The Amazing Race, Ep. 20.05, “Uglier Than a Mud Rail Fence”: Art and JJ storm the castle in Bavaria

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The Amazing Race Review, Season 20, Episode 5,
“Uglier Than a Mud Rail Fence”
Airs Sundays at 8pm (ET) on CBS

There’s no simple formula to determine which teams will dominate The Amazing Race. It takes a certain level of physical strength to handle the challenges, but plenty of superior athletes have failed in early legs. There are also countless examples from past seasons of older and less agile contestants who’ve thrived. Arguably the most dominant team not to win is Season Five’s Colin and Christie, who won six legs but ultimately finished second. They seemed destined to take the top prize, but were passed near the end by Chip and Kim, a couple in their 40s who barely avoided elimination in the first three episodes. There’s so much luck involved in this contest that very few teams can avoid major problems.

During the past three legs, Art and JJ have not only taken first place but have won easily. One victory was due to the Fast Forward, but they gained that prize because they’d moved ahead at the leg’s start. The border patrol agents are in their early 40s and are in good shape, but they’re not superstar athletes. Thus far, they’ve shown an ability to handle most tasks quickly and have avoided the navigation problems that doom many racers. A possible Achilles heel is their confidence, which could lead them to underestimate the competition. There are numerous instances from past seasons of teams flying out of the gate and losing in one bad leg. In Season 11, Rob and Amber won the first three legs against All-Star teams and then were eliminated the next week. The editors are spending a lot of time on Art and JJ and their dominance. Are they setting them up for a fall? Right now, the most likely candidates to steal the top spot are Joey and Danny, who have rebounded very well from a nasty opening leg.

“Uglier Than a Mud Rail Fence” sends the eight remaining teams to Bavaria by train to locate a Travelocity Roaming Gnome (sigh). This episode takes a sillier approach to the game and includes one of the odder challenges in series history. The Detour choices are “Fairy Tale” or “Champion Male”, and five teams choose the latter option. That task requires them to style ridiculous beards for guys who resemble Santa Claus. It’s a fun challenge that needs deft skills to get the hair loops in the right place. JJ and Rachel are the masters of this craft, while the Jersey boys aren’t as skilled despite their familiarity with styling products. Fairy Tale sends teams down the path of Hansel and Gretel to pick up gingerbread and build a house at the end. The memorable part of this challenge is a hideous witch hamming it up for the cameras. It’s no surprise that Bopper can’t resist the chance to do a convincing impression.

This episode also includes the first Speed Bump, which matches the light tone by forcing Mark and Bopper to learn the art of yodeling. The producers had to be high fiving to get these guys on this comic task. After shedding their lederhosen, Mark and Bopper manage to right the ship and end up finishing in sixth place. These guys are bringing the fun this season, so their survival is a relief. Following the Detour, a bunch of teams struggle with a trip to King Ludwig II’s bedroom in Neuschwanstein Castle, which inspired Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. The trick is its proximity to another castle that also has a bedroom for the king. Nary and Jamie and Dave and Rachel even wait for a tour at the wrong place, which sends then back into the pack.

The Roaming Gnome gets his chance to shine during the Roadblock, which involves the 16th century winter sport of eisstockchienben. Basically, the player must slide the gnome down the ice and onto a bull’s-eye. It seems like an easy challenge, but Nary struggles mightily to find the range. She finally succeeds in her 180th (!) try, but they finish the task in last place. However, they still have a chance due to Kerri and Stacy’s navigation issues. The editors frequently promise a last-minute change to fake out viewers, but it actually happens this time. Kerri and Stacy are a likable team and get along really well, so their exit before one particular team is disappointing. Brendon does fall spectacularly on his butt while hopping onto the Pit Stop mat, so that’s a minor consolation. The barn Pit Stop is one of the silliest in the entire series, and seeing Phil standing next to a row of cows is a classic shot.

This week represents an improvement over last week’s mess, though it still has some issues. An oddball challenge like the beard styling is awesome, but that tone doesn’t have to permeate the entire episode. The show is trying so hard to push the comedy that it can cheapen the competition. A good example is the gong used by the editors to back up a player’s dumb statement, which is just overkill. The Amazing Race earned its reputation by avoiding cheap gimmicks and showing real people having a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The current incarnation still provides great entertainment, but it doesn’t need to try so hard. When the legs are designed well, inspired things can happen without any editorial interference. At the end of the brutal third leg, Vanessa and Ralph’s battle for elimination against the twins was excellent. Both teams had struggled throughout the episode, so watching one of them bear down and survive was awesome. The formula is so good that unnecessary tinkering just lowers the quality. This show has the potential to be so much better, and overdoing the comedy shortchanges the unlimited possibilities.

Dan Heaton

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