Trae Patton / CBS

A Man, A Plan, A Canal, The Amazing Race

Teams of total strangers head to Panama; some immediately wish they'd tried a little bit harder to convince their moms to fill out that application with them.

People Are Strange When You're A Racer

Back in around 2006 or 2007, most Amazing Race fans had that one friend who watched one or two episodes and said, "This show's okay, but why do they have to race with people they already know? They should have to race with total strangers." Well, one of those people caught the ear of CBS, and now, with Season 29, stuffed with haste into a low-yield Thursday night time slot, this is what we are getting.

Astute viewers will recall that this is something TAR tried in a half-assed way before, with a season wherein half the cast consisted of hetero couples set up on "blind dates." This time, though, racers will choose their teammates rather than having them assigned on the basis of potential sexual chemistry. I'm sure if they want to make that their criteria, Phil's not going to stop them, but getting strangers to make out isn't the primary objective this season, and thank heaven for small favors.

From the starting line in a public park in L.A., Phil introduces the concept, and the opening gambit: everyone must rush to a luggage store nine blocks away, find a piece of luggage with a Panamanian flag on it, and bring it back. Whoever finishes first gets first pick of partners.

While the racers try to puzzle out which way is southwest and how many blocks they'll need to go, they chat and try to size each other up, and this gives us a chance to meet a few of them. Granted, a lot of them are your typical bland, athletic younger folks that you won't be able to tell apart for weeks, but on first glance, there are definitely several total weirdos thrown in among the boring people.

This challenge isn't much to write home about: everyone retrieves the correct suitcase and returns to the mat in short order, with the exception of middle-aged Boston cop Joey, who's sent back at least once. The racers choose partners in the order in which they finished the challenge, starting with Seth, a beefy Seattle cop. The schoolyard pick'em goes on for what feels like about a year; highlights include Phil raising his famous eyebrow and questioning military mom Tara's pick when she goes for Joey -- who, again, has failed at the one and only task he's been given so far.

The pair that remains after everyone else has picked their teams are Jessie, a 6'3" police officer; and Francesca, an equally swole former drill sergeant. They're not exactly psyched to be partners after they butted heads a little bit during the challenge, but they're ready to make the best of it and embrace girl power. Phil feels a little bad that they were the last racers left on the board, so he offers to drive them to the airport himself to make it up to them. (Phil is evidently no match for L.A. taxi drivers, since Jessie and Francesca don't actually make it to LAX in time to snag seats on the first flight.)

Teams are now off to Panama City, where they'll drive themselves to the Panama Canal. Goofy rock climber Becca and band geek Floyd (christened "Urkel"), repping the total weirdo contingent, have an express pass tucked randomly into their clue. How you feel about this team is going to be directly proportional to your tolerance for earnest goofballs. But look, there's a lot of people to keep track of this season, so it's easy to love them just because you know who the hell they are right now.

Some of these teams are quick to find common ground and self-created hashtags: #TeamMomAndDad for Tara and Joey; #SwoleSisters for Francesca and Jessie. Others can't find any common ground whatsoever and will be stuck with team hashtags consisting of just their names.

That's A Paddlin'

The first flight, containing half the teams, touches down in Panama, where teams are now forced to drive themselves to the next cluebox. At the Panama Canal, high-strung overachievers Brooke and Scott roll up to the cluebox in a blind panic, certain they're in last place by hours. In point of fact, they're in third place when they hit the detour, which compels racers to choose between Shoot (fire a bow and arrow at a fish-shaped target) or Scoot (paddle a racing boat against local rowers).

Neither task is a picnic, actually; the rowing seems to be physically taxing, although every time you lose your race, you get to start the next heat with a bigger and bigger head start, meaning you could theoretically end up starting a few feet from the finish line if you failed enough times. Call it the Zeno's Paradox of Amazing Race challenges. The archery, on the other hand, is skill-based, and pretty much nobody's come in with the right skills.

