This past year, when "American Idol" did its "Idol Gives Back" special, the show actually bothered to send a contestant home, proving that charity and eliminations can, indeed, go hand-in-hand.
 
It was the third time FOX had done "Idol Gives Back," but the first time a singer had gotten the boot, following a not-so-surprising non-elimination episode and then a separate non-competitive "Idol Gives Back" special the following year.
 
It's just hard to harsh the buzz of good deeds with the harsh reality of competitiveness. 
 
Viewers got a refresher course in that particular lesson doing Sunday (Oct. 10) night's episode of "The Amazing Race."
 
Full recap after the break...
 
The bulk of the episode took place at a rural school outside of Accra in Ghana, where we've now spent consecutive episodes. After completing two tasks and a Detour in and around the school and had nearly every team marvel at the sweet innocence and enthusiasm of African children -- yup, nobody wanted to break from that particular somewhat condescending American tourist cliche -- Phil greeted the teams at the mat with news that they'd be sticking around the next day and doing some construction work in and around the school.
 
It's a good thing for "The Amazing Race" to do and I doubt that it's the first time the show has given contestants the chance to do charitable work in and around a less fortunate community and yet this is the first time I can remember Phil making a big deal about it at the pit stop. 
 
And when he told the first team that this form of altruism was on tap, I immediately wrote down in my notes, "Non-Elimination leg!"
 
And then, 15 minutes later, when it became clear that Kevin & Michael were about to come in last because of Michael's apparent heat stroke after running back and forth on a soccer field in 98 degree heat, I wrote in my notes, "REALLY non-elimination leg."
 
Because on a day that was all about praising the cuteness of African children and then setting the teams up to do good work the next day, "Amazing Race" isn't the type of show that would also send a team home, especially not a team done in by the frailties of a good-natured 58-year-old man.
 
As you know if you watched the episode, my notes were correct. Kevin & Michael finishes last, perhaps a long way behind the other teams (though the editing made it look closer), but they were spared. Next leg, they'll have to do a Speed Bump which, knowing the "Amazing Race" producers, will probably ask them to, I dunno, sit and read a book in the shade for 10 minutes or something.
 
And this, the third consecutive poorly constructed leg of this race, really shouldn't have been a leg that sent anybody home anyway. 
 
After non-regionally specific and non-telegenic tasks last week left all of the teams bunched within an easy-to-overcome 40 minutes, this week's episode once again failed to provide any tasks that rewarded strong performance, unless you happen to be Connor & Jonathan. Team Harry Potter had a terrific episode because they had a great attitude, a cab driver named Samson and they were the only team capable of finding the darned decoder on the easier Detour task. So Team Harry Potter probably got out to a decent lead, which will vanish next week, since we're surely leaving Ghana, inevitably with lame, equalizing travel.
 
The only things that made the leg fun were stupidity and that's not the kind of thing I like in an "Amazing Race" leg. Nothing was difficult, nothing required athleticism or courage and the one option that required intelligence was failed by everybody other than Team Harry Potter. 
 
The leg started with an easy Roadblock at a boxing gym, a setting that taught us that boxing is the second most popular sport in Ghana after soccer. Why didn't we have a soccer task? I don't know. Anyway, one player from each team had to successfully wrap their hands, work the speed-bag for a little while and jump rope for a little while. 
 
Disclosure: I would have failed at this task. I can't skip rope at all. I'm not sure why, but the coordination required for that rather simple task has always thwarted me. With any luck, if I'd been on this installment of "The Amazing Race," my teammate would have better Double-Dutch skills than I possess. Unfortunately, Sepinwall tells me that he also isn't aces at rope-skipping, which would have meant possible humiliation for Team Firewall & Iceberg, and which really would have made us appreciate the whole non-elimination aspect of this leg.
 
Fortunately, nobody attempting the Roadblock had my coordination and everybody completed the task without difficulty and therefore without drama. Brook completed it with her usual flair. Gary was surprisingly energetic. Chad was predictably cocky. Jonathan attempted to get fancy, embarrassed himself for a second and then corrected course in a hurry. Nobody gained or lost any time. And you know my motto: If a Roadblock or Detour can basically be done by every single team at the exact same rate of speed, it's not a good Roadblock or Detour. They're supposed to be challenges in a race, not things teams do to kill time on a long day in Africa.
 
There was more drama to a pair of basic tasks at the rural school. 
 
