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The Amazing Race, Ep. 20.01, “Tears of a Clown” provides a high-flying, suspenseful beginning

The Amazing Race, Ep. 20.01, “Tears of a Clown” provides a high-flying, suspenseful beginning

The Amazing Race Review, Season 20, Episode 1, “Tears of a Clown”
Airs Sundays at 8pm (ET) on CBS

One of the most intriguing aspects of The Amazing Race is the extensive game design required to keep the teams moving through the planned course. The right combination of clues, transportation, and tasks can provide great drama and an exciting finish. If the leg is created poorly, however, teams become spread out and can fail based on random events. The trick is keeping everyone close while offering them a chance to pull ahead. The 20th season begins with a well-designed leg that gives the trailing teams a shot at survival. The master stroke is placing the empanada-making contest right near the Pit Stop. This task requires skill and takes a long time to complete, so even teams that fall behind can change their position by blowing through the challenge. It also increases the likelihood of a footrace between the final two teams to stay in the race.

A straight-up sprint doesn’t exactly happen in “Tears of a Clown”, but the set-up opens the door for a stunning gaffe from Misa and Maiya. Wandering aimlessly past a confused Phil without even realizing it, they end up stumbling right out of the race. Maiya’s earlier struggles with navigation and getting stuck in the sand indicated that their team might not last much longer. However, their route to elimination is still sad to watch. On the other hand, the mistake also leads to an exciting finish in the brisk episode. While it’s too bad that The Amazing Race no longer does two-hour premieres, they pack a lot of material into the one-hour opener. An easy but breathtaking skydiving challenge and a tough cooking task balance out really well. Most teams have a great time in Argentina, and their enjoyment just adds to the refreshing tone of the show’s 20th premiere.

The episode begins in Santa Barbara with a silly introduction from Phil while leading the racers on a bike ride through the California vineyards. This moment coincides well with the Showtime premiere of his movie The Ride, an inspiring look at Phil’s bike journey across the U.S. to benefit multiple sclerosis. It brings energy to the typical introductions while indirectly promoting his documentary. This leads to the opening speech, where he explains that the Race will include 12 legs. For those keeping score at home, that means there will be three non-elimination legs, which is the right number. This leg’s winner will also get the Express Pass, which gives them a chance to skip one task during the Race. While the game-changing effects of the Express Pass are drastically overstated, it does give extra incentive to the top teams. After Phil sends them on their way, the pairs must locate their first clue among 100 balloons floating over a large vineyard. While the task is straightforward, it comes down to chance and may take a while for unlucky (and slower) teams. Misa and Maiya spend nearly two hours looking for their clue, which provides another hint that they might exit quickly.

During this quick hour, a few teams receive a lot of screen time, especially the “fish out of water” team of Mark and Bopper from Kentucky. They finish ninth and perform adequately despite Mark’s penchant for motion sickness. He throws up on the way to the airport in California and gets the chance to skydive, which leaves him feeling pretty woozy. If there was any doubt from his name, Bopper is a cartoon character right out of central casting. Sporting just a few teeth and speaking in short bursts of words, he’s destined to provide some ridiculous television.

There aren’t any major surprises after watching the online videos, though Joey and Danny are less irritating than expected. The “Jersey Shore” guys do have slicked hair and giant sunglasses, but they seem genuine. Danny gets the “I never learned to drive stick” award for this season, yet he apparently masters it on the spot. They do struggle mightily making the empanadas and barely survive, but that challenge is a terrible fit for these gym rats. An apparently strong team is the Big Brother duo of Brendon and Rachel, who manage to avoid any stress and roll into second place. The season teaser promises major fireworks from Rachel, so this calm approach likely is short-lived. Looking at less-visible teams, twins Elliot and Andrew barely appear. They end up finishing sixth after apparently losing their camera crew somewhere in Argentina.

Skydiving is standard on The Amazing Race, but this footage ranks among their best. A camera operator flies alongside each player to capture their reactions up close, which creates a remarkable sequence. This is a prime example where shooting in HD makes a huge difference, and watching teams perform the same task never grows redundant. The trick with this Roadblock comes with the clue, which asks about a person’s sense of direction. The player who accepts it actually stays on the ground and drives to the landing spot. Designed to get the less-courageous person up in the plane, it hopefully represents a trend in mysterious clues that keep the teams on their toes.

One issue with this leg’s design is separating them into two groups by two-and-a-half hours with prearranged flights. This doesn’t allow for any movement between each cluster and removes the tension from the top half once first place is secured. Dave and Rachel win after running a solid leg and thriving at the empanadas (or “piñatas” to Bopper). Border patrol agents Art and J.J. lead most of the way, but their cooking skills need some work and put them in third. The deceptive challenge is tougher than it looks, and the judge has no tolerance for shoddy craftsmanship. It’s enjoyable to see a difficult, effective leg at the start, which raises the hope for an exciting season.

Dan Heaton