The Amazing Race: Season 16 Premiere

Remember 2007’s Miss Teen South Carolina? Asked about the failures of the U.S. education system, she prattled on incoherently about “The Iraq . . . such as”. Since that disastrous performance — exemplifying the problem she was asked to diagnose — Caite Upton became a model. And now she and fellow model and boyfriend Brent Horne are one of the teams on The Amazing Race.

In the new season’s first episode, airing 14 February, they reveal their purpose, to redeem Caite. She was under a lot of pressure, you see, and she hadn’t fully formulated an answer before she started speaking, and she’s tired of everybody thinking she’s “stupid.” First, you might wonder a reality show, even one as consistently excellent and non-histrionic as The Amazing Race, is the place to find absolution. And second, this viral video phenomenon’s damage is quite done: everybody has already seen and judged her.

As if to demonstrate, as soon as he sees Caite, contestant Jordan Pious spreads the news to the other teams — by way of a rather spot-on imitation of the notorious ramble. Even when they don’t immediately recognize her name, like the lesbian couple Carol and Brandy, once Jordan begins his impersonation, they all remember, and look kind of sideways at Caite in pity and horror.

It doesn’t help that on the first leg of the race, Caite and Brent make simple errors that appear to reinforce their lack of mental power. The first episode takes the teams to Valparaiso, Chile, a city known for its steep hills and funiculars that shuttle residents up and down those inclines. Instructed to take a funicular down to a lower part of the city, Caite and Brent become confused, and so decide to walk down the hill, incurring a 30-minute penalty. Even worse, they reveal that they had even “written on [their] hands” to remember to pay attention to the “details.” Poor things. Caite’s going to have to work much harder if she wants redefine herself.

But here’s the rub: despite and because of their mistakes, Caite and Brent come across as being “real,” insofar as they an admit their blunders, move on and try to do better. This realness is precisely what continues to set The Amazing Race apart from the vast majority of its reality show competitors.

Sure, the casting here, as on all reality shows, tries to encompass a spectrum of “types.” This season, Jordan and Dan comprise one of the “brothers” teams (Jordan is gay, recalling last season’s both-gay “brothers” team of Sam and Dan). They’re joined by the African American team, Monique and Shawne, mothers and lawyers both, in addition to being devout “Strong Black Women.” The other “brothers” team is also the “country” team of Oklahoma cowboys Jet and Cord. And the “underdog” team is made up of triathlete and 71-year-old grandmother Jody and her granddaughter Shannon.

As usual, the teams must repeatedly perform as the “types” they represent. So Carol and Brandy have to show that they are lesbians of the lipstick variety, declaring in their intro video that they are always looking for “the nearest Louis Vuitton” store and dressing as like extras on The L Word. To establish their cowboy credentials, Jet and Cord play up their laconic drawls, and always wear dungarees, cowboy hats, and Texas-sized belt buckles.

Despite such contrivances, when the pace of the race, the stresses of travel, and the physical demands of the competition get underway, those facades begin to crumble and the individuals emerge as much more “real,” that is, fallible and self-aware (like Caite and Brent). The first physical challenge requires one team member to high-wire walk across a deep ravine in Valparaiso, Chile. Jody immediately demurs, giving the challenge to her granddaughter, admitting that she has “the balance of a drunken elderly person on stilts.” When their flight lands in Chile, Jet and Cord can’t get on the public bus because they don’t have Chilean money (they’ve brought along Brazilian Reals, apparently figuring all South American monies are the same). It would be easy here to laugh at their bumpkin ignorance, if it weren’t for their humility. They see their mistake, think about it, and determine to be less presumptuous. The race will afford them the opportunity to learn some things, about themselves and about the world.

It’s the kind of moment of self-reflection all too rarely extended to reality show cast members. Snookie and The Situation from MTV’s Jersey Shore, for instance, will forever be trapped in the caricatures of the “Guido” and “Guidette” that they and the network have reproduced and maintain. And of course Snookie and The Situation continue to be rewarded in money and publicity for staying exactly the same. The Amazing Race, on the other hand, encourages personal growth (even if contestants have to be led by the nose by host Phil Keoghan). In this regard, Caite Upton might actually have the opportunity on The Amazing Race to repair her bad reputation. And so, Caite, take your own advice, remember to pay attention to the details — and race, girl!

RATING 8 / 10