Clowns from Jersey, Big Brother, Kentucky and actual career clowns take center stage on the season 20 premiere

By Joseph Brannigan Lynch
Updated February 20, 2012 at 07:13 AM EST
Robert Voets/CBS

Prior to tonight, I had no idea what a Northern Trust Open was. Now I know it’s a non-football related program that runs late and pushes back the East Coast premiere of The Amazing Race, forcing me to sit through the last third of 60 Minutes. Apparently some guy in Norway is quite the chess player. I’m much richer for that knowledge, so thanks, 60 Minutes.

The season 20 premiere kicked off with Phil telling 11 duos that at the end of the first leg, one team would win an Express Pass, another would be eliminated and the others could just scramble around for the other rankings.

Three teams stood out immediately from the pack: Dave and Cherie, because they’re married career clowns, and Brendon and Rachel, who are also career clowns, but of the reality TV variety (they met on Big Brother and are engaged now). Two fortysomething best friends from Kentucky also made an impression, but that was mostly because one of them is named Bopper. Hellllloooooo baaaaby!!

The first challenge turned out to be surprisingly problematic for half of the duos, almost to the point that it seemed unfair. The 11 teams were set loose on an uphill vineyard filled with hot air balloons: Some baskets had clue cards, most didn’t.

Five teams found clues and were rolling immediately, following instructions to drive their ambitious behinds to LAX and head to Argentina. While several teams were already at the airport, others huffed and puffed around the field pulling down one empty balloon basket down after another. For a first challenge, it really seemed to have to do more with luck than skill, but I suppose no one said reality TV life is fair.

Once in Argentina, the teams found clue cards forcing them to decide which team member had the best sense of direction. I was surprised how quickly each team made the decision without any squabbling. In the case of the couples, it was nearly always the man whose directional abilities were singled out, as per the old stereotype.

The directionally challenged contestant was given a harrowing mandate: Jump out of a plane from 10,000 feet. Several contestants were very nervous about skydiving, including J.J., who along with Art shall henceforth be known as the Team Border Patrol, as per their day jobs patrolling the U.S. border in Southern California.

NEXT: 10,000 feet of terror give some competitors cold feet

Eyes wide with discomfort, J.J. opined that skydiving was “playing with death” and it “goes against all laws of nature.” Really? Because there’s a little something called the Law of Gravity that directly explains what happens when you drop out of a plane.

J.J.’s reticence aside, the first five teams all managed the skydive easily enough. Now call me crazy, but I found this to be a bit of a non-challenging challenge. I mean, you just step out of a plane and scream until your professional drop partner pulls the chute. There’s not much to it. Not that I wouldn’t have reservations, but if the thought of skydiving scares you, why are you on a show like this?

After each person returned to the earth, their partner was — ideally — waiting for them at the landing site and ready to move on. The first five teams managed this with little to-do, but several of the six teams who came to Argentina on the later flight stumbled once again.

One of the jumpers, Stacy (who was teamed with her cousin), was nearly unable to bring herself to leave the plane. At first she tried to reason her way out of it, wondering, “What if the parachute doesn’t open correctly, what is going to happen to me?” Well, you die. It’s very unlikely, but that’s why this is a reality competition series. Some things are going to be scary. Then she played the family card, opining that it was silly to risk her life with kids waiting for her back in the States.

Meanwhile back on the sandy roads of Argentina, Maiya (half of Team Sisters) wasn’t faring so well with her allegedly impeccable sense of direction. She got slightly lost and managed to get her vehicle stuck in the sand and was trapped until a friendly passerby helped tow her out.

Eventually, Stacy — who at first wasn’t going to jump because of her kids — decided she should jump precisely because of them, in order to demonstrate the importance of not quitting. “If Mommy can do this, then you can do anything,” she said as she hopped out of the plane. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing about these kids every time she takes on a vaguely dangerous challenge.

The other competitor mucking it up for his team was Danny, half of Team Jersey. More than happy to categorize themselves as “guidos,” Danny and Joey “Fitness” have just about the most Jersey-ish jobs you can think of: One is a club promoter and the other is a personal trainer. But they seemed pretty happy with the whole ‘walking stereotype’ thing.

Danny was having a tough time arrived at the landing zone because in spite of his mother’s exhortations, he hadn’t learned how to handle a stick shift before going on The Amazing Race. The Jersey boy would have been better off learning that skill and forcing himself to compete in high heels, because not knowing manual transmission is one of the silliest disadvantages you can allow yourself.

As Team Sisters, Team Cousins, Team Jersey, Team Clowns and Team Kentucky were floundering around, never having overcome their initial setback, the first five teams had moved on to the episode’s most worthwhile challenge: Making 120 empanadas.

This was one of those challenges that seemed much simpler than it turned out to be. Sure, jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet sounds harrowing, but this actually required teams to learn on their feet. It also demonstrated which teams worked well together and which ones (typically the couples) were prone to criticizing each other when put in a pressure cooking situation.

NEXT: Empanada 101 and the first-place winners

The entire empanada ordeal was overseen by a severe-looking Argentinian chef who would only shake her head in disgust or nod at the empanadas presented to her for approval.

Sixty of the empanadas had to be meat, the other half cheese — and apparently there is a different dough-crimping procedure depending on which one you’re making. I’ve already forgotten which one gets twisted and which one gets pinched, because I was thinking less about making empanadas and more about where I could rustle some up once the episode was over.

Team Border Patrol had spent much of the episode in first place but were dumbfounded by the nuances of empanada making. J.J. and Art repeatedly yelled “por favor!” and “bueno” at the head chef as she looked on with pity at their empanadas. They seemed to believe they could endear themselves to her by proving they knew two phrases in Spanish.

Later on to the camera, they described her as the “Empanada Nazi.” You would think two guys in their field would appreciate a hard-nosed approach to one’s work.

It was Army man Dave and Rachel — a married couple from Madison, WI — who aced their Empanada 101 exam and rushed out to grab first place and the Express Pass. Although 8-9 minutes of screen time in a one-hour premiere isn’t much, I think I like these two already. They play well off each other and are neither weird nor annoying, which an accomplishment in itself on a show like this.

The Big Brother lovers were already fracturing three challenges in to the season. Rachel snapped at her fiancé Brendon (“I’m done, are you done?”) instead of just helping him finish with his pastries so they could move on. Well, if reality TV giveth a relationship, it can taketh away just as easily.

In spite of that, Brendon and Rachel finished second, and in spite of their empanada deficiencies, Team Border Patrol nabbed third place.

The rest of the teams were essentially left competing not to get last place. Even though they barely managed with the empanadas, Bopper and Mark brimmed over with Southern braggadocio as they twisted and pinched the ingredients. “This is the first time I have ever made a piñata,” Bopper said without any awareness that he misspoke. It’s to the credit of his guilelessness that his forehead-smacking error was more charming than stupefying.

As Team Jersey gracelessly pounded meat, dough and cheese into what I can only assume was intended to be food, the Empanada Master shook her head back and forth like an executioner refusing mercy. For some reason, every time there was a shot of the Jersey boys you could see a bunch of flies hovering around them and no one else. I can only assume flies enjoy whatever product was spiking up that hair.

As for the clowns, you would think two people who twist balloons into animals for a living could transfer that dexterity into twisting empanadas, but you would be wrong. The Empanada Judge, however, seemed to take pity on them and the clowns were on their merry way before Team Jersey, Team Kentucky, and Team Sisters.

Noting their exit, one of the yobs from Jersey declared, “That was honestly one of the worst feelings ever. They’re freaking clowns!” I’m guessing that’s the same thing the clowns would have said had Team Jersey left first.

Misa and Maiya were the penultimate team to finish the empanada challenge, but somehow they managed to turn an easy victory into one of the most mind-boggling defeats I’ve ever seen on this show. First off, they intentionally left their backpacks behind before entering the Empanada Arena, so before they ran to the finish mat, they had to go back and grab ’em.

NEXT: How Team Sisters turned a second-to-last finish into a resounding defeat

If that had been their one mistake, they still would have managed 10th place and been spared elimination. But when they arrived at the outdoor field where Phil Keoghan and the finish mat were waiting, they both had a mini-panic attack and ran off in the opposite direction.

Somehow in their terror and anxiety, they didn’t see Phil standing plainly in front of them. They scurried around blindly, tripping over bushes and hyperventilating long enough for Team Jersey to eke out a 10th place finish.

When they finally did stumble upon Phil, he didn’t miss the opportunity to hammer home their failure: “We never had that happened before, where a team was so close to the mat and another team overcame them.” Way to make them feel good, Phil.

One of the sisters explained in a rush of tremulous words that it must have been “tunnel vision” that “cost us a million dollars.” I can buy the tunnel vision easily enough, Team Sisters, but let’s not get delusions of grandeur — you were both just barely scraping by anyway. I don’t think those million clams were ever within your reach, so don’t be too hard on yourselves. You just got the inevitable over with early on.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of the current first-place holders, Team Kentucky, Team Clown, and the two federal agents, if only because one of them declared that “my uterus is in my throat” while she was skydiving. As for the twin brothers — one is a rocker, the other plays soccer — I can’t tell what they’re really like yet.

The night’s best line easily goes to Cherie, who started crying at one point but hilariously acknowledged that these were, in fact, “the tears of a clown.”

What do you think of the remaining 10 teams? Which teams can you tell you’re gonna like, and which ones can you tell will just get more annoying as the season goes on? Any team stand out as potential victors? Give your take on the season 20 premiere below!