The Ultra-cool Australian host gives some final instructions before a mass of people starts running for their backpacks and cars. They're all energized and anxious, and some trip over each other unintentionally. They're rushing to drive to the airport, and everything is very kinetic, frantic, rushed. The anticipation and excitement mounts, and everyone is yelling, backseat drivers directing their partners because they have to get on the right plane. Bump, Bump. Bump, Bump. The SUVs start to cross-fade into a big animated map of the globe and the theme music starts, and I start to grin, feeling a bit giddy as I'm instantly reminded of why The Amazing Race is far and away the best reality show on the air, as well as being one of the best current television shows period.
I'm not going to write an actual recap of the first episode because Miss Alli of Television Without Pity will do that far better than I can. But I do want to encourage everyone to give this perennially endangered show (last year's Emmy win not withstanding) a shot, even if you don't consider yourself a watcher of reality TV. In four previous tries, TAR (as fans affectionately call it) has managed one thing that no other reality show of any type – from The Real World to Survivor to The Bachelor to The Restaurant to Big Brother – has ever accomplished: it has never been boring. Not once. Aside from excellent production values and generally fantastic casting, the very nature and format of the show almost precludes TAR from succumbing to the same fate that inevitably seems to afflict its brethren. The reasons are actually simple: TAR allows itself more variables than other shows. Relationships between all the contestants play into every episode, but only to a degree. Plus, since the participants are in teams of two, you have the different dynamics or the partners themselves as well as the various teams that choose to work with, or against, each other. But then there are also the physical and strategic aspects of the game: how much money do we spend? Do we take go after the Fast Forward or (this season) take the Yield now, and never be able to use it again the rest of the race? Or, as was the case in the first episode, do we rush to get on the first flight leaving, or investigate if maybe the second flight somehow gets us to the destination earlier?
Alliances can only take you so far in TAR. And unlike every other show, the cumulative effects of the entire period involved only has limited influence on the eventual outcome. The producers (wisely, I think) structure the various legs of the race so that no one can take too big a lead. At some point, there will inevitably be the "bunching" (as it's called on TWoP) that evens out the field, giving that team that just escaped elimination a chance to win and knocking the previous first place team out of the race. Unlike Survivor which lends itself to office pools because at least educated guesses are possible, TAR has the ability to surprise every week. And as the show progresses, the personalities of the people, both as teams and individual players, cause viewers to root for their favorites and to delight in the demise of (or often agonize in the success of) their (antonym favorite). The most complicated example was the third season during which poor Zach was saddled with his bitchy, lazy, Sybil-like partner Flo. In the most conflicting ending in show history, Zach and Flor won. Conflicting because everyone hated whiney-ass Flo who took advantage of her being a cute girl and her partners obvious more-than-friends feelings for her. Nobody wanted her to win. On the other hand, the fact that Zach was able to win with Albatross-Flo dragging him backwards was remarkable, and if anyone deserved it, he did.
The casting seems to always include some basic reality-show, or at least TAR-specific, archetypes, and already I can see that this new group of contestants should provide a season of entertainment. If you missed the first episode on Wednesday (or the replay at 8 PM tonight/Saturday), you should definitely check-out the TWoP recap when it's finally posted, and in the meantime, I'll help you familiarize yourself with the current cast, after the jump.
- Alison and Donny: In a bit of CBS cross-promotion, the runner-up of last year's Big Brother 4 teams-up with her boyfriend to join the race. They already remind me of Flo and Zach even though to Zach's dismay, the latter weren't a "couple." Also, I don't think Zach is quite as dumb as Donny appears. After watching BB4, we know that Donny must be the biggest idiot around because he's still with the delusional idiot Alison. I want to feel sorry for him, as I did for Zach but since he seems to not understand why they're still together. Especially since they break-up and quarrel a lot but "for some reason we stay together." They will be a fun team to hate, especially when reminded each week by the opening credits of how pathetic they are. Look, there are Alison and Donny laughing and playing in the snow. Oh wait, no … now there are Alison and Donny, standing back-to-back, arms crossed, looking stern, staring intently at the camera: they mean business. I'm scared.
