One contestant nearly eliminates her team before the Race  begins in Taiwan, where a Confucian proverb... well... proves very confusing

By Lanford Beard
Updated September 26, 2011 at 06:25 AM EDT
The Amazing Race
Credit: Sonja Flemming/CBS

We began TAR‘s 19th season once again in California because, frankly, it was convenient to the production crew. Also because how else would we get our fill of fake boobies and Baywatch references (three points for spotting the yellow rescue truck in the opening shots!)? You’ve already met the teams on, but here was your chance to get to know them as stereotypes anew! As the team made make their way into Los Angeles’s Hsi Lai Temple, we met stoned-looking snowboarders (is that redundant?) Andy and Tommy, greedy bastards (and former Survivor winners) Ethan and Jenna, world-sailing father-son duo Laurence and Zac, OCD Cindy and her hapless fiancé Ernie, sassy Southern siblings Justin and Jennifer, farmhand grandparents Bill and Cathi, ditzy blonde twins Liz and Marie, divorced daters Jeremy and Sandy, gay flight attendant partners Ron and Bill, ultra-competitive former NFL couple Marcus and Amani, and former Vegas showgirls Kaylani and Lisa, who claimed to be smart… more on that later.

The teams headed into the temple, where our beloved Phil Keoghan was looking swarthy as usual. He laid out a challenge so simple it was complicated all over again. Basically, it was a word puzzle in which the letters on a paper parasol would unlock the clue to the next location, which somehow featured the letters in the phrase “WANPEI.” In short, it was up to the teams to open up as many parasols as quickly as possible and hope to Confucius that they happened upon the right combination of vowels and consonants on it. According to Google, the Chinese for “needle in a haystack” is 在一個草堆針. So that’s basically what this was. After a moment, Phil explained that the teams were looking for a parasol with the letters “TAI” on it because they’re going to TAIpei, TAIwan. But everything was so new, and Phil went about laying out this process in such a perplexing manner that I suspect no one actually came to that conclusion on his/her own. Adding more insanity to the proceedings, Phil introduced a new element: The last team to figure out the first clue would receive a new penalty, the hazard, which would slow them down somewhere in this leg. Because the challenge was essentially luck-driven, Team Stoner was first out the gate, followed quickly by Team NFL, Team Twin, Team Survivor, and so on and so forth until Team Showgirl brought up the rear.

NEXT: Who needs a passport anyway?

So the Showgirls were already at a great disadvantage as they stopped into a nearby gas station to ask for directions the LAX. And then Kaylani dropped her passport. To her credit, she realized within minutes. Unfortunately, a return trip to the gas station proved fruitless. And, as you do in this sort of situation where you refuse to believe you would have such absurd bad luck, the showgirls trucked it all the way to LAX in hopes that fate would smile on them and they wouldn’t be eliminated from the race before they even began it. And it did! Through some random string of events that I am loath to describe because it involved tweeting as a lynchpin, some dude who happened by the gas station found Kaylani’s passport, realized she was on the show, and hauled tush to LAX to get it back to her. There was also a pretty amazing interlude where Kaylani — she who lost the passport — was all, “You need to communicate with me, Lisa, because we have no plan.” To which Lisa retorted, “Communicate what? You have no passport!” All that said and done, the sheer arbitrariness of TAR ensured that it would remain a great equalizer, and all the teams were Taiwan-bound.

In the midst of all this hubbub, two teams decided they would outright lie to their competitors. Most successful were Team NFL. Marcus claimed he did “some protecting,” which the others took to mean body guard duties, not protecting Peyton Manning as an Indianapolis Colt. I’m no football connoisseur, but I suspect it wasn’t much of a fib since you’d probably have to be a fairly big football fanatic to know who he is. Less successful were Team Survivor because Hello! They won two separate seasons of a crazy-successful show (that airs on this very network) in its heyday. Then again, they probably were two of the lamer winners, so take that for what you will… Regardless, it was kind of interesting that the season already began with such distrust. And chiefly from two former Survivors, no less. People thought Rob and Amber deserved a bad rap for their tactics on TAR, but Ethan and Jenna were two of the more likable Survivor competitors, and they have embraced dishonesty and subterfuge from the start. There’s mischief behind those pearly whites is all I’m saying.

