We know each other well enough by now that we can admit the first episode of a new Amazing Race season, at least in a competitive sense, is always a little predictable. 10 minutes of team introductions mean less time for challenge footage, and so the first leg Road Blocks and Detours (if there are any) usually amount to: jump from this. Unless the racer called to do it has some deathly, life-shattering fear of heights, you can pretty much count on them jumping from this. Which is not to say it can't be beautiful (that island chain!) or exciting, just that…there are no dramatic stakes. Throw in a sandcastle searching challenge after that and the first round elimination regularly comes down to luck, or aerobic stamina.
That lack of investment of course makes it easier to tolerate the dismissal of whatever team finished last, in this case North Carolina firefighters Matt & Daniel. They seemed nice! But we didn't know them well enough to be heartbroken when they left. Ten other teams made more of a case for themselves as we got to know them in Bora Bora:
1. Chuck & Wynona (Married "Rednecks")
His words! The intro video is an opportunity for racers to tell us directly who they are and how they're going to race. In Chuck and Wynona's case, that's respectively "a cross between redneck and country" with an "obsession for taxidermy" and "with the power contained in his Kenny Powers-strength mullet" (my words). Wynona, we'll learn, just can't get enough of her vodka and Seven-Ups. These two are easily my emotional favorites to win this season.
2. Bates & Anthony (Pro Hockey Players/brothers)
Not one to cash in on his name with an easy Downton Abbey joke, Bates -- along with his brother, Anthony -- instead explains that neither of them ever won the Stanley Cup. But they have a pretty good feeling about this likely hockey-less competition! It would be great if they had this weird natural advantage on the icier legs.
3. Mona & Beth (Roller Derby Moms)
Soccer moms with a secret: they spend most of their free evenings elbowing other women in the face! My only reference point for roller derby is the movie Whip It! in which a pre-Bridesmaids Kristen Wiig teamed up with Drew Barrymore to coach Ellen Page through the sport's rigors. Whether Mona and Beth will do this for one of the other teams is anyone's guess.
4. Max & Katie (Literally Just Married)
Yiiiiiiiiiiiiiiikes. Alone in an empty ballroom, the 3-weeks married couple talk over the rock music they've been assigned. Max aggressively smokes a cigar while calling Katie his "bulldog" and explaining how they don't have many "friends." Later in the episode Max will exclaim they're "smarter than a lot of people." Naturally they occupy my #2 spot for emotional favorites this year.
5. Dave & Connor (Father & Son Cancer Survivors)
I forgot to include that these guys are best friends, too, but there's only so much room in those chyrons. In the span of three years both Connor and his dad, Dave, fought cancer (testicular and prostate, respectively). They're both in remission now, and based on the video footage both motorcycle enthusiasts. Dave chokes up during each of his voice-overs this episode, but I think cancer gets you a free pass there. You will not be mocked!
6. Jessica & John (Forever Dating)
While John assures us the four years they've gone out have been "killer," Jessica not-so-secretly pines for him to finally pop the question. "Hopefully it's coming soon." John chuckles. Chill out, brah!
7. Idries & Jamil (Twin OBGYNs)
My question isn't for Idries or Jamil so much as it is for their patients. Do you know at any given time which one of them is messing around with your lady parts? Is it unreasonable to suggest they are two men tackling the work of one doctor and, via, some wacky (and heretofore unmentioned) scheme, getting paid separately? They do have a devilish sense of humor! Just watch them try to convince Pam & Winnie they're actually deliverymen in the airport shuttle. If comedy has a name, it's Idries and Jamil.
8. Pam & Winnie (BFFs from LA)
"We're not looking for love," says Pam in their joint introduction. Got it! We won't bug you about it, Pam! But then she quickly amends her declaration. "Unless you have a million dollars taped to your body, I'm not touching you." What this means, I think, is that whoever wins the million is due for some serious gropage. So Bates, Anthony - those parts of your body not taped down with money are getting PAMMED.
9. Joey & Meghan (YouTube Sensations)
Please let them be gone next week. I'm sorry. I'm sure they're wonderful company at a casual house party or coffeeshop. But on any stage that seems to offer even a whiff of attention? "BE CUTE: ACTIVATE!" No no no no no no no--
10. Caroline & Jennifer (Nashville Country Singers)
Wrong network, CBS! Or maybe that's your move -- trying to collect on ABC's hard-earned Nashville dollars with a couple of country-singing babes who embody both the looks and the spirit of a competitor's hit show? In next season's cast: "twin freedom fighters from the near future, where there's no electricity" and "former Voice contestants. We're not far off. Anyway, neither is "afraid to flirt to win." Because flirting is the number one trick in a racer's arsenal.
And there they are! The 10 teams we'll be watching for the next two months: running, sweating, complaining, and maybe this season…loving.
Last night they tackled at least a few of those verbs as they traveled from LA's Griffith Observatory (home of Bowfinger's "Got you, suckas!" scene) to the tropical paradise of BORA BORA, arguably the most screensaver-beautiful destination the Race has ever visited. You know those tiki hut hotels built over water, inaccessible except by boat and maybe an extended pier? That's Bora Bora. It's tight. Undoubtedly it will make everyone's double-episode sojourn to the Taiga that much more painful later on, but for now…
SKYDIVING. As discussed in the opening, challenges like skydiving offer conflicting television returns. On the one hand, anyone jumping from or off anything is never not at least a little cool. On the other hand - it's less an actual challenge, one requiring effort or skill, than it is a hazing ritual. Maybe there's a team that would sit this one out and cost themselves the Race, but most everyone to have made it through several rounds of auditions has to know they'll be doing some things that don't scream "comfort." Skydiving is one of them!
And so, one by one the teams went up in a helicopter and came down in a parachute. No sweat. It was their partners, anyway, who were ultimately left with the harder challenge - scouring an arrangement of 400 sandcastles for buried clues. What made it hard? Some combination intense heat and a curious island dog peeing on everything, for starters, but after a time some degree of existential trauma. Idries, for instance, claims to have spent 3+ hours digging in the sand as he watched other teams come and go. Maybe that's accurate, maybe not, but point is: there's something so painful about engaging with a "challenge" based almost purely on luck.
Ultimately there were three teams left: the dearly departed Firefighters, Caroline & Jennifer, and Max & Katie. They kept digging. And building. And digging. To no avail. Finally Max proposed a solution: why not just end the Detour and all agree to a 4-hour penalty, with an all-out race to the finish line determining who might wind up in last place. Not understanding that this was probably not in their best interest, Matt & Daniel agreed to the plan…and ten minutes later were gone from the show together. If it means anything, Phil looked disgusted when the second- and third-to-last contestants showed up on his mat. HIS mat, dammit!
What more can we say about last night's opening episode? John and Jessica won the leg, and thus the two express passes. The ONBGYNs capsized as they attempted to row their outrigger. Katie got a "taste of hell" building sandcastles on the beach. Everyone got something! Join us again next week as we continue our race around the world, probably in a far less picaresque environment. Until then!
[Photo Credit: Robert Voets/CBS]