A new season of globe-trotting kicks off, with fan-favorite teams setting off for the land down under
Amazing Race
Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Welcome to Palm Springs, CA. “It’s the second windiest place on Earth,” proclaimed Grandmaster Phil, “a city on the forefront of modern energy technology!” Which is a kind way of saying that Palm Springs is a perma-sunny Retirementville, populated almost entirely by senior citizens whose hobbies include “shopping,” “the steam room,” and “slowly burning away all those pesky brain cells while playing unbearably hot rounds of golf.” (Dear God: Please let me live in Palm Springs when I retire. Also, please let me retire tomorrow.) It’s a true American city — terraformed out of the desert, subsisting purely off of tourism and excessive air conditioning — and it served as the kickoff point for season XVIII of The Amazing Race (broadcast, at long last, in glorious Technicolor Cinemascope HD.)

The cast this season is composed entirely of teams with “unfinished business,” which makes them sound like angry ghosts trapped in a haunted mansion. Although that would be a pretty fun haunted mansion: This contestant pool is stacked tall with fan favorites, like Harlem Globetrotters Flight Time and Big Easy, cowbros Jet and Cord, and oddly adorable Goths Kynt and Vyxsin. And give the Race producers credit for going deep into their bench — Zev and Justin were only around for four episodes back in season 15, but they’re back in the mix this season. Justin explained that they were here to win this time, leading Zev to note, “I was here to win last time, but somebody lost my passport.” If you’re a Race newcomer, or you just need to refresh your memory about these teams, check out our cast gallery for more info on the teams’ ignoble exits in their first go-round. (I love how Phil described the Globetrotters’ defeat: “They were stumped by Franz Kafka in Prague.” Who hasn’t been?)

Phil gathered the teams in the middle of a wind farm and gave them their initial instructions, noting that the first team to hit Pit Stop Uno would get an Express Pass. (That’s a powerful reward — recall that, when it was introduced last season, the team that carried the Express Pass made it to the final three.) To get the first clue, teams had to wade into a search field filled with paper airplanes. In the strangely unhelpful words of Phil, “You have to bring me what I need: Queensland and Northern Territories Area Services.” Another twist: the last team to find what Phil needed would get a double-detour U-Turn. And a final gameplay quirk: The last three teams to bring Phil what he needed would get on a second flight leaving 90 minutes behind the first one.

The airplanes were marked with the names of different Airlines. The goal was to find the correct acronym: QANTAS. Naturally, some teams mistook the clue and grabbed “Queensland Pacific.” (Ron, bizarrely, just grabbed “Pan Am,” leading Christina to gently but firmly explain, “It’s QANTAS, daddy. They fly to Australia.” Clearly, another season of father-daughter fun awaits!)

NEXT: And the last shall be first…

Mel/Mike and Zev/Justin seemed to know QANTAS right away, and were the first to depart. Jet and Cord apparently just guessed the acronym, and they were off, too. (The boys are excited to be back in the Race. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!” said Cord. “Again,” said Jet.) The other teams followed along close behind them. Kish and Jen narrowly missed a spot on the first flight. Mallory begged St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things (and also swineherds), for help finding the QANTAS plane — and found it! That left Kris and Amanda in last place, with a U-Turn in their future. But their luck was about to change…

…Because the first flight had to make an emergency landing in Honolulu when a passenger suffered a heart attack. All of the teams on Plane One were too nice to say, “Thanks for totally ruining our game, heart attack dude!” (Bless Big Easy, who looked genuinely concerned when he said, “The most important thing is that the person is fine.”) That meant the first flight arrived in Sydney after the second flight. (Boy, plane travel is just miserable, isn’t it?)

Once the teams landed in Sydney, we were treated to a montage of local Sydney landmarks: The Opera House, the Opera House, and the Opera House. Teams had to race to Oceanworld in Manly. (For a second I misheard Phil and thought he said “Manly Oceanworld,” which sounds like a Saturday morning cartoon show from the ’80s.) The Flight 2 people were far in the lead, and the poor Cowbros fell far behind when they missed both the Manly Train and the Manly Ferry.

The big challenge of the night had contestants getting into a massive, million-and-a-half gallon tank, surrounded by sharks and manta rays, trying to search for a compass. Kisha and Jen reminded us that they had some troubles with water the last time around: “Not to fulfill any stereotypes because we are African American,” said Jen, “But no, we cannot swim.” Kisha didn’t seem to have any problem with the mock deep-see diving, although she admitted, “I’m really scared of deep water and sharks. So being in deep water with sharks…” See, both of these fears seem utterly rational to me, much like my fear of “Things That Could Kill Me.”

NEXT: Mallory cracks the code

I was a bit skeptical when I heard that Gary and Mallory would be taking part in this season — my personal season 17 preference would’ve been Jill and Thomas, aka the Angelic Consort and the Prince of Darkness, who ran afoul of an LA cabbie at the end of last season. But I forgot just how much fun the two of them are: Mallory with her ridiculous energy, Gary with his Captain America calm. “These sharks look hungry!” he laughed, looking on as his daughter swam. “She’s worried about sting-rays, I don’t think she’s seen that shark yet.”

Mallory and Amanda were the first to grab the compass, leading them to the second part of the challenge: They had to decipher a sentence written in nautical flags, matching the symbols on the flags with the letter on their compass, and I am already confusing myself. Suffice it to say it was some serious Dan Brown stuff. (But good Dan Brown, not The Lost Symbol.)

