Amazing Race blog: record-breaking win

Rachel and Dave overcome mistakes to win $1 million
Amazing Race blog: record-breaking win

It’s official: Whenever CBS casts a team from Madison, Wisconsin, on “The Amazing Race,” they win.

But I have to admit: Even though I have lived in and around Wisconsin’s capital city for most of my adult life, I was sort of rooting against Rachel and Dave Sunday night.

My reasons for not wanting Team Madison to collect the $1 million prize had nothing to do with disliking them – indeed, the former army pilot and his wife grew much more likable as the season progressed – and rather everything to do with wanting something – anything – unexpected to happen.

Just like the current season of “Survivor,” where bridal shop owner Kim seems to be marching unfettered toward victory, the 20th season of “The Amazing Race” lacked unpredictable, jaw-dropping moments.

Almost. The finale would have had one, had the CBS promotion department not foolishly gave it away. The moment came near the end of the two-hour season finale, which saw the final four (and then three) teams travel from Cochin, India, to the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Osaka, and finally to Honolulu, Hawaii: It was when Rachel and Dave, after inadvertently skipping the final Road Block, became the first team to ever have to back track after crossing the finish line believing that they had won.

As annoying as I had found the ever-increasingly negative Art and JJ over the past several episodes, I was hoping that Team Madison’s colossal screw-up was going to open the door for the border patrol agents to charge ahead of Rachel and Dave and win the game in stunning fashion.

And Art and JJ definitely had their chance. But at the final “Hawaiian Games” Road Block, Art was simply too pudgy to avoid being repeatedly thrown off a narrow sled careening down a steep slice of Hawaiian countryside. Meanwhile, Team Madison’s Rachel, being about as broad as Kim Kardashian’s acting range, stayed on the sled with little problem, allowing her and Dave to race unchallenged (again) to the finish line.

It was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Art and JJ, and they knew it. As JJ said as he helplessly watched his partner repeatedly wipe out, the two were “handed a million dollars and just threw it away.”

The upset would have made for the most memorable “Amazing Race” finish ever.

But in the end, the team that deserved the money won the money. With their first-place finish, Team Madison overcame tremendous odds – well, mainly their at-times intense dislike of each other – to win more legs – eight – than any other team in “Amazing Race” history. More importantly, after a year apart during which Dave was stationed in Iraq, the pair seemed to be getting comfortable with one another again, perhaps even falling in love again.

Well, when they weren’t calling each other “freak,” “annoying,” or accusing the other of wearing “poopy pants.”

Not to take anything away from Team Madison, but Rachel and Dave – and Art and JJ, who logged three first-place finishes themselves – had some of the easiest competition ever cast on “The Amazing Race.” I can’t immediately think of another season where a completely non-threatening, non-competitive pair such as Vanessa and Ralph (or “Conan and Kardashian,” as JJ called them) would have made it all the way to fourth place.

The dating divorcees might have wished they hadn’t made it to fourth place once they realized that it meant Vanessa had to take part in a bizarre Japanese game show called “Bring that Chicken Home.” It’s not that the game show – which consisted of nothing more than one team member grabbing hanging chickens while running on a conveyor belt – was humiliating, but the Road Block required copious amounts of running and jumping, physical feats that Vanessa found challenging with the sprained ankle she suffered in India.

The “Bring That Chicken Home” task served two purposes in this episode: A) It made American TV audiences grateful for their homegrown product – dreck like “Mob Wives” and “Whitney” look like Peabody material compared to “BTCH”; and it provided much-needed levity after the teams’ somber visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where producers had the good sense not to have teams engage in tasteless atomic bomb-themed challenges.

The Road Block also gave Vanessa and Ralph their most compelling moments of the season: Similar to Bopper’s pleadings to Mark during the “Bollywood” challenge of two weeks ago, Ralph was begging – insisting, really – that the two quit the task, giving them a time penalty but saving Vanessa from obvious intense pain. To her credit, Vanessa completed the challenge, though her struggles provided a bit of a downer to the usually frenzied and upbeat spectacle to which regular viewers of “Bring That Chicken Home” are accustomed.

