The 11 teams of season 26 race their way through Tokyo, whether they know their partners names or not.

By Jodi Walker
February 26, 2015 at 04:49 AM EST
Monty Brinton/CBS

The Amazing Race

S26 E1
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Is there anything more nerve-wracking than arriving to a first date with a virtual stranger, wondering if you’ll still recognize them/if their profile picture was 10 years old/if they’re married (in the case of Hayley), or if things are about to turn into a Lifetime movie and you didn’t even wear waterproof mascara. Now, imagine that you’ve never actually seen that person, the date is a month long, and you’re probably going to have to, like, eat bull’s intestines and get a knife massage along the way. Welcome to the 26th season of America’s favorite rrrrrrace around the world—things are getting romantic and Phil is totally fine with it!

That’s right, after 25 seasons of contestants sweating, crying, and asking taxi drivers if they speak English while trying not to sound like a jerk, the Amazing Race team thought it was time for a twist. Of the 11 teams competing this season, five of the pairs are meeting for the first time on the Start mat. But The Amazing Race isn’t just throwing together strangers to see how they stand up to pairs that have known each other for years—no, they’ve gotten it in their heads that these strangers might make a luuuuv connection.

Let me confess something to you: My favorite competition reality shows are The Amazing Race (duh), The Challenge (I know), and The Bachelor (watched with a pillow over my eyes and a thin layer of wine around my brain, but still). So, the idea of combining a bunch of good-looking athletic people and seeing if they hit it off while they race around the world isn’t entirely unappealing to me. But getting the TAR name mixed up in that has had me a little concerned for the past two months… it’s the only classy show I have, after all.

After watching the premiere though, this is really the same reliable Amazing Race with just a little more awkward car chatting, and a much younger median age than usual. Since all 11 teams are “dating,” there are no parents and—after tonight—no later-in-life romances either. I might not want this for every season, but it’s a pretty interesting experiment to see if strangers can work together as well as established couples, especially considering that three of the blind date teams took the top three spots tonight. I just really don’t want to have to watch any of these kids having their first kiss on the Pit Stop mat in front of Phil and a Tibetan monk or something.

The 11 teams of Season 26 start in L.A., where the five blind date couples are meeting for the first time:

Hayley & Blair: Hayley is a pediatric trauma nurse and Blair is a Navy surgeon so I shall call them Team Medical, but I could also probably call them Team This-Won’t-Go-Well. Hayley seems to be a nervous laugher and that seems to make Blair especially nervous.

Jeff & Jackie: Jackie is a Vegas showgirl, Jeff is in sales, and Jackie and Jeff seem to be into each other, if you know what I’m saying. Mostly, I’m saying they work together well, and Jeff fulfills all of Jackie’s requirements for a partner: “built.” Of herself, Jackie says, “My brain isn’t as strong as most people and that’s okay because I have everything else so I get by.” Atta’ girl.

Laura & Tyler: Laura and Tyler make a very fetching couple and Lauren will be the first to let you know that’s because of her super-hot partner. We’ll see how much she likes him when he’s yelling at a donkey to get the cake to the baker at the top of a mountain or whatever, but for now they shall be known as Team Attractive.

Jelani & Jenny: Jelani and Jenny are both lawyers and completely tolerable, so they already have my vote for Blind Date MVPs and potential soulmates. Although Jelani was inexplicably wearing a polo and cargo shorts at the start mat, Jenny seems to have enough functional Lululemon wear for both of them.

Burgen & Kurt: Team Blonde are both young, have never been out of the country, and have rocky relationship histories in that Burgen has never been in a relationship where his partner didn’t cheat on him and Kurt has just never been in a relationship. But they’ve got great hair and at one point Burgen had some of his in a French braid, so at least they’re resourceful.

As for the teams that have known each other for more than an hour:

Harley & Jonathan: As in Jonathan Knight from New Kids On The Block, dating seven years

Matt & Ashley: Met because they’re both hairdressers, started dating because Ashley told her friend that Matt was hitting on that he was gay

Jeff & Lydia: He’s a pilot, she’s a flight attendant, together they’re Team Airplane; started dating 20 years after they first met

Mike & Rochelle: As far as I can tell, Team Truckstop met at a truck stop, which is almost as good a story as…

Aly & Steve: Met at the Sochi Olympics, where he won two bronze medals in bobsledding and she competed as a speed skater

Libby & CJ: From Tuskegee, Alabama, together on and off for 10 years; in grand TAR tradition, Libby will be asking for a wedding ring for as long as they’re around

The real life couples are all feeling pretty confident once Phil announces that the others have just met each other, but we’ll see how they feel after a nice, muddy ice bath. The first leg of the race starts with flying from L.A. to Tokyo, Japan, but the teams have to get through their first Road Block in the form of a MUD RUN to get eight tickets for an earlier flight, and three for a later one at the end. The Hairdressers, who are just a smidge reminiscent of the good aspects of last season’s Wrestlers, take an early lead, earning them the first spot on the early flight. But I can’t hardly rip my eyes away from Hayley for long enough to notice because for the life of me I can’t understand why she doesn’t put her hair up for the entirety of the Mud Run. I’ll assume that’s what hold Team Medical back, as they end up on the second flight along with Team Truckstop and Team Tuskegee.

