A new race around the world begins with flying watermelons and angry villagers slinging muddy water

By Darren Franich
Updated September 27, 2010 at 05:22 AM EDT
John P. Filo/CBS

The seventeenth season of The Amazing Race began with Phil Keoghan patrolling around Gloucester, Massachusetts, the oldest seaport in America. (Also the country’s oldest art colony. Who knew there were hippies in the mid-1800s?) Lobster boats carried the twenty-two contestants to the starting line. Let’s do a quick rundown of who we’re dealing with:

Brook and Claire: Home-shopping television hosts from Reno, Team QVC has the advantage of a great screen presence and the disadvantage of not being able to shut up ever. Well, Claire’s not so bad. But Brook can’t stop the verbal flow. “We’re such great communicators,” she said Reaganly, “We can manipulate anyone.” Even the French?

Chad and Stephanie: They started dating eight months ago, just purchased a home together, and Chad plans to ask for her hand in marriage sometime this season. “How adorable!” I thought. Then the race started, and Chad turned into Captain Anger. I give them until Eastern Europe.

Nat and Kat: A self-proclaimed “team of nerds,” the doctor pals seem more than capable in the physical challenges and have a collective 50 years of education. Like all doctors, they’re capable of running without sleep for days. Also, they administer blood-glucose tests while driving on an English freeway at 120 km/hr. Also, their names rhyme. My early pick to win it all.

Connor and Jonathan: From some clown college called Princeton. A cappella singers, but don’t hold that against them. Unless they constantly sing. Which, based on last night’s episode, they do.

Kate and Rachel: Bikinis!

Michael and Kevin: Michael is an immigrant. Kevin is second-generation Asian-American and a YouTube sensation. I’m intrigued to see how their generation/cultural gap plays out on the run, but something tells me these two are going far.

Nick and Vicki: Bikers with tattoos who seem uniquely ill-prepared to travel anywhere, but idiot savants have a good history in Race.

Jill and Thomas: A dating couple from Marina Del Rey, they look remarkably similar to Chad and Stephanie, except that Thomas’s face is stuck in a perpetual “I-am-the-Prince-of-Darkness” scowl. (He attended some clown college called Notre Dame.)

Gary and Mallory: Miss Kentucky 2009, but unlike last season’s semi-literate beauty queen, Mallory stole my brain-heart with her gun-toting blonde-bombshell act (her dad happily notes that he wanted a boy) and her tendency to scream at everything like Mickey Rooney in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Ron and Tony: Best friends from Los Angeles who met doing a performance of The Wiz. Ron attended some clown college called Stanford. Tony runs like the T-1000. After ten minutes, they were my pick to win it all. This is why I don’t gamble.

Andi and Jenna: Recently reunited mother-daughter pair. If I heard right, the race is only the third time they’ve actually been together. Expect either life-affirming achievement or magnificent awkwardness. Already christened “The Gilmore Girls” by Jonathan, so perhaps a Princeton education is still worth something.

BOSTON

Phil rocked the contestants’ world with a game-changing new element: whoever came in first today would get an Express Pass, a get-out-of-a-challenge-free card. Another curveball: the contestants could catch two flights to England, but one flight would arrive a half-hour early – and there was only room for three teams on that flight.

NEXT: They go to that picnic area with the big boulders.

From there, they would set off for Stonehenge. “I’ve seen Stonehenge before,” said Stephanie. “You mean you’ve seen it on TV,” corrected Captain Anger. Eight months! I have no idea why newly dating couples ever go on Amazing Race, because the editors are merciless with their portrayal of romantic dysfunction. Thomas proudly pointed out that his Notre Dame education “will give him advantages in certain challenges,” like being able to cheer loudly for a football team. Jill’s mission in the this contest is to prove “you don’t have to be a college grad to be able to finish The Amazing Race.” Thomas stared daggers at her. I hope these crazy kids make it.

Ron and Tony arrived at the airport first, followed close behind by the dysfunctional couples. (The Volleyball Valkyries arrived fourth. Cherish their utter inability to park a car.) It may have been a stealth good move to not make the first flight: the remaining teams chatted each other up and exchanged nicknames. (Kat and Nat call Mallory “Sunshine,” and the Ivy Leaguers were instantly christened “Team Glee,” although Jonathan’s remarkable resemblance to Harry Potter will almost certainly be joke fodder all season. )

STONEHENGE

In England, cars drive on the left side of the road, intersections are roundabouts, dollars are pounds, pounds are kilograms, elections are mesmerizingly confusing, and everyone sounds smarter than you. Technically one of the easier countries to navigate – because, you know, they speak our language – England instantly derailed Tony and Ron, who got lost on the way to Stonehenge and basically never recovered. In the middle of the pack, Andie narrated her problematic relationship with the stick-shift to Jenna, who flashed the camera the first of many “What-am-I-doing-here?” deadpan stares.

