Season Premiere: The Amazing Race Season 15 – “Japan/Vietnam”

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“They Thought Godzilla was Walking Down the Street”

September 27th, 2009

There’s a point in the 15th Season Premiere of the 7-time Emmy winning The Amazing Race where Sam and Dan (the gay brothers) note that they have a problem: at various point in the race, both of them step up to be the leader and the result is a heated argument in Vietnam and a delayed arrival at the pit stop. At heart of that moment, and this episode, is the idea of leadership, of being able to find an individual dynamic that allows two teammates (who could be very similarly or very different) to trust one another to get to the mat in first place.

Leadership was the central theme in a premiere that challenges racers to herd large groups of both people and fowl, something that is challenging for one person when they don’t speak the language but which becomes even more difficult when you have two people who can’t decide who the leader is, or when you have one teammate completing a task while another yells at them from the nearby gazebo. The teams that succeed on the race are those who are able to establish a team, which operates in such a way that they each lead one another, and where splitting them apart or asking them to lead others sees them shifting roles to fit the situation.

This year’s premiere isn’t quite as emotional as last year’s, nor does it feature such an intense finish line dash, but over its two hours we get to see a good balance of tasks which test the fortitude of these teams, challenge their ability to handle both luck and the game’s contrivances, and perhaps most importantly answers the question of whether or not Phil Keoghan would make a good Japanese Game Show host (the answer? Of course he would.). It’s an enjoyable return for a show that I really enjoy, although one which is particularly tough to cover in the early going.

Starting in Los Angeles, the show gives us an early twist that really rubs salt in the wound: with a license plate challenge that’s all about reading your clues (an important lesson that the teams hopefully learned from this task), Eric and Lisa take their free spirit “Hood Yoga” off to seclusion without even leaving Southern California. It’s an unfortunate distinction, but I’m generally not a fan of twists that totally destroy these people’s hopes and dreams of seeing a foreign country and experiencing the positive benefits of the race. Yes, 12 teams sent out some alarm bells, but it still seemed a touch too cruel for me personally. I like my Amazing Race with a little bit of heart to it, and this seemed mean even after Eric and Lisa considered themselves martyrs so that everyone else could enjoy themselves.

The entire Japanese leg was an example of something that never quite felt right, which is why the non-elimination reveal seemed inevitable. An early eating challenge is not unheard of, and it seemed as if the Wasabi was the right kind of eating challenge wherein it was difficult but not impossible (I believe it was either Sam or Dan who completed it in like 55 seconds), but the lottery element of the Sushi Roulette meant that teams had no control over when they left. It was a unique structure for the race, and coming right off an elimination it seemed as if there needed to be more of an element of control for when an elimination would be taking place.

The challenge which came after, herding twenty middle-ages tourists through the streets of Tokyo in order to get to a shrine, was one that depended on who was doing the herding. Some teams worked well with the tourists (Cindy was crazy, yes, but related to them in her camp counsellor way), others worked well with directions, and others lucked out by finding themselves some help (Brian and Ericka, who left the eating challenge last, made up a ridiculous amount of ground). But for those teams who lost people in their rush to get to the pit stop, including our professional poker players masquerading as charity workers, or who weren’t able to work together to get to where they needed to go, like our professional poker players masquerading as charity workers, the challenge proved too much to handle. When Phil announced it was a non-elimination leg, and tacked on a worthless 2-hour penalty which would be wiped out by bunching on the flight to Vietnam, they were given a second chance when they perhaps didn’t deserve one.

The Vietnam leg was considerably more complex, and therefore more interesting if not enjoyable. I say that it wasn’t enjoyable because, while I love people struggling to fall into water and hilariously attempting to control a huge herd of ducks, I less enjoy alpha male racers yelling at their girlfriends/wives from the sidelines. The mud challenge was a pretty simple little physical task that didn’t involve any sort of thinking, which largely left the order the same for the duck herding. Yes, it was entertaining to see Zev (the Asperger’s sufferer) turn out to be the duck whisperer, and seeing people struggle with challenges can be funny when they think it’s funny. But as it came down to the final two teams, it became about which of the men could yell at their girlfriend/wife more, and there’s nothing enjoyable about seeing so many of them (Brian, Canaan, Cheyne, Lance, Garrett) fall into that pattern at some point or another. The world doesn’t need more Colin (of Colin and Christie), just as The Amazing Race doesn’t.