Back in the tank, Justin suited up for his first time scuba-diving, and Vyxsin submerged for Team Goth. “She looked like a little pink mermaid in there,” said her eye-shadowed paramour. In the athletic sector, Flight Time got wet for Team Globetrotter, and Cara went under for Team Ginger. “Cara’s got really good eyesight!” claimed Jaime. (I feel like Jaime gets kind of a bad rap, but I nevertheless couldn’t help imagining a scene where Cara looks in the water, sees the sharks, says “Nah, boss, nah I’m not goin’ in there!” and then Jaime pushes her in.) The Cowbros finally arrived while most teams were code-cracking. Jet gamely put on the scuba gear, even though he admitted, “I’m from Oklahoma. I don’t do water. I don’t even take baths.” (Disappointingly, he did not keep his hat on while underwater.)

Mallory figured out the word-scramble first: Teams had to “Find the Commodore” and give him the secret phrase: “I am between the devil and the deep blue sea.” (I’m pretty sure that was also a code-phrase in my fraternity initiation that I’m not supposed to tell anyone about.) That meant Mallory/Gary were the first to take on the next challenge: Sailing a 16-foot skiff into Manly Bay, inarguably the manliest bay in the world, and sailing along a water course to grab the final clue off a buoy. (Can I just take this opportunity to point out that I occasionally think “Buoy” is the most beautiful word in the English language?)

NEXT: The Cowboys’ lament

Amanda and Kisha ended up working together to solve the puzzle. In fact, there were team-ups all over the place — to be expected, considering how many of these people know each other. “Just like old times, we’re working with Margie and Luke,” said Jaime. I figured Flight Time and Big Easy were crazy when they didn’t even bother solving the clue…but then they cannily asked Justin for a help, and Justin happily offered them the code-phrase. “We helped them out, now they owe us,” said Justin. (He was playing it off like smart gameplay, but come on: These two teams love each other. Zev/Justin are wearing “Harlem Globetrotters” T-shirts, for goodness’ sakes. If they’re both in the final three, expect some painful choices, sort of like how at the end of Double Dragon you have to fight your partner to decide who gets the girl.)

That meant Flight Time and Big Easy bypassed Team Ginger and Margie/Luke, who had miswritten the code-phrase as “I am the devil and the deep blue sea.” Flight Time, always a savvier player than his partner, wisely opted to whisper the code-phrase. On their way back to the flags, the confused teams begged Justin for help, but he had already used up his free pass. “We don’t really know them from a hole in the wall,” said Justin. That’s cold, but it’s also smart gameplay. I’m anointing Zev and Justin my early pick to win it all. I’m almost certainly wrong, but I actually guessed correctly last season, so who knows? Maybe I’m a genius. (Note: Every Math and Science teacher I ever had would almost certainly not consider me a genius.)

The teams with the wrong codephrase formed a super-group with Mel/Mike and Ron/Christina, leaving just the Goths and Cowboys at the back of the pack. And then it was just the Cowboys — the Goths ran off with the code only half-solved, but Margie happily volunteered the full code-phrase. (Margie noted that it was helpful to keep to keep beatable teams in the race. Personally, I think she’s underrating the Goths just a little bit.) I was a huge fan of the Cowbros during their season, so I got extremely dispirited when Jet just couldn’t figure out the code-phrase: He appeared to have complete gibberish written down on his notepad, and even after two go-rounds with the Commodore he wasn’t even close to the right phrase.

Fortunately for the Cowboys, there was a twist waiting far ahead of them. Gary and Mallory got the sailing clue and made their way to Shelly Beach, one of the hottest surfing spots in Sydney. Grandmaster Phil was on location wearing an incredible Indian Jones hat. He congratulated Team America on winning first place and earning the express pass…but he also said, “You guys are still racing.” He handed them a clue – we didn’t hear it in full, but it sounds like the teams are Outback-bound. Mallory tried chatting up the host. “Mallory, this is no time to dilly-dally,” said Phil. “This is our second chance, and we’re really glad…” said the beauty queen. “Stop talking and go!” said Phil. And off they ran.

Personally, I always dig it when Race throws in a two-part leg — it ends an episode on a note of pure adrenaline. (Sort of like the end of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, when the chase starts all over again.) The racers all seemed pretty stoked, too — Amanda and Kris, in second place, might just triumph over their U-Turn double-detour. Kisha/Jen grinned, and Zev cheerfully said, “Ohh, Phil, you dirty dog.” My favorite reaction was Vyxsin — arriving in tenth place, she positively moaned when Phil said they weren’t finished. “What did we do wrong,” she said, about to cry. When she heard the leg wasn’t over, her expression instantly changed: “That’s great news!” Unfortunately, the Cowboys were left struggling at the code-cracking competition, staring down the barrel of a potential penalty. Let’s hope they get their act together.

Viewers, did you dig the beginning of this season, which I’m henceforth going to christen Not Technically All-Star But Really Kind of All-Stars? Anyone else shed a little tear when Vyxsin started talking about Kynt’s recently-passed father? Also, how cool is Zev? He goes sailing every Thursday morning at 6 o’ clock!

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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The Amazing Race

Phil Keoghan hosts the globe-trotting adventure series.

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