Amazing Race Blog: Wicked Strange, Indeed

By Jeff Robbins Channel 3000 Staff Writer

Now this is why we love The Amazing Race.

A week after a ho-hum episode (well, except for fanatics of yodeling and beard styling), CBS?s best reality show came roaring back Sunday night with an installment that had it all: Laughs, suspense, unexpected twists, exotic locales, and romance.

Oh yeah, and barfing. Lots of barfing.

But we?ll get to Bopper and Mark in a minute. First we need to cover the team that ended the leg in first place, Team Madison?s Rachel and Dave, and the team that that ended the leg being eliminated, Jersey boys Joey “Fitness” and Danny, as the two teams’ fates were irrevocably intermingled.

Actually, all seven remaining teams were intermingled at the beginning of this episode: Though two-and-a-half hours separated the departure time of front-runners Art and JJ and back-of-the-packers Nary and Jamie, all teams eventually ended up on the same flight from Bavaria to Baku, Azerbaijan, an oil-rich former Soviet republic located on the Caspian Sea.

Though it?s somewhat maddening that producers spent the first few minutes of the show engaging us in airline ticket finagling that would prove to be utterly irrelevant, there were a few nuggets for attentive viewers not busy setting their NCAA tournament brackets alight (thanks for nothing, North Carolina).

Not-really-teachers and not-really-candidates-to-win-the-race Nary and Jamie took pride in the fact that they started out the leg ahead of no one, declaring “last place means we?re not a threat.” True, but more importantly, last place means you?re in, well, last place, or in other words, exactly the opposite position you want to be in.

(Hey, don?t you wish Amazing Race teams would drop all of the Survivor/Big Brother strategy talk? With the exception of the U-Turn ? which only works if the threatening team is behind you ? teams that are perceived to be strong can?t be conspired against and voted out. The best strategy on TAR is to advance your team by outplaying and outlasting. There is very little opportunity for outwitting.)

In an edit designed to throw us off the episode?s ending, Art and JJ were seen as worried about competition from the rapidly-improving team Joey “Fitness” and Danny, who in turn were so confident in getting first place on this leg that Danny broke out his pair of orange “first place glasses,” which looked remarkably like the free pair of specs that came in a package of Huggies Little Swimmers I recently bought. JJ thought that the pair, duded up in their ski gear, instead looked like they were from a “bad 80s movie with Wham! playing in the background.”

(Boo to whoever didn?t shell out the money to pay for “Careless Whisper,” “Freedom,” or “Everything She Wants” to then come gloriously blasting out of my TV’s speakers. Boo, I say.)

But the quote that I at first pegged for intending to throw us off the episode?s end came from Team Madison?s Dave, who, despite declaring just two weeks ago that they were “a complete and utter failure,” was now confident enough to declare “Rachel and I are the team to beat at this point.” Right then I thought they were surely going to be sent packing.

But Team Madison played a flawless episode, beginning at the beautiful Temple Ateshgah, the episode?s first stopping point. Even before finding the Fast Forward hidden in the clue envelope, Dave was busy befriending other teams at the musical/swordplay/dancing/fire ritual that was happening at the Temple. Dave instructed the Jersey club-hoppers to “get in on this, fist pumpers!” and asked Team Kentucky if the ceremony was “like a hoedown for you?” Dave?s evolution into Colonel Friendly has been unexpected but welcome.

Dave turned more serious when he ripped into the clue envelope and found the season?s second Fast Forward, the completion of which he and Rachel immediately decided to try. Pressing for a first-place finish, Joey “Fitness” and Danny decided to go for the Fast Forward as well. (In a nice bit of rule explanation, Art and JJ said they were ineligible for the Fast Forward as they had already completed one earlier in the season.) The Fast Forward task was simple but physically demanding: Teams had to unload and stack 150 bales of hay in a predetermined 3x5x10 manner.

Knowing that the team that came in second at the Fast Forward would be putting themselves far behind five other teams added some real drama to the segment (unlike Art and JJ?s solo Fast Forward try two weeks ago), which was heightened by the odd choice of Team Madison to let Rachel handle the far more physical job of stacking the bales, as it led to some unexpected misogynistic comments from Jersey Shore.

