Back in the Saddle

Eleven all star teams return for their chance to win $1 million on "The Amazing Race." Top Row, L-R: Jennifer and Caroline, Jessica and John, Herb and Nate, Brendon and Rachel, Margie and Luke, Mark and Mallory; Bottom Row, L-R: Jet and Cord, Natalie and Nadiya, David and Connor, Joey and Meghan, Leo and Jamal. (Robert Voets / November 15, 2013)

This opener took 11 teams of contestants from the starting line at Santa Clarita, Calif., to Guangzho in China.

Guangzho was formerly known as Canton. We call it Dullsville.

"The Amazing Race" is back, Phil's back and 11 former teams are back (kind of).

Everything is old, old old. Except us — we're debuting this season as the "Amazing Race" recappers for TV Lust. We three share an apartment, a need for constant diversion and not much else.

Except we all love “Amazing Race.” If you picture a big Venn diagram, there would be a tiny, tiny sliver that shows how we only agree that the "Amazing Race” is cool. We can't even agree on what color the "Amazing Race" sliver should be.

Richard: Magenta;

Chris: Red Sox Red;

Melissa: Rabbit.

Actually, we also agree that we caught a break recapping an All-Star season, because we don't have to do all the heavy lifting of introducing the 11 teams to you.  And if there’s one thing we all three hate, it’s heavy lifting. Hey, that’s another thing we agree on.

All of this season’s teams have competed in a previous edition of "The Amazing Race,” so they need no introductions, or at least not long introductions.

Three of this season’s teams have competed twice before. All three were so popular on their first appearance that they were invited to return for the “Unfinished Business” season:

Harlem Globetrotters, Herb "Flight Time" Lang  and Nate "Big Easy" Lofton, who were plunged into a Kafka-esque nightmare in Season 15 and were noble runners-up in Season 18;

Mother and Son Margie O'Donnell and Luke Adams (Season 14, 3nd place; Season 18, 8th);

Rodeo Brothers Cord and Jet McCoy (Season 16, 2nd place; Season 18, 6th).

There are a couple of returning teams that ran into some really bad luck the first time:

Father/Son Cancer Survivors David and Connor O'Leary (Season 22, 8th);

Engaged Couple Jessica Hoel and John Erck  (Season 22, 9th).

And there is a good contingent of love-‘em-or-hate-‘em teams from past seasons that we can love or hate all over again:

Cousins Leo Temory and Jamal Zadran, aka “The Afghanimals” (Season 23, 4th);

Twins Natalie and Nadiya Anderson (Season 21, 4th);

Newlyweds and “Big Brother” alumni Brendon Villegas and Rachel Reilly (Season 20, 3rd);

Country Singers Jennifer and Caroline Cutbirth (Season 22, 4th).

This season also includes a pair of returning teams that are just-plain likable:

YouTube Hosts Joseph "Joey" Graceffa and Meghan Camarena (Season 22, 5th)

Team Kentucky William "Bopper" Minton and Mark Jackson (Season 20, 5th)

Well, actually, scratch that last team.

“Bopper,” apparently on the eve of the competition, was declared medically ineligible for the competition. Mark was paired instead with former "Amazing Race" contestant, and fellow Kentuckian, the upbeat Mallory Ervin, who competed in previous races with her father, coming in 6th in Season 17 and 3rd in Season 18.

So while it’s still Team Kentucky, Mark has to work not with his best friend, but with a total stranger. Then again, are there really any strangers in Kentucky?

This substitution was not handled plausibly. It was as though the producers had texted Molly hours before the competition started: CAN U BE AT UCLA 2DAY?

Season-opening episodes tend to be on the lame side — there’s always lot of time devoted to introducing the teams. Every so often, a team will look right in the camera and announce a wacky or implausible strategy  (“Let’s alienate everybody!”).

But usually, it’s just a bunch of rushing around leading up to a compelling Roadblock -- one that typically ends up exposing various weaknesses and phobias in at least a few teams, or leaves other contestants trembling with joy (“We’re really doing this!”).

But the Roadblock for this leg looked too easy, especially for veterans.

Contestants (one from each team, because that’s how a Roadblock works) had to perform five aerial somersaults while suspended, 300 feet above the ground, from a tower inside Haixinsha Stadium.  No one had any particular trouble with it, except for Margie, the mom, who isn’t thrilled about heights.

But because Margie is a two-time veteran of the race, there wasn’t even the small pleasure of watching a fresh contestant embark on a journey. “Just get up there and twirl,” was how we felt about it in apartment 81.

The other challenges weren’t much better.

The five teams that found the correct Chinese symbols on the helmets of UCLA Bruin Marching Band members got on an earlier plane to Guangzho than the other six teams.  But this didn’t make a huge difference.

It looked like Cord and Jet made a good choice, taking the Metro instead of a taxi from the airport to the first challenge in Guangzho. But if this was a pivotal maneuver, it sure didn’t get much attention

The show didn’t make it clear enough why some teams were doing better with the bridal-dress challenge than others. It was hard to even get a good read of how the district was laid out, or the distance between different shops.

The challenge on top of Canton Tower, where teams had to find clues from the confines of a Ferris Wheel compartment, was mostly a test of patience -- for the viewer.

It obviously didn’t matter if teams discovered right away that the clue was on the compartment’s sliding door (and not, as they were assuming, in the panorama visible from the compartment). They were bound to discover the card by the time the bubble had made its slow, slow trip around its circuit.

When all was said and done, Cord and Jet arrived first at this leg’s Pit Stop by running a smooth, seamless race. They walked away with two Express Passes, one for themselves and another that they have to (have to!) give away to another team before the end of Episode 5.

It will be fun to see how they play that pass.

And the team that finished last, The Twins, bickered all the way through, just as they promised they wouldn’t before the season started. They won’t be missed.

Back in Apartment 81, we’re just looking forward to Episode 2, so this All-Star season can really get started.