Sunday, May 08, 2011

Finishing "Unfinished Business"

When people look back on the eighteenth season of The Amazing Race, they probably won't rate it as one of the best editions in the show's history. Oh, it's far from the worst, ranking better than TAR6 (the first full-on "Season From Hell," where the good guys went out early, the bad guys stayed on, and the detestable Freddy & Kendra lucked into a win over the awesome Kris & Jon), TAR8 ("Family Edition," or "The Season With Good Intentions," filled with watered-down challenges and Linda Weaver and her awful, awful kin) and TAR11 ("All-Stars," which I'll get to a little later). For me, it's been one heckuva ride, which will lead to a happy ending this coming Sunday night, with the first two-hour finale in nine seasons.

I don't mind the criticism. Everybody has a right to their own opinion, no matter how ludicrous it may be. And there have been a lot of flaws from "Unfinished Business," where eleven teams of two returned for another shot at the $1 million grand prize. I would have to be unbelievably naive to overlook them. Among the problems:

  • The casting of Amanda & Kris (TAR14), which seemed odd until you realize that they ran four legs in their original season, the same number that Zev & Justin (TAR15) -- a far better "story" for redemption -- ran in their first go.

  • The casting of Mel White (TAR14) , father of teammate/acclaimed director Mike White. Those two made for a good story (finishing fifth the first time), but Mel was 70 years old, which isn't the right age to strip down and search for a toy frog in a mud pit in less-than-optimal temperatures. The other Detour choice involved standing in a waterfall for a full minute, which might have broken Mel's body in half.

  • The casting of Jamie & Cara, the mouthy cheerleaders of TAR14. They came in second in their first race . . . seems impressive, until you realize that after Luke self-destructed on the final Roadblock, the girls helped him out, and he and Margie (his mother) basically gave them second place in gratitude. Also, they were the only team where you needed to learn how to tell the duo apart, which is always annoying for me.

  • The casting of Ron, the overbearing father of Christina (second place, TAR12). It seemed that he had mellowed out in the first few episodes, but he soon fell back to his old, obnoxious ways. I think once all the promotion is over, Christina will run away with Azaria (ran TAR12 with his sister Hendekea; married Christina after TAR18) and not bother leaving a forwarding address for daddy.

  • The leg which was so heavily sponsored, it made some fans feel like they were being waterboarded with Snapple.

  • The meddlesome Double U-Turns. While it is a clever gimmick to make teams handicap others by forcing them to complete the other Detour option, it still needs fleshing out. It was awesome to see the cheerleaders scream at dating goths Kent & Vyxsin (more on them later) to U-Turn Flight Time & Big Easy, the Harlem Globetrotters team (apparently, the really cool nicknames like "Curly" and "Meadowlark" were exhausted by the late Nineties), only for the goths to U-Turn 'em instead. But then Jamie & Cara U-Turned the Globetrotters, rather than being forced away to do their task. Also, the second Double U-Turn was positioned in a leg between a Detour and the episode's finish, killing any suspense as to who would survive to race another day. The Globetrotters wound up getting to the U-Turn stand first, forcing cowboys Jet & Cord (whom I recapped way back in 2004) to choke down some cheese fondue. And since father/daughter team Gary & Mallory were saved by a non-elimination leg in the previous episode, the cowboys wound up whistling "Happy Trails" on their way out of the game.

  • The deteriorating relationship between Kent & Vyxsin. They weren't quarrelsome in their first race (TAR12), though they were probably picked for their unique "look" than their racing skills (finished fifth). But then things got heated, and Kent (who changed his name back from his Goth moniker of "Kynt" -- hey, at least it wasn't "Azrael Abyss" or something like that -- after his father passed away) began to get pissier and pissier, while Vyxsin got nasty herself. It was as if they were slowly transforming into TAR6's Adam & Rebecca, the wussy boy/possible closet case and his castrating shrew "girlfriend." Needless to say, their elimination in last Sunday's episode (they violated Race Commandment Numero Uno: "Thou shalt always READ. THE DAMN. CLUE.") was a relief for most fans.

  • Some of these glitches and others have irritated a few critics, particularly Andy Dehnart of Reality Blurred, who hasn't been that happy in a long time about this show. The worst of it came when TAR got renewed for a nineteenth season, when he suggested the show should be temporarily canceled. He keeps whining about whether being a fan or not. If you think a show should be taken out, even just for a while, then you're not a fan, period. Also, he had been slinging praises for such relevant shows like WWE Tough Enough and Celebrity Apprentice, I wouldn't take much stock in anything that guy says.

    So why is it that I've been liking this season for the most part, and that I'm looking forward to tonight's finale at TARCon?

    1. There Are No Headache Teams Left

    Normally, there's usually at least one team in the finale that you can't stand. Last season, it was Jill & Thomas. Granted, they weren't as annoying as the bickering Chad & Stephanie, or the dumb-as-tat-ink Nick & Vicki, but they did bug. I know that Flight Time & Big Easy rely on the kindness of other teams, and that they are loud enough to not require microphones. I know that Zev kvetches a little too much, and that he lets Justin do more of the heavy lifting. And I know that to some people, Mallory acting like a dog that's always happy even though the owner pretends to throw the ball ten times in a row can be annoying. But between those racers, along with Gary and Kisha & Jen, we have a good field for the final leg or two.

