Thursday, June 27, 2002

WEDNESDAY, MAY 15, 2002 – PART 3, THE PARTY

First off, here’s what you need to know about “The Amazing Race.”

It starts with 11 teams of two, each with an existing prior relationship (best friends, mother and daughter, frat brothers, happily married couples, unhappily dating couples, separated married couples, etc.). They start racing to various points around the world, guided by red-and-yellow route markers that point the way to clues. Along the way, the Racers have to perform various challenges (which range from silly, to scary, to physically challenging, to devilishly difficult) either alone or as a team. Periodically, they come to a Pit Stop, where the last team to arrive is eliminated. The last three teams compete in the final episode, and the first team across the finish line splits a million bucks. Mayhem ensues. It’s as simple as that.

Unlike “Survivor,” basic competence (or lack thereof) counts for everything, and your ability to manipulate the other players through politics, backbiting and mind games counts for nothing. (Not that there’s NO room for mind games or allying with other teams, but it’s definitely not the point of the whole exercise as it is in “Survivor.” Plus, Amazing Race has better scenery, and lots more of it.) It’s like “The Great Race," only better because it’s REAL.

I got hooked on the first season of “Amazing Race” last spring and summer, and got to posting on the online message board Television Without Pity in their Amazing Race forum. The people on TWOP are an amazing bunch themselves – incredibly witty, good writers all, and able to conduct a civilized and hilarious discourse on the finer points of any TV show, good or bad.

Anyway, some dedicated TWOPers in the New York area decided to hold a final episode viewing party in a local bar, and people ended up flying in from all over the country to be there. But I couldn’t spare the time away from work. What made it worse was that, unexpectedly, half of the Racers from Season One showed up at the party! Hearing about the wonderful time everyone had, partying with everyone’s favorite Racers (and some who were our favorite targets during the show, but proved to be wonderful people once freed from Jerry Bruckheimer’s evil team of editors I was determined to make it to the Season Two finale party, by hook or by crook.

So, okay. Background over. I trudged up to the Manhattan Chili Company (MCC), wondering what to expect from all of these crazy people I knew so well, and yet had never met. I shouldn’t have worried.

The first ones I met were the LoCas – the Ladies of Canada, who had impulsively carpooled down from Ontario together (they didn’t know each other either) and who were staying with babyfishfel, a New York TWOPer who had generously opened her doors to them for the week. (I knew all of these people by their TWOP “handles,” and never caught most of their “given” names, so forgive me if this all sounds like it’s written in an elaborate code.) Waiting outside the Manhattan Chili Company were babyfishfel, and raptorgirl, and Rachel RSL, and Zron, and TLB, and Firecat, and others who are probably going to kill me for forgetting their names. We hit it off right away, and they showed me the special Canadian goodie bags they had brought for a few lucky people (mostly those who had organized the event). It still was only 7:30 or so, and we weren’t supposed to go in until 8, but we decided to head in anyway. We were all hungry, and I wasn’t the only one who had been walking around Manhattan all day.

As it turned out, we headed upstairs and found out that we were far from the first ones there. In fact, Jeff (aka Jeffurry on TWOP) was already seated and waiting for the party to arrive. The organizers, as promised, didn’t show up until 8, but the party was clearly already starting! I ordered chili, and the first of many gin and tonics, and sat back to enjoy myself.

This is when I started getting introduced to people from the site, one after another. There was [sic] and lawtalkin’guy and djeber (whom I knew from the “Buffy” and “Survivor” boards at TWOP before “Amazing Race” got started) and ivyb and seemingly hundreds of others, all being introduced to me at a dizzying pace. I can’t remember nine-tenths of the names now, and I apologize to everyone I missed.

Around 8, MissDona and poptart, the party’s organizers, showed up with goodie bags in tow. I had created a “TARCon 2 Passport” for inclusion in the goodie bags – I would reproduce it here, but it wouldn’t make sense to anyone not intimately familiar with both seasons of the show, so I’ll leave it out for now. I grabbed my goodie bag (there were enough for the first forty, but I was guaranteed one since I contributed) and went back to my table to examine the spoils. They included: a hat made from a paper bag (in memory of all the awful hats the contestants had worn in both seasons); little bottles of “Marti” lime-flavored Cuban rum in honor of Danny and Oswald, the beloved pair of gay Cuban best friends from Miami who were everyone’s favorite Racers; some “Boston Baked Beans” candy in honor of Chris and Alex, the pair of best-friend Boston bouncers; some toothbrushes and floss (courtesy of MissDona’s dentist) in honor of brother-sister team Blake and Paige, whose big shiny white teeth would have sent Donny and Marie home in shame; a pack of Doublemint gum for the “Doublemint twins,” identical twins Shola and Doyin, and a bunch of stuff I can’t remember any more.