- Brandon and Nicole: They dated long-distance for a year and have just moved to LA together. More importantly, they're "committed Christians." Well, someone's gotta be. There's always some team that seems convinced that God loves TAR as much as, say, I do. (Of course, and God should love it.) And that team also must be convinced that not only does God watch while they're racing, but God is also rooting for their team over the others. Thankfully, often at some point early on, said team also gets screwed by "trusting the lord" and makes a mistake that could cost them the race. Hopefully, Brandon and Nicole haven't learned that entire lesson yet because that would negate future fabulous hijinx. And besides, they have another advantage according to Nicole. It turns out, she's the current Miss Texas USA, and she thinks "that's going to be an advantage that I have; that I have been in such a competitive situation." You said it sister. I'd rather bungee jump than go up against those vicious pageant participants any day. It's far less dangerous.
- Colin and Christie: This is the hot couple. Both guy and girl are pretty good looking. They're also the wannabe hipster couple, Colin complete with trucker cap and a look which says, "I'm too intense to be here." (They're from Corpus Christi, Texas, so being a little behind is forgivable, I suppose.) Nicole should know that her pageant expertise won't help that much because Christie won the 1996 Miss Teen USA pageant, so she's already represented this fine country in the world of beauty pageants; Nicole can only claim Texas.
- Kami and Karli: Guess what? They're twins. Yeah they are. That's why they have such cute names that both start with K and end with an –ee sound. They also are athletic twins. They play a lot of soccer. Of course, since they're identical twins, they have a psychic bond, that nonverbal connection that freaks the rest of us out. That's why when one starts by saying that they're do what they're good at, the other knows to chime in on cue so they both say "manipulating" at the exact same time. I mean, that's what it is, right? It's not that the producers rehearsed that or shot a couple takes or anything, right?
- Linda and Karen: They're best friends. They're mothers. They're amateur bowlers! They're gone in the next couple weeks!
- Marshall and Lance: Brothers who run a pizza restaurant in Dallas. I'm guessing their pizza isn't all that good, because according to the CBS website, they're originally from New York. What person from New York would leave the greatest city in the world with the best pizza in the country to open a pizza place in Dallas? One of them says in his intro: "I'm not looking to offend someone. I'm just being myself." Thank goodness we have someone unselfconscious enough to offend people without regret. YAY!
- Charla and Mirna: They're cousins from Baltimore. Mirna's breasts are about as big as Charla's entire body because, you see, Charla is a "little person." She's also tough and feisty and can actually carry Mirna on her shoulders. She likes to prove to people that just because she is different, she can still accomplish anything. Then later in the show, she makes a statement that will advance the cause of "little people" forever: she says people like to help her because they think she can't do anything, and that help will save Mirna and her a lot in this competition. Yay! The producers love Charla because she seems to give them plenty of opportunities to show her trying to keep up while Mirna runs ahead saying, "Come on, Charla." Three times in before the opening credits alone, I believe. Charla and Mirna also have this annoying habit of speaking English with a faux Spanish accent while they're in South America; as if that will help the locals understand them better.
- Dennis and Erika: They once were engaged, then they weren't. Now they're trying to find a way to get back together. They must have thought that a month-long race, traveling around the world and depending on each other would help them decide if being together was possible or not. Too bad they were the first team eliminated.
- Bob and Joyce: They're the necessary "older" couple who everyone underestimates, but might hang around for a little while. They're both "widowers" (as described by the voiceover) who lost their spouses to cancer, but they prove that the internet is not just for young people because that's how they met. In one shot, Joyce looks a bit like Kathie Lee Gifford sans surgery and a bit older.
- Chip and Kim: They're what the creator of South Park would call "the tokens." TAR isn't exactly filled with minority contestants. These married parents who run their own computer company in Orange County, CA kind of fulfill the quota here.
- Jim and Marsha: Another archetypal pairing – the parent/child couple who have trouble understanding each other, but hope that the race will bring them together. Jim is ex-military; Marsha is his daughter who is frustrated that he still sees her as a little girl. Jim tore up his knee at the very beginning of the race and needed 25 stitches, almost making them miss they're first flight out of town. Shockingly, a Thrifty Rental Car shuttle driver agreed to take them to the medical center near the airport. I'm sure he would do that for anyone, but just to be safe, if you ever get injured while waiting for a flight and are in a rush, I suggest having a TV camera crew there to follow you around. It just could help grab some attention.