    2. This Season Is A Lot Better Than TAR11

    Seven seasons ago, we had The Amazing Race: All-Stars, a well-meant, probably-insisted-upon-by-CBS season where too many things went wrong. As a Staten Islander, it hurt to see John Vito & Jill (who were no longer a couple . . . and Jill has since gotten married to someone else) run themselves out of the first leg, followed by an ailing Drew stomping off the mat after his elimination with frat buddy Kevin in the following episode. Perpetually overexposed Rob & Amber wound up winning the first three legs (the first team to pull that off without using a Fast Forward), only to get eliminated on a needle-in-haystack Roadblock, where the always annoying Mirna beat Rob, and she and cousin Charla (her diminutive cousin who isn't a complete pill) beat them to the Pit Stop. The finale was a disaster. Charla & Mirna had lucked into the finale leg, though they did win two legs (two more than they did in TAR5). Beauty queens Dustin & Kandice recovered from getting eliminated in TAR10's penultimate leg to win four legs. Finally, they was Eric & Danielle, perhaps the worst team ever to get that far in the show's history. The deal was that they were both on TAR9 with different teammates. They flirted a lot, and that was enough for the producers to pair them off, even though it was an open secret that Eric was deep in the closet. The bickering between him and Danielle (did I mention she finished eighth with teammate Danni?) didn't help matters, and they went into the finale having not won a single leg. The three teams wound up running into a task that was a glorified version of The Newlywed Game. One team member would answer a series of questions relating to the game, while the other would try to guess what the partner said to open a safe. The only missing visual was Charla beating Mirna in the head with a cue card. Anyway, Eric & Danielle lucked their way into finishing the task first, and they got a million bucks that neither of them deserved. Also, Danielle became the first Staten Islander to win on a reality show, which was a black stain on the borough . . . or it was, until Jersey Shore and Mob Wives were created.

    3. It's The Best Reality Show Around

    Okay, I don't really know that for sure, especially since I'm not watching the high-end cable reality programs these days. But take a look around the networks. You can't trust phone-vote shows like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars, where a bloc of voters can easily wreak havoc. Celebrity Apprentice was pretty irrelevant until Donald Trump started taking shots at President Obama, to the point where the Commander-In-Chief interrupted last week's Boardroom climax with the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden. All right, maybe it was a coincidence, but I would think that the news could have been posted earlier. I have this image of Obama watching the show, waiting for a crucial point in the episode, then instructing his staff to get the networks to break into their coverage. Sometimes, in my mind, he's dressed as a Starfleet Captain, sitting in a replica of the captain's chair, giving the command with a simple "Engage." My points are that 1. I wouldn't be surprised if the timing of the news was intentional, and 2. I am a weird person.

    Oh, and Survivor: Redemption Island could have been settled if Mark Burnett had just given the million dollar grand prize to Rob Mariano on Day One and be done with it. Never will one so overrated win so much with the help of those so very, very stupid. Yes, I'm aware that there's a chance that some of the remaining players will grow enough brain cells to throw Rob over the top rope by next Sunday's finale, but I doubt it.

    4. The Rise Of Zev & Justin

    The team's hook in TAR15 was that Zev suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, and Justin was his best friend. They hung in there, and they managed to win the fourth leg . . . only to realize that they lost their passports. After a frantic search, Justin found his, but Zev had managed to drop his in a monastery (as detailed here), and the pair was eliminated. This season, they've gone from lasting four legs to winning four legs, not only being the most improved team, but also have the most leg wins this season going into the finale. Yes, Justin has been doing more of the heavy lifting, and Zev does tend to get frustrated easier, but they are both the best story of this season. The prime example came when the boys elected to chow down on cheese fondue for a Detour in Switzerland. They could have bailed out like Kisha and Jen did after seeing the enormity of the task, but Zev kept talking Justin into sticking with it. And even after Justin had to throw up and Zev gave a look where he looked seconds from dying, they finished the task, and wound up finishing in first place. I don't have any diagnoses of autism, but I do consider myself having enough "loose wiring" to emphasize the most with Zev than any other Racer, and I hope the boys pull it off in the end.

    As I type this, I'm hours away from driving to Manhattan for my seventeenth consecutive TARCon. There hasn't been much of a response this season (probably due to it being held on Mother's Day), so it's been moved to a small location. There probably won't be as many past and present Racers dropping by on account of a huge TAR party for the show's tenth anniversary on Saturday in Miami hosted by Snapple (yeah, those guys again). Also, I don't see the winning team doing a "victory lap" with television appearances beyond The Early Show. After The Bonnie Hunt Show got canceled and Live! with Regis & Kelly didn't bother inviting Nat & Kat over last year (which was a blessing, since neither host looked like they even watched the show, given past interviews with previous winners), whomever wins Unfinished Business won't be as hyped as victors from other reality shows. Still, I feel like this has been one of the best seasons in a while, and enough to bring the Emmy back to TAR. Here's hoping the finale validates my hopes.

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