Ultimately, the elimination of Garrett and Jessica was pretty predictable: we had gotten way too much of their story (On and Off relationship, planning to either marry or end the relationship) for it to continue into future weeks. We didn’t get the same emotional hook for anyone else with that kind of persistence, meaning that they were the most likely to face Philimination when they reached the boat. There are five young male/female teams competing this year, all seeming pretty physically strong, and yet one of them went out early, which tells you how important it is to be able to communicate and deliver when you really need to do so.

As far as teams I like, I enjoy Sam and Dan and Zev and Justin perhaps the most. Sam and Dan had their leadership struggles, but my brother and I have effectively had that same argument while traveling and it’s normal to show some emotion. They ultimately came out fine, and I enjoyed their celebration/lamentation at being in 9th at the first pit stop: they’re competitive, but not so competitive that they let it blind them from having some fun and keeping their heads in the game. Meanwhile, Zev and Justin are enjoyable because it’s an example of a disorder which isn’t as sappy as last Luke’s deafness, and that is more of a social disorder which makes for both an intriguing story and (not to say it’s being exploited) some great television. Justin is very patient and careful with Zev, staying calm when the clue goes missing and carefully returning to get it without disrupting things too severely, but Zev is painfully honest and his interviews are an early highlight. Asperger’s is obviously a series condition, but it’s one that shouldn’t keep him from completing the race as long as he has a strong partner with him, and I like their dynamic.

As far as early teams to dislike, I find the poker players (Maria/Tiffany) to be playing a misguided game, which makes them kind of uninteresting to watch. It’s not that their rich, as I really couldn’t care less about that, but their rolling backpacks and their inability to communicate as a team are an example of a team that isn’t quite villainous enough to be really entertaining and not fun enough to make for good T.V. otherwise. They managed to survive a really pitiful Speed Bump (more like a Rumble Strip, really), which proves nothing and does little to make me interested to see them stick around. The same goes for Mika and Canaan, who lost points both for overdoing the Christian angle (God is not going to take time to help you win the Amazing Race) and for Canaan’s rather horrid treatment of Mika during the final Roadblock, and for Lance and Keri, the former of which yelled and complained a bit too often for me to really want to see them around for too much longer.

And while there was some talk ahead of time about some of the all-male teams being too dominant (Harlem Globetrotters Flight Time and Big Easy, in particular), or that the male/female teams looked too strong, but it’s Father/Son Gary and Matt who prove to be the most adept at the roadblock and who manage to get to the mat in first place. While the leg valued physical strength, their farmhand experience made short work of mucking around and herding animals, and you always need to remember that strength will only get you so far. When you have two people willing and able to work together, anyone can win this race, which is part of the fun of the whole thing.

Cultural Observations

  • Was there really no Detour? I wasn’t paying enough attention when the mud task (which was pretty darn simple) was put forward, but I didn’t hear two options, which either means there was another option that was canceled or detours will no longer happen in each leg. I’ve heard of them cutting out tasks that don’t adjust the order before, usually in the first leg, but I think this is new.
  • Those torrential rains in Ho Chi Minh city were pretty intense.
  • Props to the production department for the Japanese Game Show fun – the insanity and graphics are the best part of ABC’s I Survived a Japanese Game Show reality series, and the basic idea was put to get use here with the “Wasabi NAME” showdown placards.
  • One plus for the poker players: taking the two-hour penalty as opposed to dragging their entire group of people around Tokyo. We saw people with injuries, people who had to go to the bathroom, and people who needed to be carried to the pit stop (and looked really embarrassed about it), so to subject them to that epic search would be a bit much. Props to the camera crew for finding them, though!
  • You can find out with a google search everywhere they’re going this year, and episode titles ruin it anyways, but I kind of like the surprise.
  • Interesting how last year’s big gimmick (actually showing us what time things are happening at, and using split screen to show different teams/groups) has disappeared – perhaps they don’t want to overload the gimmicks in each episode, which makes sense.
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