The Amazing Race - Season Nine

Roger Holland

While I wish Desiree hadn't described herself and her mother Wanda as 'sexy little tamales', their Team Boricua is both charming and competent, but doomed to fail on a physical challenge.

The Amazing Race - Season Nine

Airtime: Tuesdays 10pm ET
Cast: Phil Keoghan
Network: CBS

The Amazing Race has been one of the most consistently watchable attractions on network TV. Which must be why those no-good lousy bastards at Fox decided to schedule yet another 90 minutes of Americyawn Idol to clash with its Cycle Nine debut.

But Fox needn't have bothered. Sadly, my favourite reality show did a perfectly good job of sabotaging itself. The concept is still glorious, host Phil Keoghan is still the hippest and most minimal front man on TV, and one million dollars is still a prize worth winning, but there was something sadly wrong about the first two hours of The Amazing Race 9.

In recent seasons, The Amazing Race has struggled to make itself new again, bringing in reality "stars" Rob and Amber for Cycle Seven was surprisingly successful. Transforming Cycle Eight into The Amazing Race - The Family Edition was not. The Amazing Race 9, however, marks a return to the Classic Coke formula. So why isn't it working?

The first episode of any season will always be the hardest. It's difficult to sell a cast of 22 complete strangers while maintaining any sense of forward momentum. But this year, the cast looks weak from the start and location choices are already suspect. The season opened in Colorado's Red Rock ampitheatre, geological eye candy no doubt, but so synonymous with Bono's empty posturings that I wondered if Bertram Van Munster's subconscious was trying to tell him something about going through the motions.

And Sao Paolo? You fly all the way down to Brazil, and the only thing you can find is Detroit with decent weather? Whichever way you slice it, a motorcycle repair shop, an old footbridge, and an unexplained Candomble religious ceremony do not make for riveting TV. And promoting Corinthians' bland little soccer ground as a "World Cup Stadium" conveniently ignores the fact that the only World Cup action it saw finished 56 years ago. (Is the Astrodome still the eighth wonder of the world? I think not.)

Mediocre choices of cast and location will quickly undermine the foundations of TAR's success. The travel and the challenges along the way provide both structure and stimuli as the relationships between team members and teams evolve. And the contestants who stay the course often find themselves genuinely richer for their experiences.

Still, I find it hard to believe that John (a 38-year-old wealth manager from New England) could possibly have reaped as many benefits from his ignominious defeat in the first leg of TAR-9 as he claimed: "We didn't win the million dollars, but I won a key to the door for the rest of my life. There are things I can do now that I would have never done before." While I was pleased to see whiny John and his wallflower partner Scott getting the first flight back to Provincetown, I would've been happier still if Phil had taken a page from Donald Trump's playbook and sent all the last four teams packing.

Or here's another idea. Why not set a time limit for completing each leg of the race? That way Phil gets to fire the last team to finish and retire any other team that fails to meet the deadline. Draft in a set of alternate teams to replace the failures, keep the race going as planned, and you've got a completely re-invigorated show.

Clearing house and drafting in alternates could only improve things. Let's start with the Double D's, Danielle and Dani, whose love for each other is surpassed only by their love of themselves. Friends since childhood, they obviously want to be twins. Or each other. Or one perfectly unified being with a truly spectacular chest. I'd bet good money their favourite movie is Single White Female, and suspect the only reason they don't share the occasional Sapphic joy is lack of imagination.

I confess I felt a certain self-righteous frisson when the Double D's race strategy was immediately holed beneath the waterline in Sao Paolo. Clearly expecting the menfolk of Brazil to repair their motorbike in return for just a flash of tanned cleavage and a kiss on the cheek, Danielle and Dani were brought rudely down to earth. Brazilian men are made of more discerning stuff than the frat boys of Staten Island, and the Bimbo Nation had to switch challenges when they realised motorcycle maintenance might endanger their nails. Despite this setback, Danielle and Dani finished eighth out of 11, which means they can still provide romantic interest for a week or two as they flirt with the infinitely more capable Team Beach Bum, Eric and Jeremy from California.

