Dashing around Siberia, Racers come to a dead spot when they prove clueless about a Russian literary great

By Josh Wolk
Updated January 14, 2020 at 08:04 PM EST
Credit: Sonja Flemming/CBS

The teams who were able to finish their woodpiles were then sent to Siberia’s number one local amusement park, ”Bobrovy Log Park.” (It’s located just down the road from Siberia’s other favorite family fun-time attraction, Knott’s Berry Gulag.) There one teammate had to ride down a bobsled-like run and spot seven letters tacked to trees; when they got to the bottom (which they had to do in four minutes or less), they had to unscramble the letters to spell a famous Russian playwright. Yes, we’re finally at that part of the show.

First came Kisha, who (after two runs; on the first one she didn’t see the ”V”) grumbled, ”I don’t know nothing about no Russia.” Which is like saying, ”How am I supposed to know who this Shakespeare dude is? I’ve never been to London.” Christie drew just as big of a blank, and yet both of them (and, later, Jaime) solved it by just tossing in letters and randomly getting it on the first try. It all seemed a bit fishy, especially when Kisha explained her strategy: She guessed the name because she was familiar with a few Russian words, like ”Chek” and ”Kov.” Well, isn’t that convenient! Really, what are the odds that all of them would randomly guess a name that they’d never heard of before? Luke’s attempt seemed far more likely. He came up with four attempts like ”Coehkvh” before he finally nailed it.

But my suspicions about how they got the answer is secondary to my disgust that so many of them needed to guess in the first place. Again, this is not intellectual snobbery. I’m not someone who can quote The Seagull or Three Sisters to you; I’ve never read them or seen them performed. I’ve seen Uncle Vanya, but I have no great affinity for it. But I’ve heard of the freaking guy. Five out of eight teams hadn’t, and acted like this challenge was unreasonably hard. If they’d asked them to unscramble old Saved By the Bell plots, I bet they’d have done it in record time. I hate to sound like an old crank, but holy crap, Chekhov? At the beginning of the show, Mike White called his dad, ”part Woody Allen, part Billy Graham, and a splash of Judy Garland.” I’m guessing most of his competitors could unscramble only one of those names.

Mark and Michael would later pass this task right away, because literature’s their game. Shutters, though? Not so much. It took the arrival of Mel and Mike and Kris and Amanda to get them through it. Joining forces (and under the doleful gaze of Random Tool Shed Man, who looked like he was out of a Chekhov play), the three teams were able to finally find the shutter-needy house that so eluded the tiny brothers in the town. A town that, I should mention, was utterly deserted except for a stray dog. Seriously, where was everyone? Out at the slaw factory?

NEXT: Don’t ever stiff a Siberian cabbie

Sometimes it’s funny when Amazing Race teams prove their ignorance of everything other than how to match sweatsuits. When, say, a Racer speaks Spanish in Turkey, or can’t pronounce ”Bulgaria,” it’s amusing: ”What dopes!” I cry smugly and we can all laugh together at the ignorance of this one random doofus on a reality show.

But on last night’s show, five out of eight racers had never heard of Anton Chekhov. Not ”didn’t know how to spell” Chekhov: Had never heard of him. And when asked to unscramble his name with seven letters, they reacted as if they were told to name something incredibly obscure and local, like, ”Unscramble the name of Siberia’s top mailman.” Suddenly, dopiness couldn’t be dismissed as an isolated incident. It made you think, ”Good lord, is this an exact microcosm of our country?” I’ve got something else to unscramble, too: WEER SRCEWED.

I don’t want to come off as a literary snob right off the bat. (Even though calling someone snobby for assuming people should have heard of Chekhov is like saying someone’s pretentious because they use the word ”hors d’oeuvres.”) So I’ll back up to the beginning and get my dander up later.

Everyone began within a general half-hour window, except for Tammy and Victor, who lagged two hours behind the second-to-last place team. But even they caught up at the airport, as everyone was to fly from Romania to the distant Siberia (which appeared to be in a different solar system, according to the map). Since they had to go through Moscow, all teams ended up on one of four different connecting flights to Russia. In previous seasons, every decision on which flight to get on would have been illustrated in excruciating detail; last night, however, the teams arrived at the Bucharest airport, and suddenly were shown debarking in Siberia. I thought I’d fallen asleep and missed a chunk of show. And I mean ”missed” in the most literal sense, as it was no loss at all. Again, I must applaud this new approach by the show.

We got a couple of little hors d’oeuvres (yep, I said it) of stupidity up front, premonitions of doltishness to come: When told they would be headed to Siberia, Kisha said, ”Siberia…I know that’s where they have Siberian tigers.” It’s wonderful when people get all of their geographical know-how from Siegfried and Roy. (If the teams ever head to France, I imagine Kisha will be quite disappointed that it looks nothing like what Cirque de Soleil led her to believe.) And later, when Christie and Jodi arrived at a Siberian dam emblazoned with a giant picture of Lenin, Christie asked if that was the guy who built the dam. Luckily, Jodi was there to correct her: ”No, he’s a bad dictator guy.” As opposed to the good dictator guys, I guess. Actually, it turns out that most of history’s good dictators built dams in their free time, so that was an important distinction to make.

NEXT: The Siberians make the Gypsies look like the French aristocracy

Only one of the flights from Romania made it to Moscow in time to connect to the first flight to Siberia, so Kisha and Jen, the blondes, and Mark and Michael had a head start. From the dam, they were sent to a Detour, where they could either stack a giant wall of firewood, or go try to build some shutters. They all opted for stacking, and their task was observed by a group of mocking locals. Having a live studio audience of sorts has become more and more prevalent, and I’ve liked it ever since the Russian army doubled over in laughter over the frat guys’ marching last season. I wonder if the jeering laughter will evolve and soon these observers will be encouraged by producers to throw rocks and garbage.

If the bleak scenery and gloomy sky didn’t convince you that Siberia would not be a good travel destination, then the locals would. There was an article recently about how President Obama has been quickly going gray in his new job. Well, apparently the aging side effects of being president ain’t nothing compared to what comes from living in Siberia. The group of craggy, bearded boozers chugging vodka and stuffing cole slaw and pickles in their mouths? That was the Siberia High School class of 2007. You should see their parents.

While the teams labored on the wood, we kept cutting away to the Ivan Denisovich Repertory Players’ outdoor brunch of sadness. One man slogged through an accordion dirge while a Meredith-from-The-Office lookalike drunkenly cackled and sweat vodka. Some of the guys had yellowy beards, which looked to have been stained not by coffee, but by the sheer amount of Siberian slaw that they shoved into their maws.

The producers once again nailed it with the wood stacking challenge. It may not have been jazzy, but it did what good tasks do: visibly exhaust the teams, and go very wrong for some of them at the last minute. As Michael and Mark neared the end, they knocked over their sample wall of wood, as well as some of their own. Faced with starting over, they instead decided to run to the shutter challenge, which would prove to be as frustrating as trying to double for Two and a Half Men‘s Angus Jones, only to find out he got a haircut and now you need a new wig. (I’m assuming that because of Mark and Michael, I have a new audience of adult stuntmen for child actors, so occasionally I like to throw them a bone.)

Kisha and Jen finished their wood first, followed by the blondes. One of the men at the cookout said to Jodi, upon presenting the next clue to her, ”You cute girl…the best,” and then picked her up in a bear hug. The subtext was, ”You are first girl I ever see who not look like rock with fur.” For a moment I worried that it would take a team of eight producers to pry him off of her. Fortunately, three straight hours of eating pickles and drinking Siberian Rickeys (the local cocktail: a mixture of vodka, slaw drippings, and melted snow) had sapped his strength.

NEXT: The new Blind U-Turn

After they all moved on, the second wave of Racers descended on the woodpiles, just as the bystanders had moved onto their sausage course. As only Mark and Michael’s wood had fallen so far, I was concerned that the show had overplayed the danger in last week’s teaser. But no: Mel and Mike, Amanda and Kris, and the ex-cheerleaders all had their wood walls topple over just as they were nearly done. The first two teams abandoned the task to do the shutters, while Jaime and Cara remained in a fit of Girl Power. Jeez, what was with all the ”Girls rule, boys drool” ax-grinding? At the dam they had said, ”Pretty powerful beavers made that dam. They must be females!” and here they repeatedly congratulated themselves on doing the task without ”any boys helping us.” Was this The Amazing Race or a deleted scene from a Babysitters Club novel?