I hastily refolded my paper hat into a rough approximation of a miter, to better identify myself as my online handle of Pope Buck I (I was going to construct a Pope’s miter out of posterboard before I left home, but with packing, I didn’t have enough time). I stuck it together with extra adhesive nametags, and it wasn’t the most professional job – near the end of the evening, it started to droop and looked more like a KKK hood that had been dropped in a mud puddle – but it sufficed. It went surprisingly well with the Hawaiian lei from the goodie bag, and the roll-on glitter that was being hurled in every direction by ecstatic Danny & Oswald fans. (Long story.)

Before the show began at 9, there was lots of time to enjoy really good chili (and a couple more gin & tonics) and mingle with the TWOP crowd – who were collectively as charming and funny and intelligent in person as they were online, if not more so. A great bunch of people with whom to party, that’s all I can say MissAlli (who writes the Amazing Race episode recaps for TWOP), and Sars, one of the head honchos of the Amazing Race forums and a TWOP goddess in general, were holding court in a prime location where they could see new arrivals come up the stairs, and I shyly approached them to get my picture taken (but was too awed to stay for conversation).

I was also hoping to get drinks bought for me at some point in the evening, and had slyly worked a mechanism for snagging free drinks into my TARCon Passport – as Pontiff of the Grand High Orthodox Church of Whatever, I was in a position to offer a “plenary indulgence” (forgiveness for ALL sins past and present, no questions asked – thanks, “Dogma”!) to anyone who bought me a drink. But as it turned out, nearly everybody saved their Passport (along with the other items of reading material in the goodie bags) and read them only after the party – so I only got a couple of drinks out of the deal. That’s okay, though, because I couldn’t have handled a whole lot more than I ended up drinking anyway.

The show started. To sum up the action going into the final episode: Everyone’s favorite team, Danny & Oswald, had been eliminated in a heartbreaker the previous week. The final three teams were brother and sister Blake & Paige, Boston bouncers Chris & Alex, and “separated couple” Tara & Wil. I was rooting for Blake & Paige more or less by default, but I think it’s safe to say that the overwhelming Fan Choice was “Anyone But Tara & Wil.” You see, Tara & Wil had made an artform out of being hateful, argumentative, and abusive to just about everybody who got in their way – cabdrivers, airline ticket agents, random passers-by, the other contestants, and not least, each other – and the whole TWOP community was itching to see them take a fall. (Which, hilariously - but I'm getting ahead of myself.) In addition, Tara was constantly flirting with Boston bouncer Alex, and flaunting this in front of Wil (who harbored pathetic delusions of one day getting back together with Tara), and the two of them together just made you want to pinch them.

Anyway, the show started at the previous Pit Stop in Hawaii, went at breakneck speed through Alaska, and ended up with the contestants in San Francisco just seconds apart, in a footrace through the streets of Oakland. It was spellbinding TV, let me tell you. The executive producer of the show is Jerry Bruckheimer, who makes really crappy movies, but who makes damn fine TV entertainment full of excitement (in addition to “The Amazing Race,” he also produces “C.S.I.”).

To watch this incredibly exciting final episode on the Chili Company’s wall-sized mega-screen, in the company of people even more obsessed about TAR than I am, was a surreal experience. Everyone was psyched, everyone was terrified that Tara & Wil would win it all (they led for much of the episode), everyone had an intensely personal stake in the outcome. It was like watching the Olympic track & field finals with Michael Johnson’s entire family. Or maybe it was closer to watching “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” with Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon’s entire families. I must confess, I started the group chants of “1, 2, 3 – SHUT UP, WIL!!!” every time Wil said something truly obnoxious or hateful, which as usual worked out to be just about every time he opened his mouth.

Midway through the episode, there was commotion around the stairwell – the first Racers had joined the party! And best of all, it was Danny & Oswald! Let me explain about Danny & Oswald. They said in the very first episode that they were used to travelling around the world in style, “first class.” We worried initially that they would be snobs, the way Bill and Joe (“Team Guido”) came off last season. But Danny & Oswald didn’t just have style – they had genuine CLASS, and had a special gift for making everyone around them feel as relaxed and comfortable as they themselves were at (almost) all times. And despite their laid-back attitude, they kicked serious ass as Racers too.

An example of “Team Cha Cha Cha”’s style – the contestants had to get from Hong Kong to Sydney. The other teams (there were 5 or 6 left at that point), upon getting the instruction to head to Sydney, took off in a mad frenzy for the Hong Kong airport, squabbling and fretting all the way there. Wanting to avoid “the drama” the other teams were projecting, Team Cha Cha Cha took the opposite tack. They headed to the nearest five-star hotel and the Concierge’s Desk – their experience had taught them a nifty trick, which is that the concierge in a five-star hotel EXISTS to solve problems for people in the most efficient way possible, and there’s very little they can’t do. In typically charming fashion, they asked the Concierge to recommend a good travel agency – the Concierge happily gave them the name of the hotel’s own travel agent. The Chas headed to the travel agency, described their situation, and were told to come back in an hour while the agent did the work. And so the Chas, as relaxed as you please, went window-shopping for Gucci and Prada in the nearest upscale mall.

