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The Amazing Race Recap: Sputtering in Shanghai

The two-week break since the last Amazing Race episode felt very timely; it was as if the four teams, like everyone else traveling internationally, had been stuck in an airport on account of ash all this time, saying, "Okay, on your mark, get set … what's that? Canceled again?" over and over. But now they were finally freed, and it was off to Shanghai. However, anyone keeping track of non-elimination rounds knew full well how this would end.

With two non-elim legs down and one left, we knew it was happening tonight; the third-to-last leg is nearly always a fake-out. This way, the penultimate leg can reveal the final three, setting up the coming finale. Therefore, when the cops arrived hours late at the mat, Phil's labored "you may be eliminated … but you're not!" fake-out — "I'm sorry to tell you that you're out. [Pause for nonexistent suspense.] Out of the cold!" — seemed not just unnecessary, but a little insulting. It was like beginning a joke, "Knock, knock … and before you answer, you should know that by the time I say 'orange,' you will be very glad that I didn't say 'banana.' Okay, that out of the way, I again say, 'Knock, knock.'"

But back to the beginning, as the teams jetted to Shanghai after a brief time-out to humanize the final four: Jordan loves brother Dan more than ever before, because "he's making my dream [of running the Race] come true; we learned that Jet has a wife and 17-month-old girl, while Cord just got engaged; the cops think of themselves as underdogs; and no matter what smart moves Brent and Caite may make, the producers will always carefully select footage that best frames them as dopes. (When they ride in a cab, we are shown the one moment when Brent sucks his teeth, apparently because there was no footage available of him picking something off the cab floor and eating it.) Such is their fate.

The four teams gathered in the Singapore airport before takeoff to laugh over the U-Turn and subsequent elimination of Carol and Brandy. Teams so rarely take time out to reflect on another team's elimination; this was like the Survivor walk of fallen heroes, except it was just one team, and they were openly disdained. Frankly, the Survivor walk of fallen heroes would be far less painful if there was more disdain. However, during this convo, Jordan did point out what the eliminated team themselves had been saying last week, although far less bitterly and repetitively: Caite and Brent shouldn't have made it personal and instead should have U-Turned the powerful cowboys, who will bury them all.

In Shanghai, the first clue sent them to a small village, where they took long gondola-type boats through a canal. Brent said it reminded him of that oft-postcarded land of romance and gondolas … Sicily: Another "check out the dope!" money shot! (They even named the episode after that foul-up. And as we speak, producer Bertram Van Munster is begging Major League Baseball to air that sound bite at every game right after the National Anthem.) Meanwhile, Cord had a comparatively clueless moment when he was confounded by his brother's use of the exotic word "tranquil," and yet the producers let it play out until it became self-deprecating and lovable. They even gave the cowboys a few extra bars of their Western theme music to prove that it was the kind of down-home cluelessness that makes America great, as opposed to Brent's, which is the kind that only gives comfort to our enemies.

The boats docked at the first Roadblock, where one teammate had to make one kilogram of handmade noodles, all under the watchful eye of Pingping, the world's smallest man. This took on a melancholy flavor, as Pingping subsequently died in March, possibly from smoking cigarettes that either just looked enormous juxtaposed with his size, or he was actually smoking PVC pipe stuffed with tobacco leaves. The point of having Pingping there was unclear, unless he had a notorious love of noodles that doesn't translate to ignorant Western audiences. (One also wondered why they didn't tout his co-star, the World's Wrinkliest Toothless Old Woman.) Pingping seemed unfazed by the whole event, sitting there and smoking his gigantic cigarette pipes, occasionally wandering off camera, and smiling bemusedly as Caite stared at him like he was a hologram. But such was his legacy: He could fit six feet of indifference into a two-foot-five-inch body. God bless you, Pingping: We know that right now you're smoking a didgeridoo and barely feigning interest in St. Peter's yammering up in heaven.

Jet quickly mastered the noodle work and left behind a lagging Caite, who seemed unbothered by her slow progress as Brent steamed nearby. The cops and the brothers, whose cabs got lost, finally arrived; Louie took a "piece of cake" attitude, as he'd made pasta with his Italian grandmother. Considering how ham-handed he proved to be at the task, one had to wonder if he has a problem confusing his own memories with old Prego commercials. At least he eventually did warm to the task, unlike Jordan, who nearly suffered a breakdown as his frozen hands proved unable to noodlefy. (With the cold weather, one had to wonder how the backpackless Steve and Allie, with only their shorts and T-shirts, would have fared had they stayed in the race this long.) But Jordan was warmed and rejuvenated by the healing power of his brother's hug. What is Dan, the Snuggler?

Meanwhile, the cowboys were off to the next challenge, in which they had to look at a clothing designer's sketch and then find the corresponding clothing on packed racks to dress a model. Jet and Cord can now add fashion design to the long list of things that they're not supposed to be good at but did just well enough at to pleasantly surprise the audience. Models Brent and Caite also did well at the task, even with their very different skill set; Caite explained that they're used to being dressed, not dressing other people. That's a major flipping of the script. For one of these jobs, you don't have to pick your own clothes and someone else can tell you if your pants are on backward, but then again, at least if you're behind the scenes, you get to chew gum all the time. So, much like a Detour, each has their own pros and cons.

Meanwhile, the brothers and the cops (after a long wander around Shanghai, having not realized that the door to the location of the model challenge was right next to the clue box) were tied for last. The alleged comedy of two burly, middle-aged cops searching through racks of couture was deemed worthy of its own theme music: As they looked, we heard a knockoff of the old Dating Game theme, complete with bouncy riffs and slide whistles; what, no "boing!" sound effects? When they were finally done and dashing off to the next challenge, Michael, hoping for something more in his wheelhouse, said, "Can we do some shooting? Kick a door in? Chase a crackhead?" One hoped for a chase-the-crackhead Detour, if only because it would be nice to see it with their new theme music played over it. Crackheads, boing!

From here it was off to a football stadium, where, instead of a Detour, there was a second Roadblock. Whoever didn't make noodles had to solve a giant 96-piece puzzle; once the grid was solved, the player had to hand out the pieces in that order to a square of spectators in the stands, who would then flip over their cards at once. On the other side was printed the precise seat number under which their clue would be found. The major obstacle here was the wind: When Brent was nearly done, having overtaken Cord, the wind picked up, scattering their pieces all down the field. Cord lost some cards, but not as many, having thrown his body over his puzzle. Brent got wildly frustrated, and as unfair as it is to say, it was actually amusing watching him get more and more confident that he was going to win, only to have a gusty act of God demolish his progress. Brent is kind of like Job, but with far less blinking.

Ultimately, the cowboys landed in first (their fourth first-place win), while Brent and Caite finished second. The brothers landed in third because of Michael's awful puzzle skills; if a crackhead ever wants to escape Michael, he should hide in a Rubik's Cube. Instead of laying his pieces out, he rifled through them like he was shopping for record albums and looking for a really specific Ted Nugent bootleg. He kept saying, "I'm not seeing it," and considering it was an everyday jigsaw puzzle, it made you wonder what he was looking for. Did he think this was a Magic Eye puzzle, and he kept staring at each piece hoping to see an angel appear? Whatever the reason, he was out there until the sun set; we'll find out next week just how many hours behind they finished. It looks like the teams will stay in China for the next leg, which could be the cops' downfall: no catching up at an airport. Next week, will they find themselves waiting for another hee-larious Phil Keoghan switcheroo, only to have Phil have to repeatedly say, "No, there's nothing else coming, you've been eliminated from the race. Seriously, go. No, you're done … "

Photo: CBS