NEXT: Get to the co-owner of your future million dollars in a lovely Ford Fusion…

After a group shower—okay, this season is a little different—it’s into the fleet of sponsored Ford Fusions for some get to know you time. Jeff and Jackie exchange strengths and weaknesses, Team Lawyer talk about how they got into law, and Blair and Hayley have this exchange:

Hayley: “I’m really pleased. I think you’re super attractive, so I think that’s a good thing.”

Blair: [nervous silence]

Hayley: I was worried because I was like, ‘What If he doesn’t like blonde people…’”

Blair: [more silence]

Hayley: “…especially silly little blondes.”

Blair: [DEAFENING SILENCE]

After landing in Tokyo, the teams must go to Kanda Shrine to retrieve their first clue. The teams on the first flight split themselves between taxis and the Skyliner train with the second flight not far behind them, and once again, Jeff and Jackie pull into the lead, arriving first to grab the clue for the Detour: SYNCING STEPS vs. SAMURAI SAKE.

Syncing Steps tasks teams with tackling Japan’s latest trend in choreographed movement, a kind of robotic synchronized dancing. To get their next clue, they must learn a dance and then perform it perfectly with techno-pop group World Order (who turn out to be real troopers). Every team except Jeff and Jackie and the New Kids chooses Syncing Steps, probably because the other option sounds really difficult—but words can be deceiving. In Samurai Sake teams must memorize 10 Japanese sakes, then one team member takes a sake order from a group of Samurai and delivers it to the other member who retrieves the correct sake.

When Jeff and Jackie first arrived at the sake challenge, all I could think was how difficult remembering all those sake names and bottles would be, but as it turns out, they only had to take the order for one bottle of sake. So, while they were supposed to learn which name matched which bottle for all 10, they only had to get it right one time. Jeff and Jackie were on their way to find the next clue at Wakaba Higashi Park probably before any of the other teams had even learned their first eight-count. Oh, and have I mentioned that there’s a U-turn in this leg???

Things aren’t going so smoothly over at Syncing Steps. The Lawyers and Hairdressers were the first teams to arrive, but they’re still there when the teams from the second flight get there. Every team, the men especially, are having a really hard time mastering the balance of the dance, but somehow Team Attractive gets in on only their second try… don’t judge a book by its beautiful face, just its beautiful dance moves, y’all. The Lawyers keep at it and get it on their eighth try, looking pretty legit after all the practice, but not as legit as the Hairdressers who eventually get it on their 25th attempt. The Olympians, Blonde Boys, Team Tuskegee, and Team Medical all conquer the dance with quite a bit of effort, as well as the New Kids over at Samurai Sake, and everyone is cruising through the next clue without U-Turning anyone.

As Team Truckstop and Team Airplane continue to struggle through the dancing detour, the first fleet of teams are making their way to Phil who’s waiting at the Pit Stop: PARKING SPACE. Parking spaces are a rare commodity in Tokyo and the teams are to find Phil in one “in the vicinity” of the UBX building in Shinjuku. The wording throws a number of teams off who wind up inside the building’s parking garage, but I liked how it separated the teams who were paying attention to detail from the teams who were just frantic to see Phil’s bright shiny face:

1: Lawyers, Jelani and Jenny, who do their hard-learned choreography on their way to being handed the Express Pass by Phil.

2: Jeff and Jackie just barely missed first, falling prey to the details of the final clue.

3: Team Attractive, Laura and Tyler, rounding out an all-blind-date top three.

4: Olympians, Aly and Steve, who are the first dating couple to arrive

5: The New Kids, Harley and Jonathan, get to strut up to “The Right Stuff,” “the most strenuous experience of [their] life.”

6: Team Blonde are the recipients of Phil trying to play it cool: “Is there, like, a chance that you two could maybe like each other?” Too early to tell, they say, actually playing it cool.

7: Team Truckstop, Mike and Rochelle, who covered some serious ground after finishing second to last at the Detour (leading them to U-Turn Team Airplane, the only team they knew was behind them).

8: Team Medical, Hayley and Blair, who look like they’re just strolling past the parking spot when they happen to spot Phil

9: Hairdressers, Matt and Ashley, losing their early lead, but making it in just under the nose

10: Team Tuskegee, Libby and CJ, somehow make it to the Pit Stop after getting desperately lost almost every step of the way, meaning…

ELIMINATED: Jeff and Lydia, the pilot and flight attendant, just couldn’t stick the landing. They nearly caught up, too, even after having to complete the second detour. It just goes to show that in the end, blind dates or no, The Amazing Race will always be won and lost on its founding principles: picking wisely (and luckily) at Detours, not getting lost, and a good memory and sense of rhythm don’t hurt.

So… what did you think of the Amazing Race premiere?! Are you willing to give the blind date season a shot? Did you really notice that much of a difference? What do you think about the prospect of being left with almost 100 percent young, athletic couples? Are we watching Jelani and Jenny fall in love before our very eyes? And of course, who are your early, totally informed picks to win the million?

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The Amazing Race

Phil Keoghan hosts the globe-trotting adventure series.
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