And then, after all that – after the other contestants had all hopped on the first flight to Hong Kong, all wondering what had happened to them – the Chas were able to get onto a flight that left an hour after the other flight, but which got them into Sydney half an hour ahead of everyone else! That’s the Cha spirit all over. Treat people kindly and politely (a lesson Tara & Wil never did learn), get things done in an efficient and relaxed way, and adapt to wherever you find yourself, without complaint.

Anyway, Danny & Oswald had arrived at the party, and were immediately swarmed with people. What’s more, they were even more charming and lovable in person than on TV, which I didn’t think was possible. They spent the whole evening happily schmoozing with their biggest fans, and charming the pants off everyone in sight. (Later in the evening, I understand they used other, less subtle methods than “charm,” but that’s another story.)

Danny & Oswald were immediately followed by everyone’s favorite Racers from last year, frat brothers Drew & Kevin, who were similarly just as lovable in real life if not more so. The furor and initial flurry of picture-taking over with, everyone sat down to watch the rest of the show, excitement mounting.

The noise level was generally low during the show itself, rising to loud chatter only during the commercials. But as it became apparent the whole thing was going to come down to the footrace, we started SCREAMING. Encouraging the teams, shouting of dismay at Tara and Wil, everything. Shouts of "Nooooooooo!" were also apparent when it looked as though Wil was going to win the race easily. When Chris and Alex got into the footrace, there was a big burst of applause and cheers, and then another one when Blake and Paige belatedly pulled up in their cab and joined the footrace.

And when Chris and Alex ran past Wil, there was a barrage of noise like you would not BELIEVE. Screams. Cheers. Shouts. DIN. My voice was completely gone after a while. (Every time I thought it couldn't possibly get any louder in the MCC, it did.) Cheers when the ousted teams were shown, cheering on the finalists from the finish line. But when Chris and Alex jumped onto the mat, there was pandemonium. I didn't hear the sound from those 5 minutes of the show with Chris and Alex celebrating, because we were all jumping up and down and screaming at the top of our lungs.

Things settled down a little, then erupted again in shouts and jeers when Wil and Tara hit the mat, and then applause when Blake and Paige made it in.

Oh, yeah - Wil & Tara lost COMPLETELY and DIRECTLY as a result of their inability to be civil to another human being for 30 consecutive seconds. When they arrived at the San Francisco airport (did I mention that San Francisco is Wil's home town?), they had roughly a ten-minute lead over the other two teams. But they went on to squander that lead by trying to jump into line at the airport taxi stand. The taxi stand attendant, who will now and forever be one of my heroes, refused to get them a cab until they got into line like everybody else - and instead of just swallowing their pride and doing just as he said, Tara & Wil decided to get nasty and yell at him for some 10 minutes. He refused to budge, and so Tara & Wil lost their lead - ironically, as Rob Matsushita points out, the ONE thing they cooperated with each other on for the ENTIRE race. Chris and Alex ended up winning by mere seconds over Tara & Wil, but if Tara & Wil had behaved like human beings in that one crucial moment, they would have had an insurmountable lead. Behold the Karma Squad - you cannot run! You cannot hide!

And then after that, it just got drunker and drunker out. A whole truckload of Racers from both seasons arrived – most of them had watched the show at the official CBS party at Tavern on the Green, but came over to the MCC right afterwards. I got my picture taken with Brennan, one of last year’s winners – which was especially appropriate since I was wearing an “I’m shy. Come and talk to me” T-shirt from Brennan’s brother’s company, the same shirt that Brennan had worn on the show. Mitchell, the extraordinarily tall and skinny guy from Survivor: the Australian Outback, was also there, for no apparent reason. Blake and Paige were there with their parents – who were as sweet and sincere as Blake and Paige were. Paige was wearing a weird prom-like dress which has gotten much negative comment, but apart from the fashion faux pas, she couldn’t have been nicer. Everyone was lovely and gracious, considering how nasty some of the comments on the TWOP boards got at times. But TWOP is better than a lot of boards at distinguishing between the “characters” we saw on the show, created mostly in Jerry Bruckheimer’s editing room, and the real people we were meeting – and I think all the Racers understood that.

Sometime between 12:30 and 1:00am, I skipped out. I’m now rather sorry I did, since the party only got wilder after that based on what I’ve heard. But I was exhausted and mentally fried. I stumbled back to Jeff’s apartment and collapsed into bed. I knew I’d have to get up the next morning, you see, to meet the winning three teams (Chris, Alex, Tara, and Wil were all no-shows at our party) and host Phil Keoghan at the CBS Early Show taping, which would include the presentation of the million-dollar check.

The description of that one, and of the rest of my trip, will have to wait for NYC: Part 3, which I’ll get to any time now. Meanwhile, my pictures of the event are still at this link - and I hope they'll make more sense now that you know vaguely who the people are. 'Til next time!