Season Premiere: The Amazing Race Season 14 – “Episode One: Switzerland”

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“Don’t Let a Cheese Hit Me”

February 15th, 2009

While we just ended the last season of The Amazing Race a few months ago, a lot has changed over the short break between seasons. The editing has changed, the maps have become Google sponsored, the font is different, and they even went and remixed the show’s classic theme song to give it a driving rhythm for some reason. Combine with a shinier opening title, and some shinier graphics, and you have a very different kind of Amazing Race.

Okay, that’s a lie: the game is actually pretty much the same, here in an actually even more frantic and challenging version that tests people’s abilities to travel via three modes of transportation plus complete two tasks that test both psychological and physical strength. There’s just a lot of room for people to make mistakes here, and while the episode actually felt oddly impersonal and detached for a few reasons that I’ll get into, the transfer of the drama from the airport decisions to the actual completion of the tasks gives us a better sense of what kind of racers, as opposed to just people, the teams will become.

And I like the group of people: there is some humour, there are some people who clearly are on an adrenaline rush the second they start the race, and there’s enough differences in strategy and personality that one can see themselves watching these people race around the world without wanting to throw things at their television. So for all of the changes (both cosmetic and, in one case, actually kind of offputting), this is really the same race in the end: a frantic, often heartwarming, always exciting, trip around the world.

I actually want to discuss the changes to the race as a television program first, because discussing the people is far easier and ultimately more engaging, and I want to get this out of the way first. From the word go, there are differences both subtle and quite noticeable: there’s new opening credits with a new theme song (that’s more or less the same but with more of a drum beat), and a new font for the racers. As for the theme song, it’s kind of the same feeling I had when Alias changed its theme song: this is fundamentally the same thing, but there’s something less catchy about it. It always gets me really pumped for the show, and now the Bop-Bop-Bop of the song is kind of muddled. And I kind of liked the old font, all familiar and comforting.

This all sounds really silly, but this is one of the few reality shows that have gone through almost no fundamental changes to their visual identity since it began, and it’s amazing what kind of power this has on the way we (as long-standing viewers) rely on those signifying qualities. Do not get me wrong: very little of it actually matters. Okay, so I’m a bit bummed about the theme song, but I can live with that when I actually like two of the moves that the show has made. Adding a split-screen is actually quite helpful, because we can get a sense of how events are happening and when they’re happening: it gives us the ability to better understand what we are seeing. They even, at one point, told us at what time things were happening, and how far apart the last few teams were. I’m actually really curious to see how the show handles this when the episode needs a more misleading ending: this one had an exciting finish which allowed them to play with time like this, but a lot of legs don’t have everyone this bunched together and this kind of editing might disappear.

The one change that I am more concerned with, however, is the fact that Phil played a far less active role in this episode than usual. Phil didn’t apparently have time to go to Switzerland a bit ahead of the other teams and record the Switzerland material, which meant that we saw less of him as the episode went along. Without Phil and his sweaters throughout the episode, it just felt like the episode was more distant from actual people. While I’ve always known that Phil wasn’t the one who was editing the episodes or controlling things, between the split-screens and the lack of anything but post-production narration, it felt like there was definitely someone controlling the process more than usual. While I liked the fact that we didn’t spend much time on the airport drama, only showing one team picking one flight and another team picking another, it again felt like we were seeing the Cliff Notes versions of the race. Combine with not seeing Phil walking towards us in scenic landscapes or dramatically turn corners, and it just seemed more impersonal than before.

But it was ultimately a futile attempt at undermining, ever so slightly, the reasons why I enjoy The Amazing Race. While I felt the editing may have worked to emphasize the actual race components more heavily, something that I probably would have argued for considering that I always feel as if the structure of the race is undervalued, the actual racers are more than making up for it. There’s a very diverse group here, and while I won’t get to them all I want to focus on a few teams that stand out for me.

Mel & Mike: There are a few reasons that I enjoy this two, and they really have nothing to do with Mike’s Hollywood success. First and foremost, they really do appear to be doing this for the purpose of having fun and experiencing a new stage in their relationship. They are very similar people, with more in common than their homosexuality, but they really just appear to be enjoying this for what it is. Mel struggled his way through the second task, but there was very little complaining about it from anyone, and their shared patience earned them a fourth place finish. Plus, despite both being writers, they are funny to watch but not trying to be too pithy.

Maggie and Luke: Ultimately, this is the team that is the closest to the Race cliche of tugging at the heartstrings, and is a far more enjoyable example of people overcoming obstacles to be on the race than some of the others in the past. Luke’s deafness is something that will definitely challenge them on the race, but it is something that he and his mother are able to overcome through communication and teamwork, not bickering and complaining (Charla and Mirna, I am looking in your direction). Both of them have an extremely positive outlook on life, are both running a solid race, and when they finish in first place even the sheer predictability of Phil learning sign language can’t ruin the moment as he tells them they’re team number one. I look forward to seeing how they continue on the race, and can’t blame Victor for crying along with the mother and son at Race’s end.