Despite insisting that they weren?t “going to let a girl beat us,” Rachel did indeed stack the bales faster than Danny, winning them the Fast Forward, propelling them into first place at the end of the leg, and leading directly to Joey “Fitness” and Danny?s elimination at the end of the episode. As pleased as I am that Team Madison not only won the leg (and a new Ford Taurus for each) but are getting along, I admit that I will miss the Jersey boys, who were endearing in a sort of narcissistic-but-non-threatening Larry Dallas sort of way.

Speaking of Three?s Company, three teams simultaneously converged at the episode?s Road Block ? the much-promoted ?helicopter ditch rescue training exercise,” and Bopper, JJ, and Jamie performed it at the same time. This was one of the briefest ? the entire exercise only lasted a couple of minutes ? but most excitingly intense challenges presented on any Amazing Race, as the team member performing it was submerged underwater inside a capsule (meant to represent a helicopter), completely capsized, and then forced to escape out of one of the capsule?s windows. All while holding their breath ? no scuba tanks here.

All the participants, including later arrivals Brendon, Vanessa, and Joey “Fitness,” performed the task correctly the first time and seemingly without struggle, but that didn?t take away from the thrill of it. Perhaps to break the tension of the moment ? this was a task where non-participants were genuinely concerned for their partner?s safety ? Mark surprisingly confided to Nary that Bopper had a “bad crush” on Jamie, a revelation that was somehow at once embarrassing and adorable. Some of the tenderness of the scene was compromised by our knowledge that Mark had just been vomiting profusely in the rear of the cab on the way to the Road Block ? please, can someone let this man at least occasionally sit in the front seat? ? and probably knocked Nary back with his puke breath.

But there was no time for Jamie and Bopper to kindle a romance or for Mark to brush his teeth, because it was on to a carpet shop which housed easily-spotted clues (well, except for Vanessa and Ralph, the only team for which running the Race has resulted in the continual and accelerating loss of brain cells) for the next Detour, which forced teams to choose between “Apples” and “Oil.”

I say “forced” to choose because I immediately agreed with Nary and Jamie?s assessment that the oil task ? which involved thoroughly cleaning someone who had just soaked in oil ? sounded “gross.”

(Apparently in Baku, they have so much oil that they not only have plenty to use for gasoline and other energy purposes, but they can just bathe in it, only exporting enough to leave the rest of the world drowning in high gas prices ? get it, bathing, drowning? OK, so no one would confuse my expertise at political satire with Jon Stewart?s.)

Surprisingly though, half of the teams decided they would rather scrub hairy guys off than find a specially-marked apple hidden in a car full of the fruit.

As they painstakingly scrubbed a hairy local, Art and JJ, for one, seemed to quickly regret their choice: The task was so “wicked strange” (hence the episode’s title) that it caused JJ in particular to question his very existence, exclaiming “What the hell is going on in my life?” and, after cleaning the man “in his thighs,” suggesting that while the Race?s ultimate reward was worth attaining, the quest did exact a price on its participants: “You want a million dollars? Scrub a man?s junk!”

Mark and Bopper and Brendon and Rachel (another thankfully quiet episode for Team Big Brother), on the other hand, completed the task with more good humor: Mark, after barfing again on the way to the detour, was likely just happy not to have to ride in the back seat of another car.

The episode eventually came down to “going commando” Vanessa and “could I be any more worthless” Ralph and Joey “Fitness” and Danny frantically searching for the special apple. While the editors did their best to make us believe that the Jersey boys had closed the gap with the dating divorcees, in the end losing out on the Fast Forward proved simply too much to come back from.

Viewers will now have to wait two weeks for the race’s next leg, as The Amazing Race is preempted on April 1 for the Academy of Country Music Awards ? award producers would be wise to line up country music fans Bopper and Mark for a special guest appearance, provided they let Mark sit in the front seat on the limo ride over.

Whaddya think? Can Team Madison stay on top? Will bathing grown men leave a permanent scar on Art and JJ? Is there time on The Amazing Race to say “hello” to other teams? Is calling Rachel a “freakin? workhorse” as romantic as Dave gets? Will “cheese and crackers” catch on as a pseudo-curse phrase? And would someone please get Mark a mint?

Tune in on Sunday, April 8, for our next episode and then come back here the next day (give or take!) and check out my blog.

Thanks and travel safe!