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The Amazing Race Recap: We Need a Better Class of Villain

The coming attractions at the end of last week’s episode of The Amazing Race were ominous: All we got was an extended glimpse of the cowboys attempting what would prove to be the Detour challenge of balancing a flag on their heads. Considering that last week the two had just survived a non-elimination round, making the trailer all about them implied that they would be fighting for their lives. And focusing solely on them also indicated that the producers know that most viewers are rooting for them, and are completely invested in their survival. This week, we learned that the cowboys actually performed that flag challenge with ease, and would finish the whole leg first, by a wide margin. So not only did the trailer retroactively prove how unmemorable this episode would be, considering the editors put all their eggs in a very dull basket, but it also underscored a larger issue: No matter how hard the producers work to convince us that viewers should care about this season, the remaining personalities make it hard to do so.

Think of it in terms of heroes and villains. Most people want the cowboys to win; they’re good-natured and respectful, and the closest they come to a hissy fit is saying "Dad gummit." But who else is a fan favorite? The cops are fine, though the allegations of Louie being tied to a cocaine ring pretty much rule out any underdog status. Steve and Allie are okay, but no one you’d really want to sprain a shoulder pumping your fist over. As for the brothers, you just want Jordan to ease up on the patter, and Dan to raise his baseball hat up over his eyebrows. And there's not even an evil front-runner to root against. That’s what makes great seasons great — there’s some type-A bickering couple in front, and you’re left praying that some karmic twist hobbles them in the end so good can prevail. But the cowboys have no real competition; the show’s requisite villains — the lesbians — not only pose no real threat, they're just Bad Guys by default. They’re not evil, per se, just annoyingly elitist. As for Caite and Brent? You neither hate them nor love them; you just snicker as they drift by in a cloud of obliviousness. Diehards aren’t anxiously waiting for them to be kicked out, nor do they fear that the couple may win. Viewers like them around for the same reason they liked Road Runner cartoons. Brent and Caite are like Wile E. Coyote when he runs off a cliff: They truck along and think everything’s going fine, until the moment that they finally look down, realize that they have actually gotten everything wrong, and then plummet back to the rear of the pack.

But enough big-picture complaining — on to the episode. Teams all evened out as they flew on the same plane to Penang, Malaysia. Steve and Allie were running without any physical encumbrances, having accidentally left their backpacks behind in the Seychelles. (Try traveling with no baggage yourself, and just see how quickly you end up in a security check.) Also fortunate for them is that Malaysia's weather is just right for people who only own a T-shirt and one pair of shorts. Malaysian weather also seems perfect for people who want to know what they’d look like with all of their skin melted off.

Another alliance revealed itself: the detectives and Brent and Caite. Apparently there’s a paternal thing happening, with Caite calling the cops “the Daddies,” while Louie said, “They’re good kids, they’re respectful, they’re kids that you would be proud to call your own children.” As he waxed on about them, and the cameras cut to Caite blinking off into space while wearing a glittery headband, one had to consider the possibility that Louie just really, really needs a new kidney. (Oh, and Brent proudly showed off that while at the pit stop, he’d learned the difference between “unanimous” and “anonymous." He’s pacing himself: He’s waiting until next week to display how he’s learned which feet his shoes belong on.)

The first challenge in Penang was a Detour. One choice was “Buddhist Tradition”: Teams had to lug twelve giant incense sticks up 150 steps, arrange them at an altar, and then light them all. Every team save the cowboys went for this one, which proved to be strenuous, though not as violent as it first appeared: An early confessional with the detectives showed Louie with a long, thick red streak on his upper arm, which looked like a giant Detour-inflicted wound. But it would later turn out to have been pink paint from the incense that had rubbed off on him. That reduced the drama a bit; once that was clear it became like watching friends move really colorful furniture.

The other choice, “Chinese Custom,” involved running 120 feet with an enormous flagpole balanced on your forehead. Cord got it right away, and then Jet struggled … on his first try. Oh dear, what would happen? Well, he’d get it on the second try, and that was that. From there, it was off to their Speed Bump, for which they had to go to a tropical spice garden (helpfully called the Tropical Spice Garden). There, they had to smell some crushed spices, identify through sniffing which of three teapots had tea that used that spice, then bring it to a guru for his okay and the next clue. So in this episode, we had a meditating guru, a man standing neck-deep in water waiting to send off mystical offerings, and a handful of other monks, all hired for the day to hand yellow envelopes to game-show contestants. It’s nice to see the keepers of a country’s spiritual customs reduced to the same level as the Locksmith from Chains of Love.

The cowboys finished easily and dashed off to the Roadblock, while the other teams sweat over the incense. The lesbians and Brent and Caite had arrived first, though their competitive drama didn’t play out very much. (Apparently that’s being saved for next week, according to the closing promo. Then again, twice burned … ) But behind them, the cops, brothers, and Steve and Allie had fought their way over through a traffic jam, with the detectives arriving first; they were the only ones not to evacuate their cabs and make a run for it. Considering how Louie would sound like he had the lungs of a tubercular 3-year-old during the challenge itself, one can only wonder what would have happened to him had he tried to run to the temple first. If the Rhode Island police want information on that cocaine ring, they should just make him run up stairs: That’ll make him cough up anything. Allegedly.

From there it was off to the Roadblock, where they had to smash coconuts from a giant pile until they found a colored one, which they would use to make an “offering” that would be sent out to sea. Perhaps the producers designed this hoping that it would give some players debilitating coconut flashbacks from last week; surely, upon seeing them, Brent might threaten to quit again? But no, once Brent and Caite actually found them, they did fine. The cops lucked out, with Louie finding a colored coconut on his second try, which inspired Michael to come up with the nickname “You coconut-smashing fool!” which he liked so much he tried it out on Caite, too. Perhaps he’ll bring it home to use when he and Louie play Good Cop/Bad Cop: “Me, I want to make this go away, but my partner here, he’s a coconut-smashing fool.” (All while Louie angrily sits in the corner, bashing coconuts together, the milk splashing the perp’s face.)

The cowboys finished in first in a huge turnaround, and won a trip to Hawaii, complete with a “romantic dinner for two” beachside. They snickered, but Phil never betrayed recognizing anything silly about these two pals winning a night of love; the man has his promotional duties, and can't risk the Travelocity gnome taking his red pointy cap and going home. Meanwhile, the second-place lesbians arrived and Carol demanded Phil raise his eyebrow (whom we have nicknamed Browsie, as he has become just a much of this game as Phil). Phil obliged (see video below), which was sad to see: Browsie is meant to be a rare occurrence, the Halley’s Comet of facial expressions, raised only in moments of extreme suspense or quizzicality! Do not let Carol and Brandy turn you into a trained monkey, Browsie! It gives chilling glimpses of a post-Race future in which you sit near Grauman’s Chinese Theater, a sign reading “Will raise for cash” on your furry lap.

Ultimately, it was Steve and Allie who arrived last. They had gotten lost in the Detour, tried the flag-balancing act challenge before Allie quickly bailed, and they couldn't catch up to the lagging brothers. They had a touching little father-daughter moment as they gave their closing remarks, and then it was off to Elimination Station, where they will hopefully have a tearful reunion with some clean underwear.

Photo: CBS