Out of the remaining group, Margie and Luke finished their wall first, and opted to use the new twist — the Blind U-Turn — on Amanda and Kris in order to protect Jaime and Cara, who were lingering behind at the firewood. The Blind U-Turn is anonymous, which means that when someone discovers they have been stopped, instead of endless shots of them saying, ”I can’t believe Team X did this to us. That is so low. I never would have done it,” we’ll have endless shots of them saying, ”I wonder who did this to us? That is so low. I never would have done it.”

While I don’t think this was a necessary move on Margie and Luke’s parts, I suppose there was no reason not to do it. Anyone else (if discovered) would engender a lot of hateful trash talk. But everyone is so intent on saying what an honorable, inspirational player Luke is that if he pisses everyone off, the worst that could happen is people fall back to saying nothing at all.

Meanwhile, Mark and Michael were stymied by the shutters. They wandered around the town, hopelessly searching for the home in which they’d need to install them. My favorite moment was when Mark exclaimed, ”House needs repair!” and Michael excitedly said, ”Where?” and it turned out Mark was just repeating what they were looking for. ”Don’t say it if you don’t mean it!” snapped Michael. Boy, Mark must be a pain in the neck to be around when he’s reading the newspaper. ”Recession’s over.” ”What’s that? It’s over? The Dow is finally bouncing back? Unemployment is dropping?” ”Huh? No, I was just saying the news I’d like to hear.” I wonder how many morning meals end with Mark’s wife dumping hot coffee over his head?

NEXT: The great Chekhov blind spot

After the shutter alliance finally discovered the hidden home (which was about 10 yards from where they were all about to give up), they quickly finished, only for Kris and Amanda to discover they’d been U-turned. They suspected Kisha and Jen, or the blondes, and were so far off they actually said, ”Margie and Luke probably felt so bad, too.” Luke really is proving that deaf people can do anything anyone else can, including be a sneaky backstabbing bastard.

At the mat, Phil was backed up by the requisite Troupe Doing Local Dance. Christie and Jodi arrived first, and won motorcycles. ”You can get them after the race to go cruising around in,” said Phil. ”Are you into that?” Was this a gift presentation or a pickup line from 1973? The rest of the teams dribbled in, until only the stuntbrothers and Kris and Amanda were left out on the road. The brothers were nearly derailed when they took a cab and only had 5000 rubles, when the cabbie wanted 8000. They tried to offer the cabbie their watches, only to find he was wearing a Rolex. Then they tried to give him their tiny jackets, but were refused. If only the jackets were stuffed with cole slaw instead of down: Siberian cabbies would eat their own mothers if they suspected they were stuffed with cole slaw. At least that’s what one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers told me.

Finally the cabbie agreed to let them go. I can understand why this would be hard for a cabbie to do: If you picked up someone who was being followed by a camera crew, would you believe them if they cried poverty? I wonder if there is tons of footage we don’t see of these cabbies asking the cameramen why they don’t chip in for the fare. The stuntmen handily beat Amanda and Kris, who were eliminated, after which they proclaimed their undying love. If they do get married, it would be appropriate if they quoted Chekhov in their vows. Although I realize they’re far more likely to be quoting The Bachelor.

What did you think of the episode? Am I being too hard on people for not knowing who Anton Chekhov is? Or am I right in thinking that our country is getting dumber faster than a wheel of cheese rolling down a Switzerland hill? And what about the U-turning Luke? Will the other teams turn against him if and when they discover what he did to Kris and Amanda, or will they continue to treat him like a saint? And don’t forget to check Phil’s blog: I’ll bet he knew who Chekhov was.

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The Amazing Race

Phil Keoghan hosts the globe-trotting adventure series.

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