Every season of TAR features the same painstakingly constructed demographic mix: a gay team there, a black team here, a brace of hotties in the corner checking out their makeup. Not to mention a couple of menopausal women who really ought to know better, a relationship headed for a train crash, and a pair of old people who need assisted living like I need a job in television.

This year's willing old duffers are Fran and Barry, and they're unremittingly annoying. Team Geriatric must have spent the best part of a weekend walking back and forth in front of a clue box without ever noticing it. When another team all but showed them where it was, they made quite the worst decision since Uma Thurman signed up for The Avengers. Given the choice between trying to fix a motorbike or taking a helicopter flight over Sao Paolo (the best way to see the city, by far), Granny Franny chose workshop because she'd always been good at jigsaw puzzles. Really. If God had wanted us to see old people on TV, she wouldn't have given us so many young, attractive ones.

Fashioned in a laboratory by Professor Utonium from the remains of the Bowling Moms (TAR-5) and the appalling Linda Weaver (The Family Edition), Lisa and Joni are Texan sisters of a certain age who want to use TAR to help them "reconnect." Apparently they've been living in different states for the last 20 years and no one ever told them about the telephone or Southwest Airlines.

If they win, these self-proclaimed "Glamazons" say they'll use the million dollars to Get Some Work Done. Danielle and Dani should pay close attention, because that's Team Double D in 20 years time right there. I would say more on this subject, but Joni is actually a neighbour of mine, so I'll just say, send her home soon, Phil. She left the gas on.

Unbelievably, the four slowest teams in Episode One were so very unlikable they made married couple Lake and Michelle appear socially acceptable. And that, my friends, is an achievement and a half. Lake is a dentist. A dentist with an ego the size of my cavities and a passive aggressive master class of a wife. But Lake and Michelle give good camera, and will surely be the Jonathan and Victoria (TAR-6) of Cycle Nine.

Lake has a Type A personality, but his wife (and dental assistant) holds the real power in their relationship. It took less than 30 minutes for take-charge Lake to mess up -- surely a new record for the show. And Michelle pounced immediately: "It says always read everything. And you didn't. That is such a big screw-up."

Team MoJo were pretty much lost in the shadow of Lake's enormous ego, but I did notice Monica rocking a full-on Reese Witherspoon, especially when she fought back the tears at Denver International, and Joseph was clearly capable and witty (quickly dubbing Lake "Scott Peterson"), and potentially a heavyweight beast to Mo's fragile beauty. Team MoJo won't win, but they might help the ratings pick up, especially if Jo starts taking out his frustrations on Reese.

If I could predict the future, I'd be too rich to watch TAR. But I expect either Team Beach Bum or Team Hippie to wind up winning TAR-9. Neither team is remotely adorable, but both offer plenty of light-hearted yucks. While Team Beach Bum are clearly on a permanent Spring Break and plan on auditioning Dani and Danielle for non-speaking roles in Girls Gone Wild - The Amazing Race, Team Hippie's BJ and Tyler are the only known example of male best friends from San Francisco who aren't doing each other on a regular basis. Having missed that particular demographic, they obviously squeezed into TAR-9 under the Wacky Compadres clause that still honours the memory of Kevin and Drew from TAR-1.

But wouldn't it be nice though if one of the three genuinely likable teams won out? Our token black team, Ray and Yolanda, look capable, pleasant and focused. Even when the men of Brazil, who'd shown no interest in the Double Ds, were all over Yolanda's butt like flies on something flies like, Ray kept his cool and let her finish fixing her motorbike without throwing any kind of fit. I like this Team With No Name muchly, but for some reason I just can't see them winning. Then again, while I wish Desiree hadn't described herself and her mother Wanda as "sexy little tamales", their Team Boricua is both charming and competent, but doomed to fail on a physical challenge. Just like my favourites, Team Nerd, also known as Dave and Lori from Kansas.

Like all good fans of reality TV shows, I'm partisan to the bone. I dearly hope one of these last three teams manages to win TAR- 9. And I feel an almost physical need for TAR-9 to recover from this less than promising start. But I'm not holding out too much hope for either one.

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