First, teams had to collect a set assortment of construction supplies and wheel them over to a site. For some reason, multiple teams struggled with the word "pair," as related to wheelbarrows and they decided to take only a single wheelbarrow, even though doing the task the wrong way was far harder than doing it the right way. One team also miscounted the desired number of trowels, while Nick & Vicki miscounted the number of cement bags, beginning a torrent of abuse from Nick that lasted well into the Detour. 
 
Then, the teams had to sit in a class of African school children doing a lesson on African geography. They then had to correctly identify Ghana on a map. For several of the teams, even Team Harry Potter with their Princeton educations, this proved difficult. I'm not saying you need to be able to identify every country in the world before starting on "The Amazing Race," but if you're taking an epic airplane flight from London to Accra, maybe it makes sense to dig into the seat pocket in front of you, pull out the in-flight magazine, go to the page at the back of the magazine that shows the different routes your airline flies and FIGURE OUT WHERE YOU'RE FLYING TO. A couple of the teams either did that or actually knew where Ghana was and they finished quickly. Because the episode wasn't well edited, we didn't get any sense of how much time the task cost the teams that struggled, including the predictably dumb Nick & Vicki (their words, not mine).
 
The Detour then asked the teams to choose between Language Arts and Bicycle Parts. 
 
In Language Arts, they had to unroll a scrolled proverb and find the eight bold-faced phrases and translate them into Adinkra using a decoder and then find those symbols in the right order on a wall full of symbols and circle them. Note that the decoder list was on a wall at a right angle from the wall with all of the symbols. Although at least five times correctly identified that Language Arts was the fastest task, only Team Harry Potter even found the decoder wall. They didn't learn Adinkra. They just found ways to recognize the symbols. "Kidney bean, ladder, crazy..." The other teams stared cluelessly or, in the astoundingly bizarre case of Brook & Claire, saw a group of eight schoolchildren, associated them with the required eight phrases and attempted to draw chalk circles around the playing kids. Yikes.
 
In Bicycle Parts, we learned that because these kids don't have a lot, they make up games to play with the toys they have available. So the teams had to take bicycle wheels and steer them across a soccer field with a stick. I'm pretty sure there was a trick to it, because nobody had any real trouble with the task other than the very tired Michael and Vicki, who had an asthma attack as Nick pelted cruel words at her. To Nick's kinda-credit, he stopped immediately and instantly became sweet and caring and apologized to her repeatedly. Was he apologizing for all of his abusive and mean behavior in the leg or just for yelling her into an asthma attack? I'm not sure. 
 
Team Harry Potter won the leg easily simply because they didn't make any mistakes. Gary & Mallory finished second. The only reason it looked close at the end was because Nat & Kat had two different cab nightmares and then wandered off and got lost trying to get to a pit stop that didn't cause trouble for anybody else. 
 
The editing and architecture on the episode was so badly off that Team Harry Potter hit the pit stop 24 minutes into the episode with several teams close behind. The final 10 minute segment was nothing but wondering if Michael & Kevin were going to be able to make it to the pit stop to be told that they'd be spared.
 
So far, I'm struggling to get into this season. Am I the only one?
 
Other thoughts on this "Amazing Race" leg:
 
*** The only team that really had a good leg was Team Harry Potter, who sang to their cabbie, recommended Princeton's African Studies program to the children and made the Language Arts challenge look so easy it became baffling that nobody else was able to complete it at all. 
 
*** Mallory & Gary had an efficient episode and I applaud that efficiency. I could have done without Mallory loudly requesting assistance from Jesus in the Bicycle Parts challenge and I definitely could have done without her ickily stereotypical "Their way of life is so wrong until you realize they don't know any better, just like we don't know any better from awesomeness" gushing about the cute little African children. And yes, that was paraphrased, but only a little.
 
*** Nick & Vicki came across poorly in this episode, but that was a very easy-to-spot form of obnoxiousness. But why was it that every word out of Katie & Rachel's mouth this week sounded rude or hostile? They're not getting a generous edit, to be sure. But they're not endearing themselves to this viewer, who otherwise would be predisposed to root actively for Rachel and her cuteness. [Back to Nick and Vicki, his apology sounded genuine: "I felt kinda crappy for treating her the way I did. She didn't deserve it. She's a really good teammate." But do you buy it?]
 
*** Nat & Kat have now reached the point where I no longer can accept "bad luck" for all of their struggles. They need to step it up.
 
*** I'm not sure Sepinwall & I would do very well on "The Amazing Race."
 
 
I've got nothing else to say about this week's episode. How 'bout you?