From the Japanese game show point on, it was a given that Vanessa and Ralph were going to be eliminated after the show’s first hour: What was less clear was the order in which the three remaining teams were going to finish: Rachel and Dave missed both a train and a ferry early in the leg, but a stroke of luck (directions to proceed to the aforementioned Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park were hand-delivered in a delayed fashion) and a wise Detour choice (only Team Madison skipped the chance to play “Sushi Bingo” in favor of taking pictures of locals standing behind cardboard cut-outs of sumo wrestlers) helped them take first place in the penultimate leg ahead of Art and JJ and Team Big Brother.

Oh, Team Big Brother. Given how shabbily they were treated by most other teams (though not, it must be said, by Team Madison), I really did want to root for them. But “Crazy Rachel” (Brendon’s term, not mine) made too many appearances Sunday night to anoint them as a potential feel-good underdog story. And though they had their bright spots – they maneuvered around the Japanese transit system well, they performed the terrifying “ascend and rappel” challenge up and down the side of a 45-story Hawaiian building admirably, and Brendon definitely brought the chicken home – they were out of it as soon as they realized that they had misread a clue that instructed them to make their way to Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium “on foot.” That’s when Rachel lost it – “I hate you right now!” she screamed to her man – and the final leg became a two-team race.

And, thanks to Team Madison’s finish-line flub-up, a good one at that. I admit that JJ’s very real fear while ascending and rappeling up and down the “twin towers” of Honolulu (JJ admitted to being “terrified” and thought that the challenge was “tempting fate”), combined with their struggles to simply find the towers in the first place – they were comically misled to a pair of statues first – gave them some empathy that they had lacked for several weeks.

So while Team Big Brother were backtracking to correct mistakes and Team Madison were erroneously skipping tasks, Art and JJ were miraculously in first place without knowing it. And the look of recognition on JJ’s face when Team Madison came to the “Hawaiian Games” road block that Art was struggling mightily with – “We’re in the lead!” JJ remarked incredulously – was priceless.

But the lead was a brief one for the border patrol agents, as the narrow sled task was perfect for the petite Rachel – she slid down it immediately while JJ continued to fall off, going down the hill at least 16 times (according to his partner; viewers were saved from that much comic spectacle) before finally mastering it. And the fact that Art was wearing a Chicago Bears T-shirt while being passed by Team Madison had to have been extra sweet for Wisconsin fans cheering on Rachel and Dave.

Those fans were able to cheer them on straight to the finish line, where crossing the second time was indeed the charm. Upon arriving in second place, Art and JJ seemed to finally toss aside any lingering animosity towards Team Madison and seemed genuinely happy for them. The only annoyance at the end of the program was the producers’ insistence on spotlighting Bopper and Mark, giving Team Kentucky – a team that frankly finished in the middle of the pack – as much time at the close as the winners received. But Rachel and Dave did, appropriately enough, have the last word, calling “Operation Amazing Race” a “complete success.” After proving to be the most dominant couple in “Amazing Race” history, I’d have to agree.

On Wisconsin.

Whaddya think? Were you happy to see Rachel and Dave win or would you have liked a more surprising ending? Did Dave grow on you throughout the season or do you think he needs to learn to treat Rachel more like a partner and less like a soldier? Have you had enough Bopper and Mark or would you watch them on another reality show? Would you watch an Americanized version of “Bring That Chicken Home” (hey, Regis needs another hosting gig)? Which couple will stay together longer: Rachel and Dave or Rachel and Brendon? Who conceived of the boring “shaving ice” road block for the finale? (And who was that so-called “famous Hawaiian actor” anyway?) What was Santa Claus doing on that train in Hiroshima? Which couples would you like to see brought back for an “all-star” version? Will you watch the next “Amazing Race” this fall?

Thanks for reading my “Amazing Race” blog this season. Maybe we can do it again – hmmm, think Rachel and Dave would do a couples version of “Big Brother”? Get me Julie Chen!