The Amazing Race

Take us to the Great Wall! [Pause.] Of China!

–Amazing Race competitor to Beijing taxi driver

Though reality TV tries ever to reinvent itself, it will one day disappear down its own digestive tract, leaving only a faint smell of sulfur and wisp of self-referential smoke. Watching the premiere of The Amazing Race 10, it was impossible not to compare it with its predecessors and competitors at almost every turn.

The race began on Kite Hill in Seattle’s Gas Works Park. A perfectly photogenic place, but also the scene of the most unpopular victory in the show’s history, when the Princess of Wails, Flo Pesenti, won TAR-3. The decision to fly the contestants into the area on seaplanes for the benefit of the cameras was markedly different from TAR‘s usual gimmick-free ethos. And so there were no raised eyebrows here in PopTowers when presenter Phil Keoghan told us that this series would be peppered with surprises. The Emmy-monopolising show clearly feels the need to evolve.

The casting for this season certainly showed Mark Burnett exactly how diversity should be handled on TV. Not only do we have the usual teams of cheerleaders, beauty queens, and male models, but we also have Sa’eed and Bilal (Muslims from Cleveland), and Vipul and Arti (an Indian-American couple from Florida).

Actually, that should read “we had”. The first twist in the traditional TAR format came at the Meridian Gate of Beijing’s Forbidden City. Upon arrival, the teams each took a token guaranteeing them a set departure time on the following morning. However, the final team to arrive found they didn’t have to wait till morning at all. After an early appointment on the Mat of Doom with Keoghan, Sa’eed and Bilal were the first to leave TAR-10.

What a waste. Dark-skinned, traditionally garbed, and sporting uncompromisingly shaved heads and deeply impressive beards, they were also utterly likeable and entirely “American” (both had served in the U.S. military). If Sa’eed and Bilal hadn’t lost out in the very first game of taxi roulette, they could’ve gone on to become popular favourites and small-screen cultural ambassadors. They might also have educated their fellow contestants, especially the cheerleaders, who asked: Do Muslims worship Buddha?

The first Pit Stop and traditional elimination point came on top of the Great Wall. But contestants didn’t just have to get to the Wall, they also had to climb that mutha. After everyone had scaled a seriously high section of the rebuilt Wall, it was Vipul and Arti who had to pay the price for falling out with their taxi driver, pack up their amusing t-shirts, and head for Cala Sequester, the fabled beach paradise where eliminated teams must reside until the end of the race.

Again, what a shame. For all its casting efforts, TAR-10 was waving buh-bye to its most “diverse” teams after just 90 minutes of screen time. At least we can picture them enjoying many a happy hour of comparative religious studies while they wait for the next set of losers to arrive.

If there was any justice in the world, the next teams eliminated from TAR-10 would be the Stereotypical Gays (known also as the Screaming Friends of Ellen), followed by the Single Moms and Team Prosthesis. The SGs have to go for being typecast, the Single Moms from Alabama because they’ve been hating on Team Prosthesis in quite the most humour-free way. And Team Prosthesis because it’s the only way I can get my nightmares to stop.

Ironman competitor Sarah has a prosthetic lower leg and a crush the size of the Big Island on her pal, training partner, and fellow racer Peter. He also happens to be her clinical prosthetist. It’s not Sarah’s leg that will be keeping me awake at night, or her willingness to exploit her disability when it comes to snatching cabs, or even my obsession with jokes about non-elimination legs. It’s her relationship with Peter. The couple has been described as both “long-term friends” and “recently dating”. On camera and in voice-over, she has proclaimed her passion for him at length. He, however, has the sort of faraway eyes and vocabulary (he calls her “sister”) that suggest the only beard left in TAR-10 is named Sarah. Whether or not Peter is this season’s Racer Most Likely To Date Lance Bass, there’s something kinda freaky scary about this pair and the sooner they’re out of the race, the happier I will be.

That said, it seemed a little harsh to cast a woman with one leg and then ask her to climb the Great Wall. Of China. On a rope ladder. So far, I haven’t been impressed with the ideas men on TAR-10 at all.

As always, the Alpha Male teams look most likely to win TAR. It will probably come down to a race between the Korean Americans, Erwin and Godwin (seriously), and the Kate Moss Memorial Team, Tyler and James. Neither pair has made a favorable impression as yet, but I’m sure we’ll seeing plenty more of them. While E and G are basically the Geniuses Who Work Out, T and J are a little more complex. Superficially, they’re this season’s Eric and Jeremy, with a twist. As Keoghan put it, eyebrow raised beyond his hairline, Tyler and James are Recovering Drug Addicts… and Models! I must admit I’m looking forward to their adventures in driving and navigation, because I want to see if either can turn to the left.

The two teams I’ll be rooting for are the ones I disliked at first sight. The first is the father and daughter combination. Speech and language pathologist Lauren is a lesbian with a long-time girlfriend. Duke is every bit as conflicted as you’d expect of a man named Duke. Discussing his daughter’s sexuality on camera, he broke down in tears and mumbled about his disappointment in her. At which point something in Lauren’s eyes seemed to die, and the whole dynamic became deeply disturbing and a little too real for reality TV. But it quickly became clear there is a very loving relationship behind their TAR gimmick, and that both are very capable racers. Amusingly, Duke owns a Rhode Island company that makes New England icons in miniature porcelain. He’s also a Harley Davidson enthusiast.

In my ideal world, Duke and Lauren would finish a very close second to David and Mary, the married couple from Stone, Kentucky. He’s a miner, and as tough as granite. She’s a stay-at-home mother with a tongue like a chainsaw, and she’s never traveled further than Tennessee in her life. Clearly enraptured by everything she sees and everyone she meets, Mary’s a joy to watch and a fierce competitor to boot. Struggling to haul her non-Beauty Queen bulk up the side of the Great Wall, she repeatedly bellowed that David should shut the sam heck up. She didn’t want the other competitors to hear the advice he was offering, and having heard it once, she didn’t need to hear it over and over again. I’m pretty sure David and Mary won’t make it much further in the Amazing Race, but I fervently hope they do. And if I hear any of you calling them Cletus and Gummy Sue, I will hunt you down and feed you to the Single Moms.

RATING 7 / 10