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The Amazing Race Recap: They Shoot Fake Horses, Don’t They?

It was a little difficult to objectively assess The Amazing Race last night, what with this leg kicking off in Chile. Granted, they quickly made their way into Argentina, but, with the starting point still looming large, there was an unintentional "Nero fiddles while Rome burns" effect when you juxtaposed the shocking footage of the punishing earthquake with scenes of reality contestants playing fake polo. Viewers just had to try to push the real-life disconnect out of their mind, just as they would two-and-a-half hours later, when famously bitter divorcé Alec Baldwin appeared as a judge on a show called The Marriage Ref.

The first part of this episode made it seem like it would be a very dull one indeed: The cowboys blew through every challenge with such ease that one was left to assume that every other team would finish just as ably. Plus, it didn't bode well that it must have been the Travelocity Roaming (and Product Placing) Gnome's earliest appearance in a season yet. Usually the producers wait until later in the race, when we're too invested in the teams to bail out after witnessing such a craven promotional deal. But week three? They're either taking their fans for granted, or they've given up.

Perhaps it's a little of both, judging from the first challenge, in which teams had to win a game of five-card stud against the gnome. It was a nonsensical, purely luck-based challenge that's only purpose was to facilitate long, lingering close-ups of the Travelocity mascot. Perhaps this is part of a gradual erosion of our marketing resistance, incrementally leading us to a time when Roadblocks will entirely consist of a team member making love to a plaster gnome while a crawl of low-ticket fares slides across the bottom of the screen.

The cowboys struggled with this challenge more than the others (through bad cards and no fault of their own), but after they finally beat the inanimate object in poker, they easily dispatched with every subsequent obstacle. (And would go on to finish first, winning — gulp — a trip back to Chile.) These early favorites were even able to easily diagnose and dismiss the irritatingly intense lesbians, Carol and Brandy, who, they felt, only wanted to know about the cowboys' strategy, and didn't care to get to know them as people. This interaction provided such a schematic portrayal of caring middle Americans being ignored by bossy, pushy, big-city liberals (lesbians no less!) that it felt like more like a Sarah Palin campaign commercial than a reality show.

But once the other teams started stumbling, the episode picked up. As everyone took off on the leg, Brent and Caite lagged behind, having to take a lower-case d detour to a hospital after suffering from food poisoning. They were both hooked up to IVs to replenish their fluids, and then, moderately refreshed, hopped aboard a six-hour bus ride on winding high-altitude roads, which sounds like motorized ipecac for riders even in the best of health. But nothing would stop the models, save for maps and standard gear shifts.

The Roadblock involved throwing a lasso around a simulated steer. The lesbians groused that it gave the cowboys an unfair advantage; Cord made the cogent rebuttal that he didn't complain that the lesbians spoke Spanish. But indeed, Jet (who, every week, looks more and more like he could be the son of Blazing Saddles' Lyle), dragged in the fake steer on his second try, leading him to joke that his friends (back at the ranch, presumably) would never let him forget that he missed on the first attempt. Were Brandy's friends giggling about her improper use of the Spanish subjunctive? Unlikely!

The Detour was "Horse Sense" or "Horse Power." In "Sense," teams had to follow a map with a set of coordinates and number of paces to find some "buried treasure" and pass it on to a "lead bandit" who looked like an "older albino Benicio del Toro." The lesbians, who began the episode with a foreshadowing description of their tendency to bicker, did just that throughout this leg. It's difficult to pick a side on this one: Carol just looks biologically bossy, from her severe blonde hair to her glaring features, but Brandy's passive-aggression needs its own passport. She gets frustrated, but then dumps every decision in Carol's lap, with a "You got us into this mess, you better get us out … " shrug that would be maddening if one had to deal with it more than one hour a week. But they are serving a valuable equal-rights service for the gay community: They are proving that, just like intense heterosexual couples on the Race, intense gay couples also call each other "Babe" when they most want to strangle each other.

Many teams had trouble finding their treasure; Joe (who is not living up to his promise as a short-tempered boor) declared his odd logic that because he had a compass watch, he didn't need to keep track of his paces. (Joe has put far too much faith in technology; the day he got an iPhone, he was probably confounded as to why he didn't suddenly have the power to teleport.) Meanwhile, Jeff and Jordan had no trouble finding sacks of treasure, they just couldn't figure out to whom to give it. Repeatedly incorrectly reading the clue directing them to a train station, they kept attempting to hand it to the gunslinger at the clue box, and were confounded as to why they only received a twirled pistol in return. "We're so stupid," said Jeff when they finally discovered their error. "We definitely shouldn't reproduce." These people shouldn't be trusted with a ham sandwich, let alone a baby.

The other choice of the Detour, "Horse Power," involved the teams sitting and dragging a wooden fake horse the length of a polo field, taking turns knocking a ball forward until they got it through the goal in at most nine tries. Joe, after failing at the treasure hunt, tried this, only to fall off the horse twice in a row; perhaps he assumed his New Balance shoes would take care of his equilibrium. To get better traction on the ball, Steve lay crossways across the "saddle," which worked; hopefully he didn't take any grand lessons away from this experience and will never try it on a real horse.

The detectives also failed at the treasure hunt, even after Michael attempted a "grid search." Louie confessed that he'd never done this "grid search," he mostly executed search warrants. This was the first clue that their allegedly gritty police experience may well have been exaggerated: The second came when they picked blue Polo jerseys because it symbolized NYPD Blue. Are they really policemen, or just mall security who act out old CHiPs scripts at break time behind the Baby Gap?

Brothers Dan and Jordan also proved awful at Polo, but not as bad as Monique and Shawne. The moms frequently declared that they were out there to prove what mothers could do, and the answer to that question has historically been "get eliminated within the first three legs." Shawne was stalled for a while at the roping Roadblock until Monique appealed to Jesus. Then, in an act of either divine intervention or inspirational editing, Jesus delivered a steer made of hay, which looked suspiciously like a false idol. But when the two women hit the polo fields, there wasn't anything that either Jesus or an editor could do to save them, and they were eliminated. So to answer their question, that's what moms can do.

Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS