because of an overnight bunching. Teams are roughing it more this time; they spend one night on the airport floor and another in a tent. Their first task is a jet boat ride, which is apparently the law when you go to New Zealand. Amazingly, there is no bungee jumping this time. The most interesting part of these segments is the formation of several alliances. John and Jessica are working with the roller derby moms and Meghan and Joey, while the hockey players team up with Caroline and Jen. Teams are really focused on alliances this season. Of course, they must remember that they mean almost nothing on The Amazing Race.  Barring a unique case like the purposeful targeting of Jet and Cord in the Unfinished Business installment, they rarely bear fruit. It’s possible that joining another team can just get you lost in New Zealand. Of course, there are worse places to be stuck given past racer experiences.

The Detour options are “Rev It Up” or “Reel It In”, and nearly everyone picks the first choice. That task involves driving a modified car through a series of cones within a specific amount of time. The challenge is that both players must complete it and use a manual transmission. This causes problems for Caroline and Jen, who just learned how to drive a stick recently. David also realizes he can’t do this with his injury, and they quickly switch choices. A note to Idries and Jamil: This is what you do when you realize a task isn’t for you. The other choice involves catching a 12-inch fish from water that seems full of them. Chuck enthusiastically picks this option, which is no surprise. His excitement is impossible not to like. Connor and David don’t share his fun and quickly use the Express Pass. Thankfully, that’s the last we’ll hear about the big decision and its impact. Although they probably wasted it, the choice makes sense given David’s injury. If nothing else, it does win them a trip to Bangkok for arriving first at the mat.

One of the best aspects of this show is the way it delves into the culture of their destinations within the challenges. Unfortunately, driving an off-road vehicle doesn’t feel that authentic to the New Zealand experience. Someone in production really likes car challenges, but they don’t make for thrilling television. More unique is the obstacle course Roadblock, which sends the players through some pretty disgusting spots to grab the clue. The challenge ends with a slide into a lake of manure, which should lead to some foul-smelling traveling in the second half of the leg. Along with traversing the course, players must transport eggs without cracking them. This seems difficult, yet few have problems. Navigational problems send Max and Katie and the hockey players to the back of the pack. There is plenty of shuffling of places, which proves the game design was effective. Even if the first 20 minutes involves several bunchings, the competition is fierce up to the end.

This leg shows just how difficult it is to predict success for teams on The Amazing Race. It’s basically a free-for-all where almost anyone can lose. It’s possible that a strong team like Bates and Anthony could finish last this time. It won’t hurt their chances because of the double leg, but it still shows that no one is safe. Dave and Connor will probably keep racing, but how far can they go? Dave’s perseverance is amazing; he’s faster on crutches than a lot of players are on foot. Still, getting around in New Zealand is much different than in the more difficult environments to come. They’ll need some serious luck and determination to survive very long. Even so, their persistence has brought more excitement to a season that definitely needed it. The competition is starting to heat up, and moving beyond the tourist sectors will certainly lead to more fireworks going forward.

March 3, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Loose Lips Sink Ships"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

When did taking the penalty become so common on The Amazing Race? Two episodes into this season, players seem very interested in avoiding tasks. Idries and Jamil barely slip into the water and they’re ready to take a six-hour penalty. Their fear of water and limited swimming abilities make diving for pearls nearly impossible. While their struggles are understandable, they seem far too willing to give up right away. They eventually give the Detour a shot, but it’s their passive approach that raises warning signs. By the time they switch to the other option, the gap is too large. Apparently, picking them to win the race was not a wise idea. They’re hardly the only players who struggle, however. Three teams took a penalty last week, and several others grumble through this leg. Wynona can’t run and doesn’t seem capable of going far into this game. Even some physically strong players aren’t looking solid. Is this the least impressive group in the show’s history?

