Sunday, November 11, 2007

Those Amazing Donkeys

This past May, I watched in horror as two jackasses – Eric Sanchez and Danielle Turner – won The Amazing Race All-Stars, completing one of the show’s most ill-conceived, ill-planned, and ill-cast seasons.

This past Sunday, I watched in amusement as donkeys stalled two of the more irritating teams in The Amazing Race 12, eliminating one of them in the process. Suddenly, the rampant pessimism I have for the show has mostly dissipated.

It’s not easy being a TAR fan. Survivor remains the gold standard for CBS; you know there will be two installments airing every season and on Thursday nights. By comparison, TAR gets shuffled around a lot. The last few seasons, it got run on Sunday nights. That doesn’t seem too bad, until the fall rolls around, and NFL games starts going past 7 p.m. Then you’d have to wait for that to end, they endure 60 Minutes before TAR starts up. Hell, it didn’t even make the schedule this season, as it got confined to limbo, waiting for a show to drop dead in order to fill the slot.

On Monday, October 22, CBS mercifully put a bullet into Viva Laughlin and announced that TAR’s twelfth season would air in its place. On Tuesday, the first promo was spotted on YouTube. On Wednesday, the cast was announced. Makes me wonder why Viva was scheduled in the first place, since even the dimmest of bulbs would know that a drama with singing and dancing wasn’t going to fly too far.

As much as I like TAR, I have to say that casting has been crap the last few seasons. Too many alpha male teams, too many female duos that looked too much alike, and so many headaches to be had. Even the all-star season led to second-guessing. For instances, should frat brothers Kevin O’Conner and Drew Feinberg, the heroes of the original edition, have run the race despite Drew being banged-up before he fell down in the first leg? Was it that important to cast the underachieving David & Mary Conley a second time? And as far as mixing and matching Racers, the producers could have done a lot better than Eric & Danielle, particularly since a. Danielle didn’t run well the last time (fourth eliminated with best friend Danni in the ninth season), and b. people in the know noted that Eric wasn’t that into girls in the first place. Put it another way: the biggest casting coup for the show was not bringing in Dick & Daniele Donato. The noxious father/daughter duo had applied for TAR, but wound up on Big Brother 8 instead, claiming to be “estranged.”

Of course, the casting for this season doesn’t look that flawless. For one thing, over half of the cast comes from California. There’s also a lot of dating couples, bringing back memories of the third season. They even had a gay guy/straight girl team in Ari & Staella that resembled the terminally bitchy Aaron & Arianne. If the Race had taken them somewhere warm, I would’ve been ready for Staella to go topless in a cab, screaming, “Girls gone wild!!” just as Arianne did in Mexico.

There are some nicely-baited hooks, though. Nicolas & Donald are the show’s first grandchild/grandparent team. Kate & Pat got the biggest double take from fans since they’re official label is “Married Minsters.” They’re both women, by the way. I can’t stop grinning anytime I think “Lesbian Ministers!” And yet, in the online promo, Kate called the show “a love letter to the planet.” So yes...I’m a fan. One team I’ve hated at first sight, however, are the goths...or should I say, “goths.” After the nightmare that was pseudo-hippie douchebags BJ & Tyler three seasons ago, my threshold for phonies is pretty damn low. When I saw the “goths” in the promo, the guy called the girl “Vixen,” and I figured, “I bet she spells it with a ‘Y’.” I was wrong...she spells it “Vyxsin.” And his name is “Kynt.” And they showed up to the starting line in pink tops with black stripes, like they were caught in an explosion at Hot Topic. And their introductory footage had them frolicking in a cemetery. And they make comments like how they’re “gothic Energizer bunnies” and “Oh my goth!” Either they’re the biggest phonies this show has ever had, or the goth scene in Louisville is unbelievably weak.

Another concern I have is more about the long-term: piss-poor leg planning. Too many sponsor shoutouts and needle-in-haystack tasks are aggravating to watch. So far, we’ve gotten one quirky Roadblock (one Racer rides a bicycle on a high wire almost 200 feet over the North Atlantic while the other sits below, suspended by the bike) and a task where teams have to take peat, load it onto donkeys, and go to the next route marker. Anytime you bring in animals on this show, whether it be gentle orangutans, mine-sniffing rodents or noisy camels, you have the makings of a party.

It was at that time where two donkeys, sent from the heavens, decided to stall. The first halted on Ari & Staella, even as Ari threatened to cut into the beast of burden and eat it. The other slowed down on Jennifer & Nathan, one of the dating teams. Their deal is that he more or less cheated on her, and there’s lots of tension between them. In other words, a Top 3 team, guaranteed. But they couldn’t handle their ass, and team after team whizzed by them and Ari & Staella. In the history of TAR, there’s never been a team that went out first which would have been a problem for viewers in future episodes. We had teams that invoked indifference (Matt & Ana, John & Scott), nice teams that seemed ill-prepared for the long haul (Gina & Sylvia, Debra & Steve, the Black family), and teams whose early departures were a crying shame (Deidre & Hillary, Avi & Joe, Ryan & Chuck, Bilal & Sa’eed, John Vito & Jill), but never an appalling team. And yet, here were two of the stubbornest donkeys around, honking and braying their respective teams into oblivion. I have to say, it was awesome.

Eventually, Jennifer & Nathan managed to get their donkey moving and finish tenth. Ari & Staella, on the other hand (or hoof), got the first elimination. Maybe this is an omen for the remainder of the season. Maybe it’s just pure luck that events shook out the way they did. But as Survivor: China staggers to what will probably be an unsatisfactory conclusion, The Amazing Race has gotten off to a great start. Here's hoping the jackasses that walk on two legs don't screw it up.