December 6th, 2009
For three seasons, I have asked this question, and for three seasons I always wonder why I asked it in the first place.
You see, I like to think myself objective about The Amazing Race, more capable than most of separating my personal feelings for each individual team from my analysis of each individual leg. This isn’t to suggest that I don’t have teams I like more than others, but ever since I started writing television criticism I like to keep my distance to manage disappointment (like last year’s early exit from Mike and Mel and this year’s tragic end for Justin and Zev) and be able to avoid sounding too bitter if something goes wrong.
However, the reason I asked this question in the first place (and why I continue to ask it despite my supposed objectivity) is that the final leg of The Amazing Race always raises this question whether we’re trying to detach ourselves or not. The very nature of the race is that we’ve seen these teams at their highest and lowest, and the editors have done everything in their power to make their inevitable finish in this race as meaningful as possible.
For Meghan and Cheyne, that finish would symbolize the strength of their relationship as evidenced by their teamwork throughout the race (the frontrunners). For Brian and Ericka, the win would symbolize the strength of their relationship and more importantly their ability to bounce back from near defeat (the underdogs). And for Sam and Dan, after intense focus on “dishonest acts” in recent weeks, the win would demonstrate that doing everything it takes to win the Race is both opportunistic and highly effective (the villains).
And for at least some viewers, each of these teams would represent a “deserving” victory of The Amazing Race’s 15th journey around the globe – for me, I’d say that any one of them would have deserved it, but I think it’s tough to argue that the “right” team didn’t win.
So, time to found out: who won The Amazing Race?
Meghan and Cheyne won the Amazing Race by counting poker chips, a task which seems awfully trivial until you realize that the team has always been less personable than others primarily based on their ability to avoid the usual hangups associated with the madness of the race. They seemed unflappable, in a way that made them feel almost robotic (especially compared to previous dominant forces like Nick and Starr, who had a bit more of an identity in terms of “playing the game” of the race). And yet here, we got to see them come from behind twice, and stay focused during the one task that felt like it could tear teams apart. Yes, Cheyne got through the roadblock by closing his eyes and they fumbled with the trip from the Mirage to the Monte Carlo, but I think that almost made their win far easier to root for: for once, the team looked to legitimately be in trouble, and they went from the vanilla frontrunners to a come-from-behind story that felt “right” in a way that you sort of want at the end of the race.
There’s no question that the producers probably would have preferred a Brian and Ericka victory, if only because their story is so much more effective. Meghan and Cheyne were a dating couple with no discernible drama, who weren’t even at a crossroads in terms of considering marriage (I believe they called it an inevitably in an early interview) or anything of the sort. By comparison, Brian and Ericka faced a lot of tough challenges along the way, and the idea that Brian was doing this partly to show Ericka’s mother that he is capable of supporting her and being a good husband despite being white is the sort of racial harmony narrative that Van Munster must have loved. And even Sam and Dan, with their newfound sense of sibling bond following their respective coming outs, were a story that could have been solidified by a big race win, bringing them closer together and proving something to themselves and their families and everything else. Meghan and Cheyne, by comparison, were two fit, pretty white people who really “proved” nothing except their physical and mental prowess – not an undeserving winner, but certainly a relatively less interesting one.
And yet, perhaps that fits this particular leg of the race, where two teams effectively quite over the physical (Maria and Tiffany) and mental (the Globetrotters) challenges that faced them along the way. For better or for worse, in this leg both Sam and Dan (whose bickering got them off track during the poker counting challenge which eventually cost them the race despite having a lead) and Brian and Ericka (who struggled with both the Bungee and poker challenges based on Ericka’s inability to keep her cool) demonstrated that part of running the race is being able to keep an even keel, and here Meghan and Cheyne had a trial of their own and proved themselves capable of overcoming it. I found myself warming to them at this late stage of the race, loving moments like Cheyne feeling sorry about not spending more time with Wayne Newton and Meghan very coldly suggesting she only cares about one thing at this point. I like competitiveness in a team, and they were competitive to the end without devolving. It’s ultimately what put them in this position, and they’re certainly worthy (if completely forgettable, long term) winners of the race.
As for the other two teams, Brian and Ericka’s meltdown was tough to watch, especially considering that they were our relative underdogs. They had what often happens at the end of the race, a scenario where the ups and downs of taxi choice and direction issues and challenge woes wears down any emotional stability you have left. For Ericka, this meant her meltdown at Love, as anger shrouded her ability to figure out that she needed to be doing more with her own body in the challenge in order for her to reach the bouquet. Yes, they made up the time when Meghan and Cheyne were unable to find the Monte Carlo as quickly, but it was the sort of emotional moment that you knew they couldn’t get back. I really liked Brian, who throughout the race offered some great one-liners (I loved his double take on the mat) and never once seemed like someone who a mother would doubt as being “husband material.” He was patient, kind, and ultimately supportive in those moments where Ericka effectively melted down, and it was nice to see Ericka acknowledge this (and step up herself at the Roadblock, which he could have never done). She said that she was “Fearless today” at one point, and while that didn’t hold true for the whole leg it was a sentiment that was nice to see even in defeat.