Amanda and Kris: Okay, so here’s the team that I think is going to fly under the radar, because they are a prototypical race favourite. It’s a young, dating male/female combo, something that has always had some modicum of success on the race. However, they’re on my list since they’re a total throwback to one of my favourite Race teams ever, Kris and Jon (Heck, one of their names is even the same, albeit gender-switched), even down to Kris at one point calling Amanda “babe” in that affectionate, non-condescending way that Jon nailed in Season 6. Kris kicked some butt at the second challenge, launching them into fifth place by the time of the pit stop, and their opening introduction was of two people who care for each other, not two people who want to bicker. I don’t think they’ll be the source of much drama, but they’re just so gosh-darn inoffensive, and I respect that.

Now, there are other teams that I enjoy: Brad and Victoria made the mistake of self-identifying as something as lame as “the badass older couple,” but then actually turned out to be a badass older couple with a lot of fire for the tasks that will serve them well ; Mark and Michael might be short, but they’re performing well in challenges and have a determination and confidence that feels earned. On the lower end of things, the “they haven’t done enough for me to form an opinion” sorts: Cara and Jaime, the cheerleaders who had some interview issues but never saw them manifest in the race ; Lakisha and Jennifer, competitive athletes who also did very little to differentiate themselves but struggled around the back of the pack ; Christie and Jodi, who barely staved off elimination and made some transportation decisions that were silly for a team with travel experience as flight attendants.

Meanwhile, there were three teams about whom I have some concerns, and conveniently one of them was even the team who went home.

Tammy and Victor: They’re young, their athletic, and they finished in a very competitive second place, but I have some bones to pick with these two. First and foremost, this is the worst type of dynamic here: it’s a brother and sister wherein the older brother is unable to reconcile the adult lawyer who went to Harvard with, I quote, “the three-year old.” That’s not a fun dynamic to watch, at the end of the day, and it’s one that I feel is extremely problematic throughout the leg, him bossing her around and generally treating her in an almost parental fashion. Second of all, they’re also the kind of racers who are overly strategic but are actually not being strategic at all: their attempt to throw people off by pretending to only “sort of” know what train to go on was one of the most pathetic attempts at sabotage that I’d ever seen, and all it did was make people think that they were silly.

Linda and Steve: I don’t dislike Linda and Steve, let’s make that entirely clear – they are charmingly out of place in this world, and their solution to the cheese task was actually quite impressive. But there were other things that are going to make them frustrating to watch: his “speed up or else” speech was way too early in the game, and the immediacy of his speeches (“we’re going to be eliminated!”) was just too much. I don’t enjoy watching them, like I have with other teams who were out of their element, and considering they managed to get lost at the pit stop and that Linda seems to be struggling even more next week doesn’t make me interested in tuning in further. If they had a better attitude I might root for them, but right now? I’ve got nothing.

The Elminated Team

Preston and Jennifer: Ladies and gentlemen, here we have one of the most vindicating first boots in the entire run of the series. It’s not that Preston and Jennifer were a bad team, and were in fact done in by a very close foot race and some struggles with trains and planes and automobiles. Rather, they were just every cliche: borderline abusive relationship, victim mentality, bickering throughout the race. This is the total Colin and Christie pattern, and it usually ends up with a team that defies the audience’s hopes and dreams and sticks around to the bitter end. Instead, Preston and Jennifer get eliminated after one episode, and they can ride off into the sunset with an unlikely statement that their relationship is stronger than ever.

Overall, though, the real star here might have been the leg itself: the two plane options were defined by train rides that would require geographic knowledge, the roadblock was the world’s second highest bungee jump and was an amazing visual to open the race with, and the final cheese task looked incredibly grueling. More important, though, they were all things that showed us what kind of racers they were: while I would have liked to see more of this at the airport, we got a lot more than usual with the bungee jump (seeing how they handle psychological pressure) and the cheese task (seeing who thinks outside the box, who stays on their feet, etc.)

So in the end, it’s the kind of episode that we always want to see start off a season: a good introduction to the people, some solid tasks, and even with some aesthetic changes the same ol’ adrenaline rush.

Cultural Observations

  • One of Jaime or Cara has clearly watched The Amazing Race before: their use of “It’s on like Donkey Kong” hearkens back to Chip of Chip and Kim fame, and is one of the Race’s most enjoyable catchphrases.
  • Speaking of confusing who said what, I hate having so many male/male and female/female teams entirely for selfish reasons: I can never tell them apart. One second I think I have it, but then I confuse it all over again. It’ll take some time, or some single-person confessionals, before I really get it figured out.
  • Not sure how I feel about the new Google Maps: I actually find the satellite images kind of hard to follow, compared to the usual simplicity. Still, I think that it could get interesting, and I’d love to see some integration into larger maps. There actually appears to be something of the sort on CBS’ website, wherein they show the locations for future episodes, but I’m not reading it to avoid spoilers.
  • The new naming formula appears to involve the location to which they are traveling, which will get interesting when episodes stay in the same country as the one before. If they don’t, I worry that there will no longer be legs without any air flight, which would eliminate bunching, but let’s see how it operates in the future before I get too carried away.
  • There is no Amazing Race trope I enjoy more than people hired to be involved with the task in some capacity laughing hysterically while drinking in public as contestants fall on their ass and see their cheese rolling down the hill into a tree. It’s just marvelous television, and I will never stop enjoying it – props, by the way, to Brad and Victoria for managing to do it with clean butts.
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1 Comment

Filed under The Amazing Race

One response to “Season Premiere: The Amazing Race Season 14 – “Episode One: Switzerland”

  1. What happenned to “a roadblock is a task that only one teammate can perform. In this roadblock…”? They didn’t use the usual intro!

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