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Amazing Race ends strong, but its stupid design saved the winning team

An annoying couple with a woman named Rachel won The Amazing Race 20, but it was not Big Brother‘s Rachel Reilly and Brendon Villegas. They came in third, after failing to follow the clue’s directions and having a subsequent meltdown. That was foreshadowed by J.J. earlier in the race, when he said, “I don’t even think they read the clues.”

The winning couple, Rachel and Dave Brown, were the now-standard combination of an abusive asshole and surprisingly tolerant partner, which is a winning combination; they set a new record for the number of times a team came in first. At one point, they were arguing and Dave said, “silence is golden.” Rachel, brilliantly, replied, “Then why don’t you shut the fuck up?” Why Rachel stays with Dave isn’t clear, though I suppose it won her $500,000.

But actually, the show’s producers won Rachel and Dave $1 million by making the first half-hour of the show and leg of the race completely and utterly useless: although they missed the last ferry of the day, essentially knocking them out of the competition, the producers created an arbitrary start time in the morning that ensured all four teams would be equal yet again. I understand that equalizers are occasionally necessary to make for an efficient production and a thrilling race, but stacking equalizers on top of each other is just moronic, and erases any bad decisions or mistakes teams make.

It was an excellent reminder that break-ups happen for good reasons.

To their credit, both the producers and Rachel and Dave, the last roadblock (sledding down a hill, rolling a stone into a goal) and task (paddling while standing up) were actually skill-based challenges, and Art’s inability to do the roadblock allowed Rachel and Dave to come in first, twice. Yes, they ran through the gauntlet of eliminated teams only to be told they failed to complete the roadblock. They went back, finished it while Art was still attempting it, and then finished the race. That was pretty incredible, and the last 20 minutes were the kind of 20 minutes that make people tolerate the race’s pathetic lameness.

Although it led to no movement, I will give the show props for its decision to have the contestants scale a building in Hawaii–the same tower that Mike Rowe washed windows on during an episode of Dirty Jobs–which looked terrifying, so it probably was much worse, especially leaning over the edge of the building and then walking face-first down it. That first step–holy crap.

Earlier, the race paused in Hiroshima, where the teams went simply to give a clue, but because using the city for a clue alone would be distasteful (although really, nations and their cultures are used as a mere backdrop all the time on this show now), we instead got to hear the teams opine about nuclear bombs.

Brendon’s was the most condescending and/or hilariously stupid. He told the camera, “I’m a physicist. I actually study radiation and we try to use radiation to help people, getting rid of their cancer. So to see that radiation can cause massive destruction, it’s a hard thing to comprehend.”

No shit. I’m glad you just learned that now, physicist. Brendon proved that he’s good at math later, when he said during an interview, “We have to keep the same number of roadblocks pretty much even,” and “she’s done five and I’ve done four.” The precision of his language and math (“pretty much even”?!) serves him well in his science experiments, I’m sure. He and Rachel also failed to listen and/or comprehend a clue (“make your way on foot”), which led to a complete meltdown (“I hate you right now. You’re blaming this all on me.” “Damn you, I hate you, take it”). This must have been what CBS and/or the producers wanted by casting them, and they got it.

Ultimately, it was the fourth-place team that I was rooting for, though of course I only watched three episodes this season, and in flashbacks they seemed like they were awful sometimes, too. But Vanessa’s sprained ankle–absurdly swollen, black and blue–offered an obstacle bigger than all of the others the team encountered, as she had to run and jump on an extremely fast conveyor belt as part of a fake Japanese game show. That set up an interesting dynamic, with Ralph screaming at Vanessa–but in a supportive way. “No you don’t. You can’t,” he said, insisting she stop. “We take the penalty.” But she tried again and again; having torn something in my ankle last fall while training for Tough Mudder, I am in disbelief that she could even walk, never mind jump. Incredible.

But despite their efforts, they were eliminated. And though there was no cab ride to the finish line this time, that pretty much sums up the state of the race: teams’ effort rarely has any impact, which makes this far less amazing and less of a race than it used to once be.

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