By Diane Vadino
Special to MSN TV
It’s Season 20 of “The Amazing Race,” and we’re kicking things off in a huge way. We begin in Santa Barbara, “the heart of American wine country,” with Phil racing along on his bike, with a peloton of racers. They look like an exceptionally fit and high-concept crowd. We have: Dave and Cherie, married clowns; Bopper and Mark, lifelong friends from Kentucky; Misa and Maiya, golfing sisters from San Diego (“We are athletes — there will be no crying”); “Big Brother 12″ contestants Brendan and Rachel; Joey Fitness and Dan from Long Island (“We live the guido lifestyle”); Nary and Jamie, federal agents from L.A.; married couple Rachel and Army major/Iraq War veteran Dan; twin brothers Elliot and Andrew (“He’s my life partner but we’re not gay”); friends Kerri and Stacy (“We’re the typical Daisy Duke country girls”); dating couple Vanessa and Ralph (“I used to stalk him, he got married, stalked him some more”); and border patrol agents Art and J.J.. These teams look, for the most part, like bad-asses. Are we returning to the grueling “Unfinished Business” type of race, after the low-key last season? The world is waiting! Travel safe! Welcome to “The Amazing Race”!
For this year’s starting point, 100 red-and-yellow balloons are flying above a Santa Barbara vineyard — it looks spectacular, like a Christo installation. Only 11 of them have clues in their tiny baskets, and teams need to yank them the balloons down to peer inside. Basically, teams will either get lucky early on or be forced to blanket the entire field in search of the dwindling, remaining clues. Remember Mel and Dave searching the mud field for the last ceramic frog in “Unfinished Business”? This isn’t that brutal, but it still benefits the lucky early teams — like Elliot and Andrew, who are the first to discover that the next stop is Santa Barbara. Aren’t they already in Santa Barbara? Yes. But they’re heading for Santa Barbara, Argentina. Nothing incredibly dramatic here happens except for Mark throwing up out his car window en route to L.A.X.: “It’s the first leg of ‘The Amazing Race,’ and it’s time to jam down!” Bopper explains.
Only the first six teams win seats on the early plane, and they are: Elliot and Andrew; Brendan and Rachel; Nary and Jamie; Art and J.J.; Rachel and Dave; and Vanessa and Ralph, and they have a two-and-a-half-hour jump on the other teams. In Argentina, Art and J.J. are the first to the clue box, which directs them to the Aerodromo Gilberto Lavaque and is where they encounter the season’s first Roadblock: “Who’s got a great sense of direction?” (All the mixed-gender teams pick the guys, which is a little disheartening.) The trick, of course, is that the partner with the inferior sense of direction is the one who’s going to make a parachute jump from 10,000 feet. The ladies, however, seem pretty psyched for the challenge — it’s (male) border patrol agent J.J. who’s anxious: “I think you’re playing with death,” he says. ”This goes against all the laws of nature.” Back on the ground, Army Dave and J.J.’s border patrol partner Art team up for some “interagency cooperation.” They pinpoint the landing spot and pick up their partners, with little fuss nor muss.
The second group has a trickier time here. Cherie cries “the tears of a clown” as they trail this lagging pack: “I don’t feel like we’re fast or strong.” Maiya, meanwhile, drives her SUV in a pit of quicksand and has to wait to be rescued by passersby with a pick-up truck: “These nice gentlemen are trying to help me out.” Stacy makes lots of “I can’t do this” noise but sucks it up and jumps: “It felt so good, it was liberating — but I’d never do it again.” Maiya is the last one to arrive at the pick-up spot, where her sister is visibly relieved to see her.
J.J. and Art lead the way to “the empanada challenge,” in which teams are asked to make 120 empanadas: 60 with meat and 60 with cheese. They’re trailed by Rachel and Brendan, who contextualizes the situation thusly: “I’m half Mexican, and I hate [the border patrol agents] for a reason.” Rachel is the first to notice that there are two different “crimping patterns” to the empanada dough: one pinching, one twisting. There are, however, no real screw-ups here, and the teams complete the task more or less in the order that they arrive. The Pitstop is just a minute’s dash from the empanada-filling stations, and Dave and Rachel leap ahead to take first place and claim the Express Pass. They’re followed by Rachel and Brendan; Art and J.J.; Nary and Jamie; Vanessa and Ralph; and Elliot and Andrew.
The second half of the pack shows up to the empanada station: “This is the first time I have ever made a pinata,” Bopper tells Mark, and hopefully we will not have an entire season of this seemingly nice guy saying “backwoods” things all season. “Do we need to get our bags?” either Maiya or Misa says as they run to the challenge, and we are basically guaranteed that yes, they do need their bags, and yes, this will play into the final standings. Kerri and Stacy; Dave and Cherie; and Mark and Bopper finish in that order; it comes down to Maiya and Misa, who are powering through their empanadas, and the guidos from Long Island (not, P.S., the Jersey Shore), Joey Fitness and Dan, who are terrible at making them. The women actually finish first — and they get to within sight of the Pitstop, but don’t see it, and run in the other direction, giving Joey Fitness and Dan the chance to sneak in in front of them. In a bizarre finish — even Phil says it’s a first — the golfing sisters are out.
“The Amazing Race” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.