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Guest Post: Examining the History of The U-Turn on Amazing Race

The following is a blog from Rob Has a Website Amazing Race blogger, Jessica Liese (@HaymakerHattie)

The Amazing Race has struggled for years to find ways to shake up what is by all accounts the warmest and fuzziest of the network reality shows. For nearly a decade, they’ve tried introducing one strained road-sign analogy after another (and one Big Brother castoff after another), but the perfect balance of powerful and interesting has taken a long time to attain.

In season five, the Yield was introduced. At a crucial moment, a team could now give a time penalty to any team behind them. When the penalized team arrived at the Yield, they’d have to stay on the Yield Mat for an unspecified amount of time (generally assumed to be about half an hour). This did appear to have the intended effect of pissing teams off, but as it turns out, sitting around marinating in your own impotent rage doesn’t exactly make for compelling television. Only a few times did the Yield end up taking center stage on the race (most infamously in its first on-screen appearance, the legendary “Broken Ox” episode of Season 5). Most teams opted to ignore it.

Enter the U-Turn. Making its first appearance in season 12, this new wrinkle showed up once or twice per season and gave teams the opportunity to force another team to perform both options on a Detour. This was definitely more exciting to watch, but two problems still remained. First of all, like the original Survivor immunity idol, the U-Turn was just a little too powerful. As long as there wasn’t another team way out in back, U-Turning a team was usually tantamount to eliminating them. (Fun fact: Gary and Will are one of only two teams in race history to survive the tail end of a U-turn!) Secondly, teams still weren’t using it with any regularity. TAR brass tried to make the U-Turn more tempting by not requiring teams to take credit for using it, but teams tend to continue to only use it when they most need it.

The double U-Turn (or W-Turn, if you prefer) has both softened the U-Turn’s impact on a team and doubled the number of opportunities to use it. Now, a team who gets U-Turned isn’t necessarily automatically condemned to elimination—in fact, they have the chance to use the other half of the U-Turn to save themselves. With the double U-Turn, the race has finally found a good analogue to the turtle shell in Mario Kart—it’s a twist that freshens the game without completely screwing one particular team.

For most of the teams in the race, the U-Turn is just an opportunity to pay lip service to an alliance (like I said last week, alliances are ultimately not much more than friendships you make to keep from isolating yourselves—provided, of course, you aren’d deliberately trying to be “dipherent.”). Making a deal not to U-Turn each other when you’re all at the front of the pack is largely a meaningless gesture, especially if nobody hates each other. Last season, a few teams tried to use the U-Turn as a weapon in their grudge match, but the end result was a lot of yelling and some hurt feelings—and no effect on the race itself.

Rob and Kelley used the U-Turn exactly the way it is best used—to keep themselves out of last place—and it worked. Smart playing on their part. I can’t fault Will and Gary for their bungled attempt to use the second half of the U-Turn, though—they didn’t know who’d finished what at that point, only who was 99% guaranteed to not be behind them. It was a Hail Mary pass, and it fell short.

Who’s on fire this week? The twinnies were my beginning-of-season pick to win it all, and I’m happy to see that they haven’t disappointed me so far. They’re relentlessly positive, even in the face of adversity, and they seem to have boundless energy. (Man, I really should give CrossFit a try one of these days.) Their “chataranga” skills are going to serve them well with so much strong competition remaining in the race. The Chippendales, Lexi and Trey, Abbie and Ryan, Long Hair, and Josh and Brent all ran nearly flawless legs this week. How could I single any of these teams out? Josh and Brent sold themselves short—there aren’t really any beta teams at this point. There are alpha teams and there are Gary and Will.

Who’s got egg on their face? Really, Will and Gary are the only team left that appears to be blatantly dragging their feet. I really want to like these guys, but like most superfans who finally land a much-coveted spot on their show of choice, they seemed to have gone into the race with no concept of exactly how hard the competition was going to be, and while they found another gear this week and rallied to a second-to-last-place finish, they still aren’t truly competitive. Veteran race-watchers know that dead-weight teams can occasionally stay in the race well past their expected expiration date, but they can’t hide in the back of the pack forever. They’re going to need to plumb even more hidden depths if they want to continue realizing their dream.

In the end, Team Big/Little was only saved by a bad cabbie and another team’s inability to keep it cool under pressure. After running two very competent (if fairly unremarkable) legs, culture shock and the stress of competition caught up with Caitlin and Brittany. I wish I could say that their meltdown over their non-English-speaking cab driver was a rarity, but nearly every season, someone winds up letting their emotions get the best of them and letting their inner Ugly American out. Whether this directly led to their downfall or if their cab driver (cab-biker?) was the true culprit is hard to determine for certain, but their histrionics certainly didn’t help them to leave a good impression on their way out of the race.

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