I’m always excited when The Amazing Race visits a city I know well, and Vienna’s not just a city I know well, it’s one I’d move to in a heartbeat. But much as I loved the location, from a game-design standpoint, this leg was a little lackluster. Apart from the Roadblock at the Vienna Boys Choir, the tasks were a little too similar to things we’ve seen before. Season 4 of the show not only included a visit to Vienna, it included a bungee jump off of the Donauturm (aka the Austrian Space Needle), a search of the grounds around Schonbrunn Palace, and a cautious trip through a room full of waltzing couples.
New viewers, casual viewers, viewers with normal memories, and viewers who do not write a column about the show may not have noticed. But I am none of those things, and I definitely did. There is a lot of cool stuff in Vienna. There was no need to try to sneak an unlabeled, leg-length Switchback by us. (And if it WAS necessary, at least try to make them eat 10 pounds of schnitzel on the Third Man ferris wheel again. That was gold.)Stay in tune… in another language![/caption]
While some fans might be disappointed that physicality played about as much of a role this week as originality did, I welcomed the opportunity to see teams tackle some mental tasks, including one of the most creative and challenging Roadblocks we’ve seen in a long time. Combining the memory elements of staying on key and following the tune with the particular pronunciation challenges of the German language made for a task that required everyone’s full concentration.
The task played to the strengths of Travis, Nicky, and Amy, all of whom seemed to have some kind of minimal musical background, and all of whom were mostly on key from the beginning. Jamal and New Jersey Tim both got the hang of it after a tense start, too. But just as everyone finds tasks that they excel at, somewhere along the Race is the potential for a racer to accidentally stumble on a task that plays to a major weakness. It’s especially heartbreaking and frustrating to watch a team take repeated runs at a task that most other teams completed with no trouble. Who can forget Luke and the tea task in Season 18, or Maria and Tiffany trying to play outdoor croquet-golf while shivering in the rain, or the accursed haybales of Season 3? I think sometimes the racers themselves don’t even know what that task will be for them until they’re in the middle of it.
This was definitely the case with Oklahoma Tim, who wondered what could be so hard about tapping into his inner choirboy before he discovered what exactly that entailed. It was especially tough to watch Oklahoma arrive at the Roadblock in a competitive position before poor tone-deaf Tim’s repeated attempts to sing “Die Forelle” knocked them further and further back. Ally was similarly struggling, but in the end, the Ice Cababes looked to be at least several minutes out in front. Tim and Danny never really had a chance.
Admittedly, we aren’t going to see these guys back for an All-Star season. Tim and Danny never broke out of the middle of the pack, and they never seemed fully comfortable on camera. But while there are always exceptions, I do tend to find it easier to identify with regular-people teams than people who are practiced at self-promotion, and certainly far easier than teams who are hyper-aware that they’re on camera. They may be a little less dynamic on camera than, say, Marie or the Afghanimals, but Tim and Danny seem like guys I’d like to have a beer with (maybe we’d get that beer someplace other than a karaoke bar). I’m not sure the overall Race quality will suffer in their absence, but I am sorry to see them go.
I’ve complained before about how production has nerfed the Fast Forward over the years by eliminating every possible element of risk associated with it. Back when there was a Fast Forward on every leg, teams had to think hard about when they wanted to go for it. I absolutely understand why Production had to cut back on them, but even in those first few seasons of reduced Fast Forwards, tasks were still frequently difficult, scary, gross, or hard to find, and it wasn’t unusual to see a team use the Fast Forward to save themselves from last place or two teams go head-to-head trying to finish it first. (Pour one out for Terence and Sarah of Season 13, one of my all-time favorite teams – turns out if you’re going to practice eating challenges ahead of time, tofu might not be the best food to practice with.)
Nowadays nobody even ponders the Fast Forward if they’re not already in the front of the pack, because there’s little chance that the first team who goes for it won’t get it. If you just have to climb up a tower or drive around a track, where’s the risk?
So my MVP this week is the weather in Vienna, for injecting some much-needed risk into the Fast Forward. While the Donauturm is not exactly hard to find, it’s located across town from the other tasks on the leg. And Amy reported on Twitter that once they got there, the elevator ride to the top of the tower took another 20 minutes. When when wind conditions kept them from completing the bungee jump, they bled even more time pondering whether the wind would let up.
Jason and Amy are a strong team, and they made up a lot of time once they decided to go back, but there were some tense moments when they wondered if their attempt at taking a shortcut was going to cost them the Race. That’s what the Fast Forward SHOULD be about all the time – weighing the potential for gaining a lead against the time or resources you might have to give up to get it.
