Seems like just yesterday we were watching teams of travelers racing 'round the globe and here we are again. It's a new season of "The Amazing Race" and host Phil Keoghan looks well-rested and cheery. Eleven teams have gathered at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, anxious to start their race to the cool million. But first, we get a glimpse of this hodgepodge of folks.
"Wynona and me are a cross between redneck and country," Chuck the taxidermist says. "I very much love doing taxidermy. It's become an obsession, much like hunting. Kill the animal, eat the animal, mount the animal and keep the memory on your wall forever."
There is zero chance we will forget who these people are, what with the mullet and all, but the Amazing producers give us a little country music soundtrack just in case. We've got toothless hockey players, newlyweds, a father-son pair of cancer survivors from Utah (the son had testicular cancer, the dad had prostate cancer and gets choked up every time he talks about his boy). There are SoCal surfers, doctor twins, YouTube sensations, a pair of besties in orange, a pair of firefighters and Nashville country singers from the band Stealing Angels.
Breathless in Bora Bora
It's an eclectic group, all right and their first stop will be ... Bora Bora. There's room for just five teams on the first flight, so that quintet -- the taxidermist, docs, orange besties, Utah dad-and-lad and the surfers -- forms a fast alliance. The first team to arrive at the pit stop will be given not one but two express passes, one to keep and one to share, Phil has told them. The group agrees to award the passes to teams one and two.
Meanwhile, the second flight's travelers are making nice. "In our everyday life, we don't have many friends," newlywed girl says. "I don't care."
"Her likability factor is low," Max, her new husband explains.
"Probably zero," she says, with no trace of regret or embarrassment. They shmooze a bit with Team YouTube, as hubby cigar-salesman voice-overs, "Katie put on her best fake voice."
"I had so many horrible conversations," she says. "It was brutal."
Here we'd thought taxidermist Chuck's mullet was an "Amazing Race" first, but we have never hated a team as quickly as we do the newlyweds in all 22 seasons.
One member of each team will be riding a helicopter up to 10,000 feet, then taking the quick way down, free-falling at speeds of 120 miles per hour. Their partners will take a water taxi to the splat zone. Er, I mean, the safe landing zone. Jamil, one of the twin docs, says, "Everything inside of you is saying, 'Don't jump! You're leaving a perfectly good helicopter.' But it's the Amazing Race."
Once on the ground, they'll proceed by water taxi to Eden Beach, where whoever didn't drop like a rock through 10,000 feet of air will have to hunt through 400 sand castles, seeking the next clue, in the searing heat. Whatever they destroy they must rebuild.
"It was like opening a Christmas present that was empty and then wrapping it back up," surfer Jessica says.
As the sun bakes the sand, it's clear that rebuilding the castles is going to become increasingly difficult. A ukulele player serenades them and a dog pees on the castles. Chuck and Wynona start hunting through coconuts, much to other teams' delight, before they finally figure out that everyone else is farther down the beach.
The surfers are the first to finish. They race off, clue in hand, to build an outrigger canoe and paddle to the Motu Cafe, the pit stop. Paddling is more difficult than it appears. Lean even slightly and the boat capsizes, surfer boy says after they tip over.
Everyone else is still building sanding castles when the second flight's passengers begin arriving. The doc is griping, Wynona is whining. Some of the teams have been out there for three hours or more.
"I honestly get the feeling this might be what hell is like," one country singer tells the other.
The Pit Stop
The surfers are first to the mat, and they win both express passes. Hockey players Bates and Anthony arrive second, followed by Utah dad and lad (#3, so they're expecting the express pass), besties Pam and Winnie (#4), the roller derby moms (#5), YouTubes (#6) and Chuck and Wynona (#7).
"We have never had hair like this on the Amazing Race," Phil tells him, gesturing to Chuck's remarkable mullet.
"It's business in the front and party in the back," Chuck tells him.
Having capsized, the docs finally come in, very wetly, as team #8.
Back at sand castle central, the last teams -- the newlyweds, country singers and firefighters confer. They decide to give up and take the penalty. Now it's a footrace. Or rather, an outrigger-building race. The firefighters are first off the beach and the first to capsize. Also, the second. So the newlyweds and country singers beat them to the mat, earning a safe berth and a four-hour penalty at the start of the next leg. The firefighters are sent sadly home, knowing that they will never live this down at the fire station: "We got beat canoeing by two blond girls."
Next time: The surfers start reneging on their express pass promise, but that may be moot because Utah dad seems to have ruptured his Achilles tendon. Also, manta rays!