There wasn’t a dry eye in the stadium last week on "The Amazing Race" when host Phil Keoghan informed teams that Bopper, one half of the self-described Kentucky bumpkins, was forced to withdraw from the all-star season thanks to an enflamed pancreas.
Things got even more dramatic when Bopper gave his blessing for buddy Mark to take a second lap around the world with fellow Bluegrass State native and “Race” returnee Mallory, and they swore that they’d win one for the Bopper.
Their competition patted Mark on the back for his decision to march forward, understood how much the money could change their lives, praised Mallory’s brave attempt to fill such big shoes, mourned Bopper’s lost chance to partake in the once-in-a-lifetime experience for a second time, and even lamented their own lost opportunity to get to know the fan favorite better.
But the cynic in me immediately thought everyone on that field was thinking, “Well, that’s one less team standing between us and the big check from CBS.” Because let’s face it: “The Amazing Race” is hard to win, even on the best of days by the tightest of teams.
It takes the perfect combination of brains, strategy, personality, strength, stamina, lack of fear, teamwork, and a healthy dose of luck. Consistent first-place finishers have been felled by bad directions, car trouble, and poor taxi drivers. Sporty studs have been stumped by puzzles and numbers. Bad weather can squash Fast Forward dreams. Accidents and injuries occur. And longtime companions, childhood friends, loyal teammates, siblings, and even parents and children have been pushed to their limits and reduced to arguing, name-calling, breakup-threatening, pouting hot messes.
And this, being an all-star season full of people who have already played the game together once and know what mistakes took them out the first time around, is an even worse installment to experiment with getting to know someone while racing.
Even in the first leg, after all the positive thinking about Kentuckians sharing common traits and promises to trust each other, there were signs that pairing with a stranger was going to present some complications when Mallory questioned Mark’s ability to pick out an obvious stadium.
But we had a little hope in Week 2 when last week’s winners, the cowboys, fell from first to last based on a bad decision to run for the first clue box, and other teams struggled when assembling a toy car while Mark made it look like child’s play.
He and Mallory were first out of the Road Block, sheer shock written all over Mallory’s face, and as Mark lugged the giant gift out to the taxi, he warned her not to forget his backpack. She assured him she wouldn’t, and then proceeded to self-fulfill the prophecy by setting down the backpack while Mark secured the auto to the taxi.
They drove off beaming about their victory, and about halfway to the next stop, realized what she’d done. He demanded to go back. She pleaded for him to trust that another team would pick it up, that people would donate clothes, that he could live without it as she had his passport, that they would surely get eliminated if he didn’t find a way to carry on.
She even tried to deny responsibility and shift blame (this was clearly her fault and seemed to show her age), promised to buy him a new one (which highlighted their socioeconomic differences), and got huffy when he put his foot down.
They wasted a lot of time trying to decide what to do, finding a driver who spoke enough English to get them back there, and snapping at each other. Consequently, they lost momentum and wasted time bickering, and it bled into the Chinese hacky-sack Detour.
There was time to catch up and avoid elimination if they weren’t still moody and could find their rhythm in the game. Had this happened with Bopper (which we aren’t sure it would have), one assumes he would have been more sympathetic to his partner’s needs, understood the importance of retrieving the luggage, and been able to bounce back from the mistake to kick the ball around.
Or maybe they’d have chosen the other challenge option or switched tasks once they realized the park game wasn’t up their alley. It didn’t help that other teams had more time to practice, that the cowboys had saved the singers' bacon with the Express Pass, or that the pit stop was all that was left in the leg.
The waterworks were back when it was obvious that the bluegrass duo would be last to the mat. All of the teams gathered and applauded them out — which was both a sign of respect and likability, and of just how close the leg really was.
By that point, Mark was not interested in placing blame. Instead, he took the loss to mean he wasn’t “meant to travel around the world without Bopper,” and that it was part of God’s plan. Mallory apologized for not being able to fill Bopper’s big shoes.
The quick demise of these unacquainted competitors demonstrated why CBS will probably never host a season of teams who don’t know each other. It also left viewers with a big case of the "what would we do"s. Would you have carried on sans stuff, or risked elimination to retrieve it?
"The Amazing Race" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on CBS.