It’s too early to tell if the initial problems are just hiccups at the start of a more intense competition. Luck also plays a role in the unpredictable results. Dave and Connor are one of the fastest pairs, yet they may be destined for elimination next week. While running to the Pit Stop, Dave apparently ruptures his Achilles tendon. This isn’t the type of injury that goes away in a short time. They finish second and are in a good spot, but it may not matter if Dave can’t continue. On the positive side, Anthony and Bates and Jessica and John maintain their leading spots at the front of the pack. The hockey players seem unfazed by the challenges and casually roll into first place. On the other hand, the young couple spends their time obsessing over the Express Pass and what to do with it. The editors are really trying to push the drama behind this decision, but it doesn’t seem like a big deal. Jessica and John are having fun talking about their unspoken alliance. On this show, that bond probably won’t make a huge difference in the outcome.

The twins’ exit is surprising because of the main pack’s significant edge over the trailing two teams. Even with a bunching at the start, they still have a nearly two-hour lead. That gap quickly disappears at the season’s first Detour, which gives the choice between “Pick a Pearl” and “Take a Trunk”. Once again, the gorgeous waters of Bora Bora are used to full effect. The first option involves diving in the open water to retrieve a group of shells. It’s a “needle in a haystack” task but with the physical component of swimming to grab them. The weak swimmers are going to have a rough time, especially if they’re afraid of the ocean. Pam and Winnie have similar difficulties but hang in there and finish well ahead of the twins. “Take a Trunk” is a silly challenge where teams don a large helmet and set up an underwater picnic. Phil even has some fun describing the task from the ocean floor. It requires less skill but moves slowly because of the burdensome headgear. That helmet is impressive and seems like a good option for visitors who don’t like scuba diving. Max and Katie and Caroline and Jen both take this route when battling at the back of the pack. They say a lot about the rivalry that’s building, but it ends up being a moot point.

After finishing the Detour, teams board a personal watercraft and speed to the island of Motu Tapu. After letting out a big “woo!”, they locate the spot and prepare for the Roadblock. The exception is Pam and Winnie, who blaze off in the wrong direction without reading the map. This is not wise. The Roadblock is a deceptively challenging Polynesian game that happens on stilts. The players must kick a coconut across a beach while staying balanced. Most struggle to find the rhythm, especially Pam while trying to keep them ahead. Once they finish, the next step is locating Phil and a ridiculously attractive greeter somewhere on the island. YouTube hosts Joey and Meghan sprint past Chuck and Wynonna to grab fourth, and the roller derby moms glide into sixth well ahead of the trailing group.

This episode again pushes the racers to their limits, but it’s frustrating because so many have problems with straightforward activities. It’s one thing to struggle while diving repeatedly below the surface, but getting out of the boat should be easy. Players with major fears are cast to set them up to overcome them, but sending them to Bora Bora with almost no swimming skills is problematic. The saving grace is the stunning location, which makes great use of the HD format. Despite the weaknesses, specific moments show that not everyone is ready to quit. Caroline blows by a humbled Max at the Roadblock and shows that last week’s difficulties might be a rare glitch. Despite the gap, those teams roll through the leg and could be serious contenders. Their success offers hope that the competition will heat up in the upcoming weeks.

February 24, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Business in the Front, Party in the Back"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link

Each new premiere of The Amazing Race brings its own share of questions. Will the cast have exciting characters? Will the challenges stand apart from the formula? Will the producers offer new twists that change the game? All three of these boxes haven’t been checked as often in recent seasons. There have been thrilling challenges and standout players, yet the results have been inconsistent. This new group is filled with lively teams that have their own unique stories, but the challenges dominate the opener. A brutal Roadblock pushes three pairs to take a four-hour penalty and choose a boat race to the Pit Stop. While the risk pays off for two of them, it sends firefighters Matthew and Daniel right to elimination. The well-meaning guys capsize and lose the tense race to the end. The three-team battle is great television, but it still raises questions about the challenge design.