Meanwhile, Team ER totally owned the Race and sped off to Stonehenge, the setting for my favorite anthropology-themed young adult horror novel ever. The first clue was simple wordplay: What’s the opposite of Nor’Easter? Various charming locals pointed the front-runners (which by this point included Team Notre Dame, Team QVC, Team Valkyrie) to Eastnor castle. The Home Shoppers teamed up with the Doctors. As Brook explained, “I’m all about woman power.”

Speaking of which: when the Volleyball players had some car trouble on a big hill. One of them got out to push. That’s an aggressive move. (Even though I’m jealous of their ridiculously perfect genetic code, I kind of hope they win this thing.) Elsewhere in the world of Blonde People I Don’t Hate, Mallory and her papa got a flat, and the A cappella boys stopped to help out. That was the second time they stopped to help another team, indicating that they’re kindhearted people who will last maybe two more days in this thing.

(Potentially Offensive Comment of the Night That Made Me Laugh: When a helpful Englishman couldn’t conjure up “Eastnor” fast enough, Mallory exclaimed, “Come on, Winston!”)

EASTNOR CASTLE

The challenge was called “Storm the Castle.” Contestants had to climb up one side of Eastnor castle while local townspeople/Monty Python extras threw “water” down onto them. Then they had to make for the river and cross it using Medieval boats. (Apparently, in Medieval times, they made boats out of gigantic turtle shells.)

The first teams to get across the water were Team QVC, The Nat/Kat Rat Pack, and the Prince of Darkness and his beloved hairstylist. Cut to: Lots of Knights Jousting! Oh, viewers, I was hoping that the final rung of the challenge would involve contestants putting on suits of armor and swordfighting, but apparently that is both “time-consuming” and “dangerous.”

NEXT: Family-friendly fruit substitutes for swords.

Instead, for the final challenge, contestants had to fire a watermelon out of a ballista into a suit of armor. I took great interest in this challenge, since “Firing a Watermelon out of a Ballista into a Suit of Armor” is one of the three hobbies I hope to develop in retirement. (The other two are “Chess” and “Polishing My Yacht.”) Thomas proved uniquely adept at the Watermelon challenge, so perhaps a Notre Dame education is still worth something. Thomas whisked his lady-love away – number one of the night! The Doctors came in second – hooray! Brook was screaming at Claire, “Don’t give up on me now! Right in the kisser! Show that knight who’s boss! If I stop talking I’ll die!”

Then this happened. Ouch. In a show of impressive solidarity, the clue-giving jester left his balancing ballot to offer some words of encouragement. Claire: “I can’t feel my face!” Brook: “You have to finish.” Claire managed to knock over the knight on her second try. “I made it my bitch!” she exclaimed. Team QVC came in fourth, right behind Team Glee.

Viewers, out of all the teams who farcically sank into the water, I’m going to nominate Chad for the best Sinking-Man face: He modeled a Daffy Duck-grimace whenever his turtle-boat slowly went under. Chad and Stephanie had the worst time on the water – the Valkyries merrily christened them “Tinkerbell and Pan” as they passed them by, and Team Glee happily said, “Ready to beat the buff team?” right before they lapped them. Chad, a former football player, moaned, “D’oi, those nerds passed us!” Chad proceeded to lead Stephanie halfway around the Eastnor grounds in search of the Pit stop. Careful, Chad, I’m dangerously close to christening your team “Moose and Midge.”

The Volleyball Valkyries came in fifth place. Viewers, I won’t lie to you: I can’t tell the two of them apart. But I still like their gusto, and athletes have a good history on the Race. Gary/Mallory and Kevin/Michael followed soon after in the six and seven spots. Mallory pointed out that they were Father/Daughter and Father/Son. “People thought these old guys couldn’t do anything!” she said, charm positively pouring off of her.

At the rear of the pack, Vicki and Nick made a serious case for themselves as this season’s adorable numbskulls. First, having ascended the castle, they ran around asking if any of the villagers were “a battlement.” They were looking for a flag. Flags were all around them. At one point, Nick actually grabbed a flag, unfurled it, and watched it blow in the wind, very flag-like. Later, when they couldn’t find their boat, Nick argued, “We might be our boat.” What? Later, Phil asked Vicki, “What country are you in right now?” Vicki: “London.” Phil: “Yes. The Country of London.”

Fortunately for tattoo enthusiasts, Ron and Tony were completely undone in every way by the English countryside. As a final insult, they couldn’t figure out a way to properly balance themselves on the boat — Ron had a hundred pounds on Tony. And so, Ron-Ton were the first contestants eliminated. Apparently, a Stanford education isn’t what it used to be. (Then again: Google.)

Viewers, after that break-neck, extra-long premiere, I find myself kind of ridiculously excited for the season ahead. I genuinely love the Doctors and the YouTube gang, I’m excited to see which of the couples proves more dysfunctional, I’m banking on either the Volleyball Valkyries or the Illustrated Couple to pull some tricks out of their sleeve, and I hope to never get tired of Mallory’s happy-attack scream.

Who are your favorites so far, Race fans? Can you believe how completely Ron and Tony messed up? England isn’t that hard to navigate, is it?

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