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The Amazing Race Watch: They Don't Call It The Amazing Race For Nothin'!

I’ve always said that if there was ever a reality competition that I would like to participate in, it would probably be The Amazing Race. Just the idea of traveling on CBS’s dime to exotic foreign lands, rushing past monument and landmarks at breakneck speed, basking in the glow of Phil Keoghan’s cocked eyebrow, etc. is just a really tantalizing idea. Except that I’m middle-aged and completely out of shape, I think it would be one of the funnest experience of all time, even if I was out after the first leg (which I probably would be, since the first leg tends to be very grueling).

I have been an ardent fan of TAR since its inception, and though some seasons have been more exciting than others, the exotic locales and myriad personalities of the teams involved have been tremendous fun – well, except for that ill-conceived “family” season, which was about as exciting as a nine-hour car ride to Hoover Dam. Plus, it’s maybe the only reality-based competition show where skill and luck are the deciding factors and popularity means nothing whatsoever. And now, before we jump on board for the 17th trans-global adventure, let’s run down this season’s teams.

Andie and Jenna, a mother/daughter team from Atlanta, GA who were recently reunited for the first time, nearly 20 years after Andie gave Jenna up for adoption.

Brook and Claire, best friends who also Home Shopping TV hosts from San Diego, California.

Chad and Stephanie, a dating/cohabitating couple from Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Connor and Jonathan, best friends, a capella singers and students at Princeton University in Ohio.

Gary and Mallory, a father/daughter team from Kentucky.

Jill and Thomas, a dating couple from Marina del Rey, California.

Katie and Rachel, best friends/beach volleyball partners from New Jersey.

Michael and Kevin, a father/son team from Sugar Land, TX; Kevin is a YouTube celebrity/comedian known as KevJumba.

Nat and Kat, best friends/doctors from Scottsdale, AZ and Santa Monica, CA.

Nick and Vicki, a heavily-tattooed dating couple from Henderson, NV.

Ron and Tony, best friends from L.A and Tuscon, AZ.

Hmmm… no married couples, which is a first. Four all-female teams, and they appear to all be pretty savvy, which tells me that CBS is hoping that after sixteen seasons, they might finally field a girl-girl team that can actually WIN, which is something that has never happened. Time will tell. (Plus, three of them – Mallory, Brook and Stephanie – are all former Miss America contestants, so there’s plenty of eye candy.)

Phil greets the eleven teams at the starting line, the Eastern Point Yacht Club in Gloucester, Mass. He promises that Season 17 will be one of the most physically grueling races in TAR history. He also introduces a new facet to the game: the Express Pass. Whoever finishes each leg of the race in first place always wins a prize, usually some exotic vacation sponsored by Travelocity. But the Express Pass is kind of like Survivor’s Immunity Idol; the team the possesses it can use it to bypass any task (Roadblock or Detour) that they wish, but it must be used before the eighth leg of the race. Good to know.

And without any further ado, they’re off! The teams rip open their clue, which tells them that their first destination is Stonehenge in England. They can only travel there on one of two different flights to London; the kicker is, the first flight, arriving thirty minutes earlier than the second one, can only accommodate three of the eleven teams. They rush pell-mell to Logan Airport, and without too much drama, the three that procure spots on Flight #1 are Ron/Tony, Jill/Thomas, and Chad/Stephanie.

After sixteen seasons, I have compiled a list of, for want of a better word, “commandments” that, if any of you ever find yourself actually on The Amazing Race, will help you immensely. I’ll be introducing you to them over the course of the season, and I’ll start with TARC #1: NEVER assume you’re safe. Many teams make that cardinal mistake, figuring that because they caught the earlier flight, they can cruise to the Pit Stop. Let me tell you right now: thirty minutes is nothing. International travel goes hand-in-hand with Murphy’s Law, and all it takes is one flat tire, one wrong turn, one less-than-knowledgeable cabbie to put you out of the race. This will prove prophetic in this first leg.

The first three teams arrive in London, grab their cars and head for Stonehenge. There is a hilarious moment when both Stephanie and Thomas, anxious to get behind the wheel, get in on the left side. Whoops. Chad reveals himself to be a yeller, which doesn’t bode well. Interview footage of Ron/Tony tells us that Tony has multiple college degrees, but he prefers to downplay it given his rather intimidating physique. Minutes later, the second flight arrives, and bob’s your uncle (that’s British, you know), all eleven teams are en route.