Difficult challenges make the show more exciting, but this one is something else. In a variation of the infamous hay-bale Roadblock from Season 6, players must dig through a huge number of sand castles to find their next clue. Eleven are hidden separately, but there’s a catch that makes it a lot harder. Players must rebuild each sand castle in the hot sun before searching the next one. Along with being a “needle in a haystack” challenge, it’s also a test of endurance. When Max and Katie, Caroline and Jen, and Matthew and Daniel choose to quit, it’s hard to argue with their logic. There’s so much luck involved in finding the clue, so at least skill will decide their fate. As a viewer, watching teams wilt in the heat and dig through sand castles isn’t great television. Even the grisly “meat block” from Season 7 (where three teams also quit) was more engaging. While it tests the players’ stamina, this Roadblock feels more like a gimmick than a thrilling challenge.

The leg begins at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Phil gives his standard explanation, and brief clips describe each team. Easily the most ridiculous intro goes to Chuck and Wynonna; his mullet and obsession with taxidermy are impossible to beat. Nearly every duo has their own hook, which can be uplifting (cancer survivors) or excruciating (wannabe villains). After boarding their “amazing” new Ford Fusions, everyone speeds to the airport for flights to Bora Bora. Five teams get a one-hour edge by catching the first flight and make a pact involving the newest twist. The winner of this leg gets the Express Pass and receives a second Express Pass to give to another team. This move creates an interesting scenario where they benefit by playing nice. While the Express Pass is hardly a guarantee of success, it does provide a safety net for a nasty future challenge. The leaders vow that the winner will give the Express Pass to the second-place one, but that assumes they keep the edge. When John and Jessica grab the victory, it’s almost certain they won’t honor the deal. The editors spend too much time on this arrangement for things to go smoothly.

The first task in Bora Bora is an incredible sky dive from a helicopter above the strikingly clear waters. The HD really pays off with these jumps, which rank among the most impressive in the show’s history. The skydiving is also a Roadblock, which forces the other player to crawl through the sand. This move is interesting because it forces less-capable team members to pull their weight. While luck plays a key role, it’s clear that staying focused doesn’t hurt. Wynona spends the task complaining, but Chuck’s support keeps her on task. On the other hand, Idries struggles mightily and clearly isn’t using the best approach. The twins might not have been a wise pick to win. Even after finding the clue, their boat capsizes far from the shore due to poor construction. They finish eighth, but Idries and Jamil have a rough time. It’s important not to read too much into one leg, however. Plenty of teams have started slowly and found their groove on the way to victory.

Looking at the teams, it’s difficult to say much because of the rapid pace. Introducing everyone and showing a full leg in one hour is a tall order. A memo to CBS: A 90-minute premiere is always a wiser choice. Matthew and Daniel looked like cannon fodder, so their quick exit is not a surprise. In the leading group, Anthony and Bates are obviously strong athletes and they match those expectations by finishing second. It’s also refreshing to see an upbeat team like Pamela and Winnie do well, and it’s impossible to root against David and Connor. The only grating team is Max and Katie, who are clearly trying to play villains. When she talks about having no friends, it rings false. While casting this type of painful team can lead to more drama, it’s less interesting when they’re clearly creating fake personas.

Despite some challenge issues, this is still an exciting premiere that sets up a promising season. The camaraderie among the cast feels natural, and there are only a few bad apples. Bora Bora is stunning and the perfect setting for this type of competition. While it’s tough for a long-running show to stay fresh, it’s clear that the producers are still trying. Even though the challenge doesn’t really work, it shows that they are trying to test the players. The question is whether increasing the difficulty is the best route to better television.

February 17, 2013

Amazing Race 22 Preview

This preview was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link

Can The Amazing Race still be surprising? With the long-running reality competition entering its 22nd season, the chance for major changes seems unlikely. There will be unpredictable moments, but the overall structure remains the same. The producers have tried to throw in new twists to liven up the game, but they’re one-time events that rarely make a dent. For example, last season upped the ante to $2 million, but only for the team that won the opening leg. Once Abbie and Ryan left the game, that move disappeared from memory.

