Eleven teams start the race from Los Angeles: bemulleted taxidermist and wife Chuck & Wynona from Alabama; Bates & Anthony, a pair of professional hockey-playing brothers with two front teeth between them; roller derby moms Mona & Beth; newlyweds and evil-genius wannabes Max & Katie; father/son cancer survivors Dave & Connor; longtime dating couple Jessica & John; twin doctors Idries & Jamil; best friends Pam & Winnie; Joey & Meghan, who are apparently YouTube-famous; firefighters Matt & Daniel, who are also best friends; and country-singer bandmates Caroline & Jessica. On the roof of the Griffith Observatory, Phil tells all of them that the winner of this leg will win two Express Passes -- one to use themselves, and another to give to another team. Let the race, and the politicking, begin!
The teams split up on the usual two flights out of LAX, this time heading to Bora Bora. While changing planes in Tahiti, Idries and Jamil propose to the other five teams on the first flight (Chuck & Wynona, Dave & Connor, Jessica & John, and Winnie & Pam) that whoever wins the leg should give the other Express Pass to whomever comes in second of that group. They all agree, and everyone proceeds to Bora Bora. There, rankings for the first half of the leg are determined solely by who can get their names on a clipboard the fastest, as they sign up to send one partner skydiving from a helicopter ten thousand feet above the island. After John, Jamil, Connor, Winnie, and Chuck accomplish this and meet back up with their respective partners on the ground in that order, they head to a beach where a Double Roadblock requires the opposite partner to search beneath 400 small sandcastles for a clue buried underneath. Your classic needle-haystack task, with the added wrinkles that 1) every destroyed sandcastle needs to be rebuilt, and 2) it's hotter than hell on that beach.
Jessica is the first to find a clue, which means she and John stay in first place as they go on up the beach to put together an outrigger canoe. Which they then paddle for a mile to find Phil and win their two Express Passes. When the second flight lands in Bora Bora with the remaining six teams, Mona manages to get herself in last place by messing up with the sign-up sheet, so that's not good for the derby moms. On the other hand, one of the other teams on the second flight, Bates and Anthony, end up being the next ones to find a clue under a sandcastle and jump to second place, a position they hold all the way to the mat. Dave finds a clue after digging deeper, so he and Connor get third place, cementing their claim on that second Express Pass (or so they believe; there are indications it might not actually play out that way). Mona & Beth, the last team to reach the sandcastle task, are the fourth team to leave it, and they end up checking in as team number five, having been passed by Pam & Winnie at some point. Joey works my last nerve as he and Meghan twee their way into sixth place. Idries, the second person to start the second Roadblock, is the seventh person to finish it. And then he and Jamil flip their canoe on the way to the Pit Stop, get passed by Chuck and Wynona (team number seven), and become team number eight.
That leaves three teams still struggling at the sandcastles, and they're all totally over it. Max & Katie propose that they all quit and take the four-hour time penalty, letting the end of the leg come down to the final race to the Pit Stop. Matt & Daniel think the other teams are playing right into their hands, what with all the extensive canoeing experience they've amassed back home in South Carolina. But it turns out that burly American firefighters and narrow Polynesian canoes are not a good combination, as they flip their craft repeatedly, allowing Max & Katie and Caroline & Jennifer to end up in ninth and tenth, respectively. Yes, both those teams will have a four-hour deficit to overcome at the start of the next leg, but at least they're still in the race. Unlike Matt & Daniel, whose agony of defeat moments close out the episode by being played back again, and again, and again.
Phil kicks off the 22nd (!) season by intoning, "This is Los Angeles." As if it would be anywhere else. Over b-roll of famous landmarks like the Santa Monica Pier and the Pacific Ocean -- not technically a landmark, I know -- he goes on, "Once a desolate valley, it is now the most populated county in the United States." Not that this stops parts of it from being a desolate valley anyway. "And in the hills surrounding this City of Angels, world-famous tourist attractions. Including the Griffith Observatory, a window to the stars." See what Phil did there? We see him on the grounds outside the familiar (to me at least, having not only been there, but also having seen Yes Man) domed structure as he concludes, "Built in the 1930s, this cultural and scientific icon will now serve as the starting line in a race around the world." Good, because with all the smog and light pollution from the city below, I can't imagine it's worth a damn as an observatory any more.
On cue, the copter-cam swings around and down the hill to zero in on this season's teams, getting themselves to the Starting Line under their own steam for once. They're jogging up the dirt path to the observatory in pairs as Phil goes on, "These eleven new teams now have their chance to win one million dollars and The Amazing Race." As they're on the final climb, which will take on Sisyphean dimensions over the course of the sequence that's about to begin, Phil starts introducing the teams. "Chuck and Wynona, married fifteen years from Daphne, Alabama." Chuck is rocking a gigantic curly mullet in 2012, which is even more amazing given that his wife is a hairdresser. Letting him leave the house like that is tantamount to malpractice. Footage of the two of them hanging out in their driveway with ATVs and alligator skins does nothing to dispel his claim that they're "a cross between redneck and country." What a study in contrasts they must be. She supposedly cuts his hair in the same driveway, as he claims that his "Samson hair" is the source of his power. He'd better be pretty powerful, then, because he looks ridiculous. Furthermore, the interior of their home proves to be full of dead animals, as Chuck is something of an obsessive taxidermist who has covered every square inch of wall with the mortal remains of living creatures he has killed, eaten, mounted and presumably shat out. Okay, so maybe he's kind of powerful.
Bates and Anthony are brothers and pro hockey players from North Carolina. Getting all the hockey hair guys out of the way early, I see. They interview that playing hockey requires one to be mentally and physically ready for anything, just like the race does. I predict they finish eighth. "Plus we're super good-looking, too," grins Anthony, the one with shorter hair, as he shows off a big old gap where his front teeth used to be. The Amazing Editors emphasize this striking feature with an ironic tooth-twinkle effect lest you miss it, which you wouldn't have.