Of course, had they not gone for the Fast Forward at all, it’s entirely possible that Jason and Amy wouldn’t have been in a position where Tim and Marie could steal their cab, and nobody would have had to call forth Providence Amy. But we can play 20/20 hindsight all day, and actually, Providence Amy made for some good television, so that was a net win. (I am a little surprised that it took Tim and Marie six full episodes to truly get a rise out of someone, and more surprised that it ended up being usually-sunny Amy.)
I’m not going to say that stealing a cab is something to commend. I don’t love it, and teams on the wrong end of it are within their rights to be upset. But it is a part of the game, for better or for worse. And it’s definitely not against the rules. Teams are not allowed to tamper with anything that other teams own or need to complete the Race. Stealing cabs, while sneaky and underhanded, is kosher by Race rules, as long as they don’t mess with other teams’ stuff. (In Season 2 of Amazing Race: Australia, a team removed another team’s bags from a cab in the process of stealing it and paid a hefty penalty. Granted, there are subtle rule differences across the various international versions, but this one seems pretty standard.) So the fact that someone (presumably the driver) had already removed the bags from Jason and Amy’s cab just made it easier for Tim and Marie to snag that particular cab as opposed to the Ice Cababes’ or Tim and Danny’s.
If anything’s going to kill Tim and Marie’s game, it’s not going to be the fact that they look out for Number One. It’s the fact that they keep making casual stabs at befriending and aligning with the other teams right before directly screwing those same other teams. Nobody’s yet lost a race because they failed to make alliances, but in alienating all of the other teams, Tim and Marie are potentially making the battle for the million dollars much more of an uphill climb. They could well be the first team in Amazing Race history whose poor social game knocks them out of contention.
“I’m there to facilitate the moment…it took care of itself,” Phil said on Twitter of his role in Amy and Marie’s confrontation – emblematic of his preferred laissez-faire approach to team conflict. As we saw earlier this season when the Afghanimals got loud with each other, Phil’s not usually comfortable getting into teams’ personal business. Whenever he’s cast in the role of reluctant mediator, he interjects a few phrases designed to foster reconciliation before stepping back and trying to stay the hell out of it. As I’ve said before, this is a far cry from Jeff Probst, who positively feeds on contestant conflict, and it’s one reason The Amazing Race has never fully descended into a character study on whoever’s trying to be the biggest jerk on the show.
In that vein, I will close out this week’s column with another journey down Race Lore Lane. I bring you:
Phil’s Most Memorable Moments as Race Referee
(Once again, I am not attempting here to comprehensively list every instance of this. By all means, share your own favorite moments in the comments, but suggesting I did it wrong because I left out X or Y is a dick move.)
Sam/Dan and Flight Time/Big Easy (season 15) – During a footrace to the mat along an Estonian waterfront, things got physical between the Globetrotters and the brothers. Hard to say if the collision was accidental or if elbows were thrown, but Big Easy was not amused, to say the least, when Flight Time took a tumble into swampy water. Instead of maintaining his usual vaguely disapproving neutrality, though, Phil took a rare opportunity to play Probst and actually asked a few pointed questions, then stood back and watched the fireworks. “We didn’t know the physical stuff was in play, but now that we know it is…” Big Easy told Phil as he cast a side-eye at Dan. That had to have been a little scary coming from a guy his size.
Margie/Luke and Jen/Kisha (season 14) – Yet another shoving match was the catalyst for this fight. When Luke and Jen collided during a fierce grab at a clue box, it set off a leg-long argument between Margie and Luke and Kisha and Jen. Some inappropriately-timed nervous laughter from Kisha at the mat escalated the situation into shouting and bitch-calling while Phil took stabs at getting them to call a truce. For an added awkward bonus, Victor and Tammy were also still on the mat. Between Victor, Tammy, Phil, and the greeters, it was hard to say who wanted to be there least of all.
Brandy and Caite (season 16) – Upset that Brent and Caite had U-Turned them into fifth place, Brandy tore into Miss Teen South Carolina as soon as Brent and Caite finished the final leg. Caite shot back that perhaps Brandy and Carol might not have been targeted if they’d been a little bit nicer, and, like, such as. Phil unwittingly set this one off as well (and immediately regretted it, from the looks of things), but Caite managed to shut it down in a surprisingly savvy fashion. Everyone quickly got back to congratulating Dan and Jordan, but the moment was kind of ruined.
Jonathan and Victoria (season 6) – Perhaps the most classic and enduring example of Phil-as-referee took place at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. When Victoria refused to drop their packs during a footrace for first place, her always-volatile husband, Jonathan, lost his temper in a way that was explosive even for him. After watching Jonathan physically shove his wife, Phil suggested an apology might be in order in his best Disappointed Dad voice. Phil’s voice was trying to calm Jonathan down and foster reconciliation. Phil’s face was saying he wanted to be absolutely anywhere but there.