Slate writers have already begun to spin theories accounting for the relative suckiness of the United States in this Olympic season (suckiness being defined, for us entitled Yanks, as anything short of crushing the entire world in our expensively trained and impeccably manicured fist). Because I was busy watching the U.S. women's gymnastics team get beat on Tuesday night by the more deserving Romanians, I missed out on another surprising upset: the booting of cousins Mirna and Charla at the end of this week's installment of The Amazing Race.
For some reason, The Amazing Race (CBS, Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET; reruns on Saturdays at 8 p.m. ET) has built a reputation as the "classiest" reality show on TV, winning an Emmy last year in the Reality Show category. This patina of sophistication may stem from the fact that TAR takes the standard reality ingredients—fake enthusiasm, petty bickering, and naked greed—and places them against the glamorous backdrop of international tourism as contestants set off in pairs to circle the world on a kind of extreme scavenger hunt with a million-dollar prize. (Because, you know, shrieking at your loved one to "Dig! Dig your ass off!" is so much classier if you do it in the shadow of the Pyramids.) In the first five weeks of the season, Mirna and Charla quickly became the object of a love/hate cult on the Web, perhaps because of the unique characteristics each brought to the competition: Charla is a dwarf (or to use the preferred term, a little person), while Mirna is a bitch (a condition for which no preferred term yet exists).
The pairing of Mirna and Schmirna (as one fed-up TAR rival dubbed the duo) abounded in two qualities key to reality TV: sanctimonious self-regard and backstabbing treachery. From the beginning, the cousins insisted they were out to show that Charla's size was no disability; in the first episode, Mirna called her cousin "feisty," "the strongest woman I know," and went for a ride on Charla's powerful shoulders to prove her point. Yet neither was above leveraging Charla's stature to gain advantage in the game. "Strangers love to help me!" gloated Charla in the first episode. "They see me and they think, 'Oh, she can't do anything, so I'll just do it for her.' That's going to be saving us a lot of time." In one-on-one interviews, Mirna never failed to point out her diminutive partner's inspirational self-reliance, even as she shamelessly played on the pity of viewers, fellow players, and random passersby. At one moral high point, Mirna appropriated a stranger's luggage cart in Argentina with a plea for her cousin in broken Spanish: "Small lady! Not possible!" But Mirna's ethical stock sank to an all-time low this week, when she used her knowledge of Arabic (both she and her cousin are Syrian-born) to try to persuade an Egyptian reservations agent not to sell tickets to the contestants in line behind her. "They're violent," she confided, implying that her colleagues might pose a security threat on the plane.
Some Charla fans hold that she ought not to be tarred with the same brush as her wildly unpopular cousin, but I waited in vain for her to balk at Mirna's underhanded (not to mention ineffective) tactics. Instead, the cousins wondered together if it was bias that was preventing the other teams from "helping" them (ladies? It's a race). Despite the fact that the cousins never placed first on a leg of this season's journey, they continued to cling to the delusional conviction that the other teams were "jealous" of their success. Kvetching about her archenemy Colin, Mirna observed that "he has a Napoleon complex" —not the most tactful word choice from a self-proclaimed champion of the rights of little people, but then, Mirna was never known for her consistency. In the end, the Mirna/Schmirna schtick, grating as it was, exemplified what we (OK, not me so much, but lots of people) love about shows like The Amazing Race. Mirna and Charla were whiny, self-dramatizing hypocrites, but they'll be missed in the season's five remaining episodes. When it came to entertainment value and pure teeth-on-edge heckleworthiness, they dwarfed the competition.