Even without structural changes, there’s still plenty to like with this show. It’s consistently entertaining and sends its 11 teams through difficult challenges all over the world. The set-up is so good that it’s impossible not to wish for the best from every season. So much of that success depends on the cast, and predicting whether they’ll provide good television is tricky. Calling this the “most diverse cast ever”, host Phil Keoghan has given his normally glowing assessment of the cast. They don’t feel that much different from the usual group, but there are some interesting teams within the mix.

Here are basic descriptions of each pair based on the limited material provided by CBS:

Idries and Jamil: These guys are not only identical twins but are also OB/GYN physicians. They’re 36 and in great shape, so they could be a physical force. Jamil is a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Medical Corp, and Idries loves Tae Kwon Do. This strength and their fandom of the show could give them an edge.

Max and Katie: In less-exciting news, these recent newlyweds seem ready to be ridiculous TV. This may not be a good thing. They both cite Rush Limbaugh in their bios, which is not a positive trait. Max in particular wants to be a villain and is really proud of himself.

Mona and Beth: These roller-derby moms are tough, yet they’ll be traveling a bit further than around the rink this time. The good friends are convinced that roller derby will help them on the race, which may be a stretch.

Anthony and Bates: Let the gloves fly! These brothers are former professional hockey players who also own a bar. Bates actually played in the NHL, and both have plenty of travel experience. They’re obviously strong guys, so the question is whether they’ll have the intangibles to stay ahead.

Chuck and Wynona: Switching gears, this Alabama married couple are in their late ‘40s and fit a certain mold for the show. Chuck has possibly the greatest mullet in reality television history, and he also dabbles in taxidermy. Wynona’s a cosmetologist who says he reminds her of MacGyver. They’re destined to be great television, but might not last very long.

David and Connor: The heart-warming story of this cast is this father and son, who are both cancer survivors. David is 21 and races for a Live Strong team, which feels unfortunate given the recent news. His father may be 37 years older, but he looks very fit and could make them a contender.

Caroline and Jen: These friends both play in the country band Stealing Angels, but that isn’t even their best hook. Caroline is a direct descendant of Daniel Boone, and Jen is the granddaughter of John Wayne. That’s pretty awesome. They’re also young and good-looking, but that combination hasn’t led to race success lately. Maybe they can use the spirits of their formidable ancestors to grab an edge.

Joey and Meghan: In another stunt casting, these “friends” are YouTube hosts in their early 20s. He compares himself to Ryan Seacrest, while she cites Zooey Deschanel. The question with this type of casting is how close they really are. They may avoid bickering since they aren’t a couple, but are they here to win?

Pamela and Winnie: These 29-year-old best friends live in Los Angeles and are both terrified of bathrooms, which could make their journey into third-world countries a harrowing experience. However, they seem like nice people and have been friends for a long while, so they could do very well.

John and Jessica: This dating couple has the look of many past teams that have thrived. Jessica has completed two Boston marathons, so she definitely has the endurance to go far. John spends a lot of time sitting down in his “life of hacking and entrepreneurship”, so he might not have similar skills. Even so, it’s hard to bet against this type of team.

Matthew and Daniel: These South Carolina firefighters need a lot of toughness for their job, but they don’t feel like strong contenders. They’ve done little traveling, so they fit within the “fish out of water” mold of fan favorites like Mark and Bopper. Still, it will be a big surprise if they come even close to that level of fun or success.

