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Amazing Race’s alliance is throwing the race off-balance

In Berlin, The Amazing Race 32 teams had a number of challenges to complete, including dancing in the world’s smallest nightclub, a booth that barely fit two people, to driving their own Trabant, a tiny car that barely fit the team members, never mind their camera operator and audio engineer, who also squished inside. (“A bigmouth bass in a sardine can” is how DeAngelo described Gary trying to get into the backseat, where one teammate has to sit so the camera operator can film both team members.)

They did fit, but it was also a visual metaphor for how well the alliance is fitting into this season: it’s squished and forced and uncomfortable. The Amazing Race has seen alliances before, but they usually crumble fast, and I can’t ever remember one involving so many teams that has had such an impact, completely erasing a challenge.

At the Roadblock, one team member had to rappel down the face of Andel’s Hotel—or as Hung cried out, “I’m not even walking, I’m just falling!” But that wasn’t the actual task: it was to look at giant letters on a nearby rooftop that were flashing on and off—and then unscramble those.

Phil Keoghan showed us the letters and then unscrambled them for us, but just watching from the contestants’ point of view, I still couldn’t see the word “sauerkraut” in them. This was a challenging task, and yet another of this season’s combination of tasks that involve physicality and memorization. If the rappelling team member didn’t know the word, they had to walk back up 15 flights of stairs and rappel again, and again…

But the challenge was nearly entirely neutralized because of this season’s alliance. Episode 6 named it the “Mine Five Alliance,” and it consists of Will and James, DeAngelo and Gary, Hung and Chee, Riley and Maddison, and Aparna and Eswar. There’s a sub-alliance, but with seven teams left, what matters is that there are two teams not in the alliance: Alana and Leo, and Kaylynn and Haley.

When the alliance came up at the start of the episode, I was thinking that it hasn’t really done anything of substance recently, despite being mentioned. But then I remembered Riley and Maddison warning other teams that they were going to get hit in the face with a pie. Sure, that didn’t change anything materially. But it did take away the element of surprise. That silly part of the Chantilly cream challenge had no impact on the game, but the alliance eroded it as television.

This week, the alliance had much more of an impact: on the race and the television show.

Despite falling down the face of the building, Hung was able to decode the letters. (I really do like all the teams this season, but I am so rooting for Hung and Chee to win it all. And Hung giving Chee 90 seconds to be upset should win an Emmy.) She told DeAngelo, who then passed the answer along to the next team.

This wasn’t cheating, because it’s allowed. But it sure felt like cheating, especially when DeAngelo said flatly, “sauerkraut is the answer.” The other teams in the alliance didn’t even have to try.

What probably would have happened to them is what happened to Kaylynn and Haley: multiple trips up the stairs, down the wall, or to DeAngelo, who didn’t even notice them on his first descent. “Unscramble the letters?!” he said, incredulous when he was asked. “I didn’t see any letters. All I saw was my life flash before my eyes.”

Most teams didn’t even have to do that much. The alliance turned a really great Roadblock into a check-the-box challenge.

In the next episode, in Kazakhstan, Kaylynn and Haley arrived second-to-last to a small village, and while every other team skipped the Yield, James screamed at them from across the village that there was just one team behind them and “you gotta do it if you want to stay in the race.” So Kaylynn and Haley yielded Leo and Alana, basically at the behest of the alliance.

I love when people help each other on The Great British Bake-Off, because helping someone transfer baked goods to a plate doesn’t mean the contestant getting help can skip the baking part. And I like The Amazing Race when all the teams seem to get along and genuinely like each other, even if they’re also being competitive.

But I just don’t like when Amazing Race teams give other teams shortcuts or constraints. This is a show I fell in love with almost 20 years ago because it offered something different than Survivor or The Mole.

Amazing Race is about a pair of people navigating their relationship under the stresses of travel, connecting with each other and with people around the world.

It’s about the small moments, like Kaylynn and Haley’s cab driver in Berlin, who said my favorite-ever sentence from a cab driver on the show: “Can you relax a little bit and tell me it slow?” (Then, perhaps performing for the camera, he just turned into an asshole: “Why you don’t run faster? You don’t look fat.”)

Yes, the alliance’s efforts this week didn’t seem to actually affect the outcome. The first episode ended in yet another non-elimination leg (sigh), and when Leo and Alana arrived last at the mat in the second episode, Alana admitted they had more problems than just being Yielded for 20 minutes. After all, they had to watch the stunt show at the movie studio 10 times before correctly counting the number of spears.

Quick tangent: I am not a fan of the non-elimination leg and the way it drains the life out of the end of an episode, but I am so impressed by Kaylynn and Haley, who’ve twice now been saved by it, and then managed to save themselves in the next leg despite having to complete a Speedbump. And they also do it with such cheerfulness: being in last place repeatedly would be understandably demoralizing, but they just keep going.

Clearly, either CBS or the producers are in love with the alliance. The producers are trying desperately to stoke more inter-team drama between the editing and the shower of Yields and U-Turns.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Phil sidle up alongside teams during next week’s “Mega Leg”—”double the detours, double the roadblocks, double the distance”—with a portable Yield or U-Turn box and start tempting them with chocolate and peanut butter to get them to use it.

At the Berlin Roadblock, after Hung and Chee helped DeAngelo and Gary, the NFL players took the first cab they spotted, and the episode hammered this repeatedly, like it was some kind of epic, unforgivable betrayal, and the montage that followed was just ALLIANCE ALLIANCE ALLIANCE.

Enough, please. I suppose once Kaylynn and Haley are gone, the alliance has to turn on itself, but I’d rather just watch people race rather than try to step on each other’s shoes.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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