Andie/Jenna (dubbed “Gilmore Girls” by Connor/Jonathan, who were earlier dubbed “Team Glee” by Mallory), have car trouble. Ron/Tony go the wrong way. Chad keeps yelling. And Nat/Kat, who were on Flight #2, get to Stonehenge first. (See?!) The clue directs them, rather cryptically, to go to Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire to find their next clue. Katie/Rachel (also on Flight #2) and Jill/Thomas are hot on their heels.

Brook/Claire catch up as well and team up with Nat/Kat to find Eastnor. Katie/Rachel have car problems as well, which brings me to TARC #2: Learn to drive stick. You’d be amazed how many teams have hamstrung themselves by this inability. Ron/Tony get even more lost. Gary/Mallory team up with Team Glee. (Sorry to jump around like this, but it’s tough to track eleven teams, and it’ll be easier when there are fewer teams to follow.)

Eastnor Castle. Phil tells us that the team’s first task is to climb a ladder – while medieval “peasants” pour buckets of dirty water on them – to retrieve a flag. Then they take the flag in a tiny boat across the castle’s moat to a knight who will give them their next clue. Nothing like a good medieval soaking to start the day! Jill/Thomas arrive first, followed almost immediately by Nat/Kat and Brook/Claire. Back in the pack, Gary/Mallory’s car gets a flat tire, and Team Glee regretfully decides to leave them behind. And that’s probably a smart decision; despite what people say about chivalry and karma, racing to avoid elimination is not the time to be charitable. Ron/Tony finally find Stonehenge, and are glum when they realize that their thirty-minute headstart has turned into a god-knows-how-long deficit.

Back at the front, we have reached the first Roadblock, and Phil explains that one team member must use a giant slingshot (called a “ballista”), to hurl a watermelon at an empty suit of armor fifty feet away. Once the suit is knocked over, they would report to a nearby court jester to get their next clue. Thomas, Claire and Nat all take their positions, and it seems the Express Pass has become a three-way race.

Meanwhile, Chad/Stephanie can’t seem to get across the moat without sinking, causing Chad to get really pissed off. There’s always one tool in the casting shed, and it seems that Chad is it. Team Glee surges ahead. Thomas scores a bulls-eye, and the jester’s clue tells them to head for the Pit Stop, which is in a nearby meadow. They jubilantly hit the mat first, and cop the coveted Express Pass. Good for them, they seem like cool people. Nat/Kat get second place. A frustrated Claire launches a watermelon, only to have it whiplash right back in her face. Yikes, that’s gonna leave a mark. Finally, Connor, Rachel and a bruised-but-unbowed Claire knock over their suits. Team Glee beats the girls in a sprint for third place. Brook/Claire take fourth, Katie/Rachel fifth.

The final third of the ninety-minute episode is basically watching the more directionally-challenged teams try to catch up. Teams climb the ladders, cross the moat, knock over the armor. Many minutes behind the Top 5 teams, Gary/Mallory hit the mat in sixth, followed immediately by Michael/Kevin. The two teams celebrate and bond, and I really like all of them. And in a display of neolithic incompetence, Chad leads Stephanie on a tour of the vast castle grounds – for like an HOUR – before locating Phil and hitting the mat in a disappointing eighth place. See, dude, this is what jerkitude begets, as outlined by TARC #3: Check yourself before you wreck yourself. That’s good advice in life, but in the race it does nothing but cause problems. And I’m happy to say, Chad shows some humility in interview, so maybe I won’t have to typecast him after all. Let’s hope. The Gilmore Girls come in ninth place.

If there is one thing TAR never fails to do, it’s try to create drama by splicing together the antics of the two last-place teams to make it look like they are neck-and-neck, which occasionally is an insult to our intelligence. Happily, they don’t do that this time. Nick (who bears a striking resemblance to Hugh Jackman, I must say) knocks over his armor while Ron and Big Tony are still futzing about in their boat. The tattooed duo finishes in 10th, and really needs to sharpen up if they’re going to last.

Soft music swells as Ron/Tony, bedraggled and spent, hit the mat in last and are Phil-iminated. And it sucks, because they seem like swell chaps (that’s British too!). But it goes to show: college degrees don’t come with an infallible sense of direction, and bad luck does happen to good people. Still, they make their exit with articulate grace and dignity, which is always nice to see.

So, all in all, a pretty good first leg. Only one racer acted like a tool but was fairly contrite afterward. This seems like a good, likable group, and even though it makes for good TV, I really hate it when teams fight, whether it be with each other or amongst themselves. Next week: the teams head for Ghana. How many cedi do you want to bet that Nick/Vicki get lost again?