As far as Sam and Dan go, I think that getting the villain edit was really unfortunate for them. Outside of their own bickering and a couple of moments of questionable behaviour, by all accounts the team ran a decent race and didn’t fight as much as some previous winners have. And I’ll admit to having a soft spot for Sam, who always looked at each location with such wide-eyed enthusiasm. When he found out they were headed to Vegas, he was jazzed for “such a cool end city,” and that’s the sort of attitude you don’t often see this late on The Amazing Race. You wonder if there’s a completely different side of this team that we never got to see, and since post-race interviews have already confirmed that the Globetrotters didn’t hold a grudge at all I’d wager this team was not what we would consider villains at all. They struggled in this leg with their ability to work together, but that was never their strong suit and I thought they performed admirably and in a way that I hope will keep people from cheering their loss in any capacity.
As for the leg overall, it was an interesting design in that it didn’t really have any substantial opportunity for teams to get themselves lost or stuck. On the surface, the clues of where to go were not nearly as obtuse as they have been in the past: The first clue was just a taxi race, and then the rappel was an intriguing task that by and large wasn’t going to create any major shifts unless someone gets too scared to do the task (which could have happened had Brian ended up forced to do the Roadblock due to the math of it all). It was only when they got to the Cirque de Soleil task that things got legitimately difficult, as a learning curve was inherent in the task that tripped up the teams enough to create some considerable tension. Seeing Meghan so quickly get a handle on the task (and how you needed to use your legs to build the second bounce), and Dan using his height advantage, made seeing Ericka suffer both painful and kind of satisfying (since we saw the methods that resulted in the other teams’ success ourselves).
The “What is the most popular casino in Monaco?” clue was really fascinating, because it effectively tests two things: your (and your taxi driver’s) knowledge of Las Vegas casinos and your knowledge of Monaco. And as such, you can either get lucky (like Sam and Dan calling someone who knew the answer on their cabbie’s cell phone) or you can get severely unlucky (like Meghan and Cheyne, who got a cab driver with very little knowledge of geography and found no one on the way to set them straight). And then you can be like Brian, who immediately answers “Monte Carlo” in a way that convinces us as an audience that they’re capable of making up the time lost at Cirque de Soleil.
And yet, with the Poker task, things became somewhat problematic on the surface. As opposed to final tasks that test their knowledge of the race or their ability to work together late in the game, counting poker chips is not overly interesting to watch and feels more arbitrary than anything else. However, the task ends up being really fascinating because teams actually do end up switching around. Meghan and Cheyne work to get things together for the task and actually pass Sam and Dan in the process, which surprised me in a way I find problematic. Because of the scattered nature of the task, it wasn’t entirely clear just what the teams’ mistakes were. They didn’t want to show us how far off they were (so that we wouldn’t know if they were making the right decision when recounting or not), and as a result we were entirely in the dark. I like tasks that actively show us where teams are going wrong so we can read their actions more carefully (like the usual flag/surfboard/etc. challenge of previous years), and this one was left a bit too much to the editors for me to feel like it really built tension.
And yet, tension there was, as Mr. Las Vegas invited everyone to his private estate (which is apparently well-known enough that every cab driver in the city knows its general location), and we get that split screen taxi ride to the finish. It’s always funny that we know how much the race has been controlled by producers and yet we’re still unsure of when they’re simply misleading us. We know that the teams left at the time they did in order for that flight to be accessible to all teams, just as we know that they shot the final poker challenge in such a way that you could never (or rarely, I caught a couple of inconsistencies) see what the other teams were doing when filming one particular team. And yet, you still never know how much you can trust them, or how much you can trust your own instincts.
It’s why Amazing Race finales are always going to be inherently suspenseful: you know the producers are creating suspense where they may in fact be none, but you get so caught up in these people and their respective fates that you can’t trust any instincts you might have. You forget all about the race mechanics and focus on who they are, how they’re doing, and whether they deserve the million dollar cash prize they earn.
And while they might have been too boring to be interesting on the first question, Meghan and Cheyne had a compelling and eventful leg, and earned their first place victory, even if we’ll likely never speak of it again.
- Interesting that the teams were sequestered before the leg – not sure how common that is, but it made for the great moment at the airport where the other two teams greeted the three hours-behind Brian and Ericka with hugs and genuine excitement. They were surprised to see them, which made it clear that news of the Globetrotters’ failure hadn’t crossed their ears.
- I’ll put “Sam and Dan standing directly in front of Wayne Newton and being unable to remember his name” as one of the best finale moments in the last few seasons, and maybe ever, and question why Elvis (Race/Grace issue notwithstanding) would get the title quote over something from that fantastic exchange.
- As always, I am 100% in favour of teams molesting Phil inappropriately following their victory. It was the only good thing Charla and Mirna brought into this race, and I’m always glad to see a good Phil Keoghan Reaction Shot (PKRS, for short).
- Loved the moment at the chapel where Meghan and Cheyne both reach for the same clue and very briefly fight over it (as Meghan didn’t know who exactly was behind her).
- My parents were just in Las Vegas a month ago, and as a result they were backseat driving the taxi drivers something fierce in terms of where the teams were headed. It’s not entirely clear what got Brian and Ericka so much faster to Mandalay Bay, but for a while it seemed like that Taxi Driver could have made the difference for them.