Do you smell those funky foreign dishes wafting through the air? Can you hear a disgruntled spouse, friend, relative, or on-again (soon to be off-again) love interest screaming at their partner? Are PHIL'S EYEBROWS RAISED? Then it must be the start of a brand-new season of TV's most edu-taining reality show, The Amazing Race!
Like its first cousin Survivor, Race has been around now for what feels like 40 seasons. And like many that reach middle age, the show has decided it's time to spice things up: For the first time ever, contestants are now eligible to win $2 million dollars to the normally half-that-amount prize. This would be tremendously exciting… but for the stipulation that only the team who wins both the first and last challenges is eligible to claim it. So "Dating Divorcees" Abbie and Ryan are now, as long as they remain in the race, the only duo capable of being the first-ever $2 million winners. Dramatic? Not really. But we're getting ahead of ourselves…
Some 17-24 hours earlier, and many miles from the Shanghai, China Pit Stop, we met our newest set of 11 teams. They are:
1. TREY & LEXI (DATING)
A former University of Texas football player/cheerleader power couple, Trey and Lexi are hoping to use their winnings to get married. I hope they get their wedding off the ground with or without Race money, but a million dollars (or TWO, as they certainly hoped) would go a long way toward the Hook 'Em Horns wedding dress, floral arrangements, and marching band rental two Longhorns will surely require.
2. NATALIE & NADIYA (TWINS)
Twin Indian sisters born in America but raised overseas. In their first interview, the two admit to having used their identical looks to cheat on tests. Later in the episode they casually pretend to be further behind when another team asks their status. Are they trustworthy? It's just too soon to tell! But probably not.
3. JAMES & ABBA (ROCKSTAR & HIS LAWYER)
One of these guys was a metal guitarist in the '80s for groups like White Lion and Megadeth, and the other was/is his similarly coiffed lawyer. Together they are "comfortable being uncomfortable" and a surprisingly adept duo, apart from nearly duffing the first Pit Stop entirely. Based on the focus they received in this first episode, I think it's safe to say they'll be around for a while. "Breakout team!" said someone at a CBS meeting in June.
4. JOSH & BRENT (GOAT FARMERS)
Goat farmers with a twist, that is — they're GAY goat farmers. In the span of the episode they went from seemingly doomed by their passive-aggression (at the airport: "Are you going to be like this all the way to China? I'll get a sleeping pill.") to remarkably quick and competent racers, finishing in 4th place. "We'll see!" is what I'll say now having just like you only seen this one episode.
5. AMY & DANIEL (DATING)
Despite a bout of meningitis that eventually required dual leg amputation, Amy is a fierce snowboarder and seemingly all-around Superwoman. Daniel has some sick tats and is not great at ping-pong but can read a clue, which is a surprisingly rare skill sometimes on this show. I don't know what "Dating On and Off for Ten Years" means if it's not the premise for a movie, but they seem like a good team!
6. CAITLIN & BRITTANY (BEST FRIENDS)
They both played sports in college, where one of them was "mean" and the other — okay, pass.
7. ROB & SHEILA (ENGAGED)
They are now "ROB & SHEILA (ELIMINATED)" but before Phil's first sympathetic dismissal of the season, they showed a lot of promise. In their intro video, Rob demonstrated his prowess at "Lumberjack sports" (!) and carried an axe seemingly all the time. Said Sheila, who had some kind of job, "Rob is definitely the boss in the relationship." It's a small sin that we didn't get to watch this play out as we all imagined it might. Bon voyage!
8. GARY & WILL (SUBSTITUTE TEACHERS/BEST FRIENDS)
The slash relationships on this show are sometimes just a thing of beauty. "Retired Navy Seals/Bowling Teammates," "Tupperware Salesmen/Nickelback Fans," and "Parents/Dog Whisperers" are all combinations that, even if they haven't appeared on the show, could easily show up soon (and have already done so in my dreams). "Substitute Teachers/Best Friends"… there's just something so nice, so elegant about that intersection. And the questions it raises! Did Will meet Gary in the teacher's lounge, cracking a joke about parking spaces? Were they best friends well before they both decided to professionally show videos when Mr. Brown was out sick? The good news is we'll probably find out as they were NOT (pretend I'm Phil) eliminated this round. What we do know right now is that they had applied to the show seven times before being selected, the height difference between them is 1.5 feet, and the littler one fist pumps like a true Jersey Shore local.