Seth the Seattle cop, whom, you'll recall, had first pick of partner...okay, fine, you don't remember that. I watched it twice and I barely do. Anyway, he picked Olive, a gorgeous firefighter with amazing biceps, and so far, his pick's paying off, because they breeze through the task and head straight to the mat in first place.

Floyd and Becca, in second place, choose the archery task, which they dub "Kill Fishy." Brooke and Scott also choose to kill the fishy after seeing that Floyd and Becca are hilariously terrible at it, thinking they might be able to make up some time, but it turns out that they, too, are hilariously terrible at it, so they switch to racing pretty quickly. But Floyd and Becca end up being the only team who can finish the archery task, netting them a second-place finish. Clearly, they both went to the kind of summer camp where the cool kids monopolized the arts and crafts tent.

Meanwhile, in the very back of the pack, Liz (an auctioneer by trade) and Michael (a huge, bearded, tattooed guy from Pittsburgh) are hopelessly lost, and hopeful that another team screwed up harder than they did. Indeed, surfer dude Kevin and model Jenn, who seem to have chosen each other based on the fact that they have the same hairstyle, are somewhere behind Michael and Liz, even more lost than they are.

Don't Rock The Boat

Half an hour into this crazy experiment, it seems like some teams are working well together because they're shockingly similar (like Francesca and Jessie); some are striking a great balance because of their differences (like Olive and Seth); some have personalities that are way too similar and it's got the potential to interfere with their success (like Brooke and Scott).

And then there's Vanck and Ashton. It's a bit of an understatement to say that Vanck and Ashton have wildly different personalities. Indeed, there's no way these two would ever find themselves in the same room were it not for the convoluted machinations of reality television. Vanck is a Wall Street analyst, and not the fun Wolf Of Wall Street kind. Ashton, on the other hand, is a bubbly blonde real estate broker from Texas, and clearly, she was hoping for a showmance with one of the beefy boring guys when she signed on. She wasn't prepared for a guy who cites epistemology as one of his favorite hobbies and gives driving directions like "make a 135-degree turn."

Citing his experience in 8th grade gym class, Vanck suggests that he and Ashton attempt the archery, but they head back to the boats after a few tries. They ultimately wind up in seventh place, which is about nine places higher than I thought they'd finish (and yes, there are indeed only eleven teams running this race).

Back to the two teams bringing up the rear. It's hard to tell if Michael and Liz will still be at the challenge by the time Kevin and Jenn get to the racing task, but judging from the fact that they've just tipped their boat over for what feels like the tenth time, it's not out of the realm of possibility.

A Short Stint On The Show For A Long-Haired Duo

Indeed, Liz and Michael are still at the boats when Jenn and Kevin arrive, although just barely -- they finally manage to finish the task just as Jenn and Kevin are stepping into the water. But no sooner do Jenn and Kevin get their feet wet than their Detour is cut short. "Due to darkness and safety," says the task judge, they won't be allowed into the water; instead, they're sent directly to the mat, where they're surprised to learn that they've beaten Michael and Liz and are checking in as Team #10. However, because they couldn't complete the Detour, they're assessed a two-hour penalty, and some unspecified amount of time less than two hours later, Michael and Liz arrive, meaning it's curtains for the team that apparently dubbed themselves #TeamLongHairDontCare (a hashtag which was not trending at press time).

Verdict

The first episode of any Amazing Race is generally hard to follow and light on the travel porn, and this one's no exception. Add in a complicated twist and 22 personalities to keep track of, and it's a lot to take in. But it's really not as bad as it could be. Thanks to some inspired casting and some very lucky team pairings, there's a lot of potential here; unfortunately, we're not quite there yet. Tune in a few legs into the season, though, when some of the chaff is gone and the real stress of travel is affecting everyone, and you might just find something that's as much fun as any other latter-day Amazing Race season -- which is to say, more than you expected.

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