NEXT: The answer is right in front of your face… in a language you can’t understand.

The teams were dropped in downtown Taipei and vaguely told to “look up” for their next clue. It was a billboard written entirely in Chinese characters that spelled out “Taipei Confucius Temple.” Unlike in previous seasons, not one of the competitors could read the language, so there was no edge for anyone. Add to that that TAR‘s signature colors (red and yellow) were everywhere, from the street sweepers’ hats to the boxers and on any old street sign. Most problematic, the racers had to ask someone on the street to interpret the billboard for them in hopes it said something of any meaning. That took humility and a willingness to waste tons of time. Eventually, after every team walked past the clue about a million times, Team Sassy Siblings and Team NFL were first to recognize on the billboard and give it a shot. Team Divorcées and Team OCD followed close behind. It’s of no relevance to spell out the pecking order past that, save to say that Team Farmhand started in last place then continued to fall behind so swiftly that it was embarrassing. I suspect their journey to try to find that lone billboard would have been more compelling and complex than the whole of Lost in Translation because, seriously, they took for-ev-er.

So onward the teams went to the Confucius Temple where was tasked with listening to a pre-recorded telephone message featuring a Confucian proverb, then — without taking notes — repeating it verbatim to a monk. The proverb went as follows: “In all things success depends on previous preparation, and without such previous preparation there is sure to be failure.” Honestly, it was a bit ironic since there was no amount of preparation they could have done to excel at this task. As such, uttering these 19 words without any discrepancy proved endlessly problematic for the various teams. As you’d expect, Team Stoner got off to a sluggish start in this particular challenge, which was ridiculously underscored by reggae-tinged elevator music. But it was Team Twins that was hit the hardest, mainly because Liz didn’t hear the message right until about the 200th time and because Marie was yelling at her like a maniac… which always helps one’s memory stay sharp.

NEXT: Dragon boats and false hopes

Team OCD were, aptly, first to recite the proverb correctly and they headed to the next challenge: Join a dragon boat team and row across the Dajia River. One teammate was assigned to beat a drum to keep rhythm while the other rowed along with a dozen or so racers. Bonus point to Phil for delivery in explaining the challenge, which was marked by authoritative calm as scores of men roared and thrust their paddles skyward behind him. I swear you could put that man amid a stampede of elephants, and he would only issue a slight nod, as if to convey, “Yeah… this is happening.” All of which is to say, Phil Keoghan is bad to the bone.

But back to the challenge. Cindy elected to drum while Ernie rowed, which is only noteworthy because Cindy (who is of Chinese descent) proudly declared at one point, “I feel so Asian right now.” The Amazing Race: Making ethnicity come to life by hook or by crook, folks! As if often the case with this show, the challenge that was probably the most physically exhilarating for the teammates proved the least photogenic, and the rowing was fairly quickly dispensed of on all ends. As for Team Showgirl’s hazard challenge, one of them simply had to bungee jump in the middle of a mall. Once again to my point, this would have been a major challenge under most circumstances, but tonight it was dispatched over the course of 30 seconds. As Confucius says, “Time flies like an arrow…” (“fruit flies like a banana”).

The teams made their way to the pit stop at Taipei’s Martyrs’ Shrine, with Team OCD taking first, followed by Team Divorcées, Team Sassy Sibling, Team Survivor, Team NFL, Team Sailor, Team Stoner, Team Flight Attendant, and Team Showgirl. Meanwhile, the ticking clock hung heavy over Team Twins and Team Farmhand. Would the twins’ verbal flubs provide an opening when 62-year-old Cathi showed her true mettle by reiterating the proverb perfectly on her first try? In the end, no. Team Farmhand was way too far behind. And yet! That old rapscallion Phil revealed that this week was a non-elimination round. As such, Team Farmhand would live to charm us with their folksy ways for another week. That said, next week will be twice as hard. In an Amazing Race first, there will be a double elimination.

So what did you think, Race cases? Was the premiere exciting enough for you, or are you still trying to get to know the Racers personalities? Does Team Farmhand have even the smallest shot of making it work next week? Or are they 24 hours away from life back with the cows and pigs? Who do you think will be this season’s strongest team? And to whom have you already said your goodbyes?


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The Amazing Race

Phil Keoghan hosts the globe-trotting adventure series.

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