9. ABBIE & RYAN (DATING DIVORCEES)
Unless their batteries shut down halfway through Tajikistan or wherever the Eurasian leg of the Race takes us this year, Annie & Ryan will probably win the whole thing. Being in good shape so often makes all the difference, and these two are in great shape. Plus Ryan compared his partner to Oprah on their website bios, which is the nicest thing you can say to any woman (who already knows she's attractive).
10. JAYMES & JAMES (BEST FRIENDS/CHIPPENDALES DANCERS
There's no shame in capitalizing on a popular pop cultural moment. And so it was that CBS executives, minutes after the midnight showing of Magic Mike at the Lincoln Square Loews, were on the phone trying to nab some shirtless, bow-tied beef slabs for Race's latest season. So far Jaymes and James seem very well suited to physical challenges and also agreeable, but maybe really, really lacking in common sense? Where most teams struggled to get through the episode's ping-pong match, or gross dining, our Chippendales had the most difficult time finding a woman fiddling with an abacus. Maybe they lose focus with their shirts on? "This Season On… " suggests that they will rectify the shirt issue soon enough.
11. ROB & KELLEY (MARRIED MONSTER TRUCKERS)
And finally the season's "weird" team, edging out the surprisingly low-key Rocker/Lawyer duo with their MONSTER TRUCKING and LOOKING LIKE WESLEY SNIPES IN DEMOLITION MAN. I'll be honest — I thought these two were goners the minute they started wandering around their first Shanghai destination, failing to spot the clue box. And even more when they misread, or just didn't read, the instructions at the second Road Block (an eating contest). And yet they persevered, finishing among the top contenders and demonstrating the power of a committed, mutually interested partnership. Plus they're going to absolutely dominate in the Monster Trucking challenges.
Oh, and as to what, like, happened in the episode:
As is so often the case, we start the Race on American soil — here Pasadena, Calif., where within seconds of being cut loose, the racers were faced with a sort of terrifying opening task. "You buttplugs want a million dollars?" Bertram Van Munster bellowed from his Moon Tower far above earth. "Then rappel down this bridge, yesterday." Wasting time is for seasons past! Cycle 41 is all about ACTION.
After driving to LAX in FORD, THEY'RE AMERICAN-MADE FORD vehicles the teams set off for their first international destination: Shanghai, China. And, in 30-ish minutes, producers and challenge designers managed to both question and challenge all the wacky, xenophobic factoids we've learned about the Land of the Setting Sun.
Confirmed, for one, is the extent to which China loves its ping-pong. In the first Road Block, Racers were pitted against a "Junior Champion" whom they were required to best only once. And the Chinese ace was stuck using non-regulation paddles, like books and frying pans. And yet…China's answer to Forrest Gump consistently mopped the floor with his American challengers. Eventually each team got past, sure, but only after the kid had downgraded to, say, a wet napkin paddle. At which point the Racer received their clue, and a participation trophy.
Next up on our Chinese tour: gross food. You heard they eat DOG over there, right? It's probably true, especially if they're definitely eating frog fallopian tubes served in hollow papaya. Having seen the seasons where someone hemmed and hawed for an hour before eating haggis, most everyone sailed through without much protest. Natalie & Nadiya even encouraged each other with Bollywood dance moves and the word "Twinny," which is already exhausting.
All that stood between our 11 teams and the Bund Observatory Pit Stop was a little old lady fiddling around on an abacus, which most found pretty directly. But some teams, man… I suppose the word "abacus" could be a dead stop for a few people, and even those that knew what it was might struggle to spot one from afar. But more than rappelling, more than ping-pong, and more than frog fallopian tubes, "little old lady with an abacus" seemed the most challenging event of the leg. That's a problem when you're trying to create dramatic television, but reality is reality. Bertram would never compromise that.
In the end it came down to a foot race between the Chippendales and Rob and Sheila, which the latter just couldn't win. But so what, I hope they're saying. They have each other; they have their collection of axes. What's a million dollars when you're a LUMBERJACK ATHLETE with a breakfast special in your name at any Denny's nationwide? An oversized check is fleeting; being a man the likes of which I will never know personally is FOREVER.
NEXT WEEK: Will Amy & Daniel continue their reign of moral superiority after regretfully helping Abbie & Ryan beat them to the mat? Will Karma find its way back to Natalie & Nadiya for their lying to the Monster Truckers? Answers to these questions and probably more Chinese stereotypes. Tune in!