‘The Amazing Race’ Season 17 Premiere

The Amazing Race returns Sunday, 26 September. Over the past 16 years, the show has tweaked details, but rarely strayed from the basic blueprint. At the opening of this edition, host Phil Keoghan introduces a new wrinkle to the game. This season, though he predictably oversells the new Express Pass, it does have the potential to help a team in trouble. The Pass can be used at any point during the first eight legs of the race to allow a team to skip a challenge and move on. Keoghan provides extra motivation to the 11 teams by offering the Pass as a reward to the winners of the first leg of the race.

And with that, the teams are off to make their way to Boston’s Logan Airport and fly to London. This time out, the groups include the usual assortment of family members, dating and married couples, and odd pairings. The most interesting team on paper may be Andie and Jenna, a mother-daughter team. Andie gave Jenna up for adoption as an infant and they’ve only recently been reunited. They’re using the race as a way to get to know each other and spend time together. Using a TV show to “get to know” someone sounds like a bad idea — and in The Amazing Race has led teams to implode after a few legs, but there’s always the chance this version will work out.

Most of the teams have little trouble getting to the airport. Ron and Tony, best friends from California, boast about their compass-reading skills, then use one to find their way to the airport. It seems a little premature to be relying on a compass to make the under-an-hour drive from Gloucester to the airport, but it tells us something about the team’s preparation and their inclination to brag about it. On the other hand, Connor and Jonathan, this season’s designated nerd team (they’re a cappella singers from Princeton), manage to get hopelessly lost.

Once the teams get to London, all of the hallmarks that make The Amazing Race so consistently entertaining show up. Some contestants show shocking ignorance. Vicki, who along with her partner Nick is worried the other teams will underestimate them because of their multiple tattoos, shows that she might have other things to worry about. “This is the first time I’ve ever even heard of Stonehedge, and then uh, I found out that it was a bunch of rocks!” she says incredulously. Another team wastes time attempting to retrieve a flag from the battlements of a castle because they think that the word “battlements” refers to a person.

In one incident during the season premiere, a team fails at driving a manual transmission, leaving their car stalled in the middle of a busy street. You’d think that with 16 seasons to watch, new team members would know to learn how to drive a stick shift before starting the race. But something like this happens every season. And what would an edition of The Amazing Race be without arrogance and a short-tempered alpha male? The arrogance this year comes courtesy of Thomas, who informs the camera during a confessional that he believes his Notre Dame education gives him a big advantage on the race.

Our short-tempered “villain” is Chad, who starts shouting and ranting almost as soon as the plane touches down in England and doesn’t let up for the rest of the episode. Unlike past female partners of Amazing Race alpha males, though, Chad’s teammate Stephanie isn’t about to be a doormat. She deals with him by staying calm and firmly telling him that his explosions of anger aren’t helping them at all.

Still, it’s pretty amusing to see the pair struggle mightily on a river crossing challenge that requires patience and balance. Forced to use tiny, precarious boats and an overhead rope, the teams all face a steep learning curve, repeatedly swamping their boats and having to start over. The episode’s other big challenge involves using a ballista to shoot watermelons at a suit of armor, attempting to knock it over. As far as challenges go, this one is pretty mundane except for the incident that CBS released on tape weeks ago to promote the show. Home shopping host Claire somehow manages to get her watermelon stuck in the oversized slingshot, so that instead of shooting outwards, it comes out in the opposite direction and slams into her face, exploding on impact. That she manages to finish the challenge despite being in obvious pain is impressive, but I would be surprised if the unnerving now doesn’t affect her team in future episodes.

The Amazing Race typically features interesting contestants from a variety of backgrounds and thrown into a high-pressure, high stakes race set in unfamiliar environments. This opening leg of Season 17 feels like a warm-up for difficulties to come. The British locals speak English and there are no devilish taxi drivers to deal with. But the extended, 90-minute episode contains the usual amount of air travel and challenges found in a normal 60-minute episode. The show uses the extra time to introduce the teams, giving the audience an opportunity to “get to know” most of them. As always, viewers are bound to pick favorites and antagonists, and so have reasons to watch again.

RATING 7 / 10