Now it’s time for some fearless predictions about the upcoming season:

First team eliminated: Matthew and Daniel
Most hated team (audience and other teams): Max and Katie
Most likable team: Pamela and Winnie
Million-dollar winners: Idries and Jamil

Last season, the Beekmans struggled throughout the race but found their way to steal the million dollars. Stronger-looking teams fell by the wayside and couldn’t defeat them in the final challenge. Getting the right task at the perfect time is so important to this competition. This unpredictability makes it difficult to pick a winner. Idries and Jamil are smart, positive guys who appear to have the right tools to go far. Whether this actually happens is a question that’s impossible to answer at this point. Regardless of the outcome, The Amazing Race should continue to provide consistent entertainment for a long time to come.

December 11, 2012

Amazing Race 21, "Take Down That Million"

What truly makes a strong team on The Amazing Race? The obvious answer is athleticism, but plenty of powerful young pairs have left early. Scanning through the winners, most are capable at physical challenges but don’t always stand out as the team to beat. Two weeks ago, Abbie and Ryan were eliminated purposely by the others due to their status as a threat. This felt like the right move because Josh and Brent have struggled at many tasks. Even so, their ease at handling mental challenges made them a deceptive choice to keep afloat. All it takes is a mix of luck and the right final challenge to reward a surprise winner. After barely surviving the penultimate leg, a confident Josh and Brent get the right opportunity and actually win the million dollars. Not since Eric and Danielle in the all-star season has a more random team won the race. While it’s a strange conclusion, there’s a certain poetic justice towards the other teams, who keep forgetting the high stakes of this competition. For more details, check out my review of the finale for Sound on Sight.

Here are some other interesting points that I didn't address in my review:

  • The sniping back and forth between the twins and the Beekmans during the first hour is surprising because we've seen so few examples of team conflict. It makes me wonder if the editing pushed that back to promote the feel-good story that's been shown this season. I don't doubt that the final four teams are nice people, but there had to be more drama left on the cutting room floor.
  • Last season, my pick to win of Nary and Jamie was not a good one. They finished sixth and never reached higher than fourth in any leg. This time, I chose Abbie and Ryan, who only ended up one slot higher but did win two legs. I wasn't rooting for them due to his arrogance, so I was okay being wrong once again.
  • It's easy to criticize the way the producers repeatedly bunched the teams. Josh and Brent were way behind several times but always got a chance to catch up. While it's frustrating to see this happen, it's a necessity to keep the competition alive. This has happened since the first season, when several teams were so spaced out that they were competing on different courses. Until next season!

December 4, 2012

Amazing Race 21, "Not a Well-Rounded Athlete"

One of the most exciting episodes of The Amazing Race typically happens right before the finale where four teams battle to make the last leg. That appears to be the likely scenario this week, but it’s really just setting the stage for the two-hour conclusion. There’s little at stake beyond placement, and a bunching flight brings everyone close together. Even so, there’s plenty of fun within the challenges to keep it enjoyable. It’s interesting to note the significant gap at the start, which puts each pair on a different flight. Josh and Brent begin about seven hours after Natalie and Nadiya yet finally catch up due to the ferry’s late starting time. While they seem like the worst team, Josh and Brent could sneak into the finals. This week is a non-elimination, but it gives a perfect example of how a top team can falter. The twins have rocked most challenges, yet they struggle with the stick shift. This is Amazing Race 101 and could have hurt them much earlier in a different season. They start out strong in Mallorca but never recover because Nadiya can’t master the driving. For more details, check out my full review for Sound on Sight.

Here are some other interesting points that I didn't address in my review:
  • If there ever was any season of The Amazing Race where I could do well, this is the one. I was a high-school swimmer, play tennis regularly, and am a decent ping-pong player. Of course, the counter point is that I'd likely do terrible on challenges involving dancing, putting up windmills, and blowing up balloons. So maybe I should stay at home and write about the racers' silly mistakes. 
  • It's a very close contest, but I'll be rooting for Jaymes and James to win next week, with Natalie and Nadiya close behind. No team's victory would make me angry, though Josh and Brent don't really deserve it considering how poorly they've performed. They may survive, but I'm still holding to my feeling that the goat farmers will not appear in the second hour of the finale. 

November 29, 2012

Amazing Race 21, "Fishy Kiss"

When did The Amazing Race become Survivor? The leaders basically voted Abbie and Ryan out by removing the “double” part of the Double U-Turn. While losing an arrogant team usually is refreshing, they still get a raw deal. Even without the flight delays, there is little chance that Abbie and Ryan could survive. Jaymes and James do the official U-Turn on them, but Trey and Lexi really seal the deal. Instead of picking the goat farmers or skipping it, they purposely choose a team ahead of them. It’s a smart plan that removes a strong team, yet it still leaves a hollow feeling. Blaming the players isn’t fair since they’re just using the devices in place. Old-school fans like me don’t enjoy these methods, particularly when they remove the drama. Instead of having Abbie and Ryan battle Josh and Brent for the last spot, it’s an anticlimactic finish that leaves the survivors questioning whether they want to stay in the game. For more details, check out my review for Sound on Sight.

Here are some other interesting points that I didn't address in my review:
  • This is one of the roughest weeks for a team in the show's recent history. When Abbie and Ryan finally arrive at the Organ Grind, they're stuck in the rain. Getting tips from locals is impossible, but a friendly woman saves the day. Abbie's genuine thankfulness towards her makes me feel for them, at least for a little while.
  • The goat farmers' (especially Josh) inability to truly compete is growing old quickly. I'm hoping they'll keep the race for the final three exciting now that their buddies Abbie and Ryan are gone. I understand why they were working together prior to the U-Turn, but their hesitation afterwards is just stunning.
  • I like the idea of the Switchback tasks from past seasons, but the ditch vaulting is not an exciting choice. It didn't look particularly hard or exciting, so bringing it back a second time feels unnecessary.
  • It's great to have a well-deserved two-hour finale on the way, though it makes next week seem less necessary. There's no guarantee that it's a non-elimination, but that feels like the most likely scenario. 

November 22, 2012

Amazing Race 21, "We Was Robbed"

Last week’s episode concluded with three teams still trying to finish the leg. Brent was having no luck in the pool, and James and Abba were standing dumbfounded at the mat without a passport. Their chances for locating their bags are very low, and getting temporary documents from the embassy is a long shot. The rockers try to stay positive, but this feels like a case where the editors are creating tension where it doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, Josh and Brent take one last attempt at the Detour and aren’t getting any leeway from the judge. The first half of this episode is pretty strange, especially when Phil reveals that it’s a non-elimination leg. This device was probably set up in advance, but it’s still odd to have the rockers technically in the race. They’re wandering around Moscow and trying to make some headway, but it’s not surprising when they have no success. It’s too bad to see them go; their laid-back approach made them one of the better teams this season. Thankfully, the tasks are great fun and make up for the lack of a close finale. For more details, check out my full review of this episode for Sound on Sight.

Here are some other interesting points that I didn't address in my review:
  • During the early seasons of the race, Phil began each episode by clearly stating the 12-hour time difference between the point when the leading team arrived at the Pit Stop and their next departure. This brought a feeling that anything could happen because the producers had to work harder to keep everyone close. I understand why the duration for each Pit Stop now varies, but not even showing the times at the start makes me wonder what happened behind the scenes. 
  • On a related note, it wouldn't shock me if the footage we saw of James and Abba wasn't from the same day as the other competitors. Getting a temporary passport just isn't going to happen in such a short time, so there was little doubt they were heading home unless a miracle happened. 
  • The twins had a rough time last week and just seemed grumpy, but they rebounded well this time. During the Detour, Natalie rips her pants while executing the dance moves. It's a silly moment and shows that they're still having fun despite the greater tensions at this point of the competition.
  • It's interesting that this leg is the first time we've heard about James' injury. You can really see the pain when he tries to execute the "coffee grinder" move. This ankle problem could make it tougher for them to stay ahead near the end.