You weren't fooled for a second, were you, Regular Readers?
 
After last Sunday delivered season's best "Amazing Race" episode to date, it was completely inevitable that this week's installment would be, to put it kindly, far inferior.
 
Titled "Taste Your Salami," Sunday's (March 11) episode was marred by uninspired challenges, bickering dysfunctional couples, product placement that threatened to crush the episode under its very weight and a team that fell impossibly behind almost immediately due to a stupid mistake and never had a chance to catch up.
 
Oh yeah, and...
 
[More after the break...]
 
Sunday's episode was also a Non-Elimination Leg.
 
Of course it was.
 
And I assume y'all saw that coming as well.
 
After last season began with two Non-Elimination Legs in the first four weeks, it felt like a welcome novelty that this season started with three consecutive episodes in which teams were sent packing. Shocking, right? But you had to know that an NEL was lurking on the horizon and when Sunday night's hour unfolded without even a casual attempt to generate suspense, there never really was any doubt.
 
The Leg began with teams in Paraguay, where their clue instructed them to go to a travel agency, book passage to Italy and then fly off to Turin. For all but one of the teams, the "go to a travel agency" part made total sense. They did as instructed and were booked onto a flight that got into Turin at 10:35 in the morning. Mark & Bopper, however, went to the airport, where Art & JJ had to politely tell them that they needed to go back and get their tickets elsewhere. By the time Team Kentucky returned to the travel agent and looked for tickets, the 10:35 arrival was packed to the gills and they had to book themselves on a flight getting in at 11:50.
 
And that was it. Mark & Bopper never had a chance to catch up, despite both a Roadblock and a Detour in Turin. There just wasn't enough challenge to either task to give the Kentuckians any chance to catch up to even a straggling pair. Compare that to last week when flight times put two hours between the first and second packs of teams, but a difficult Detour and then a difficult Roadblock made it possible to either catch up or fall behind due to challenge performance.
 
So Mark & Bopper got to the mat and the producers decided this was a glorious time to be as manipulative as humanly possible. Phil greeted Team Kentucky and waited patiently as they cried and talked about how much friendship meant to them. He'd only told them they were the last team to arrive and he hadn't said anything about elimination, but Mark & Bopper aren't the kinda guys to hang on semantics. So then Art & JJ came out and they'd won $5000 apiece for finishing first and they came out and told Bopper that having heard tales of his ailing daughter, they wanted to give him half of their winnings. Tears were flowing and you could see Phil Keoghan holding back waterworks of his own. All the while? No word of elimination. Hugs. Tears. Generosity. Finally Phil tells them that it was a NEL and by that point, everybody was so worked up that they had absolutely no idea of how to react. I wanted Bopper to look at Art & JJ and say, "No backsies" or something. He didn't, though he vowed to return the favor subsequently.
 
The entire emotional closing of the episode was masterminded by producers and Phil, who all knew that nobody was actually going home and figured that letting the drama play out the way it did was far better than greeting Mark & Bopper and saying, "Well, we're not gonna send you home for catching a later flight, so it's all good."
 
I guess it would be possible to have been really moved by the end of the episode, but I just sat there waiting for the "but" that couldn't possibly not be coming. That doesn't mean I didn't get a smidge misty. But only a smidge.
 
All of that aside, it just wasn't a good episode.
 
Art & JJ, who earned every bit of a four-hour advantage to start the leg, had to watch the lead get squandered by a travel equalizer. That was so annoying to me (and probably to them) that I wasn't even upset when they earned a presumably solid lead going into next week because they were able to take advantage of a Fast-Forward that let one team skip to the end of an episode for successfully landing a remote control helicopter on a runway built into a hat worn by the other player. The Fast-Forward was so very lame that even Art & JJ were mocking it when they arrived, expecting to possibly be playing around with a real helicopter.
 
[Fast-Forwards are almost never any good, are they? And the show has structured them so badly that you almost never have two teams competing for the Fast-Forward because everybody knows that the tasks are easy, so the Fast-Forward becomes a reward for the first team to the clue, which is an arbitrary thing to reward. With some tasks, the second team to the Fast-Forward has had to wait until the first team completed an attempt, but with an ongoing task like the remote control helicopter, surely more than one team could have attempted the task at the same time, right? I would have loved to see several teams and several dive-bombing helicopters battling it out for this advantage. Instead, Art & JJ got to the clue first, declared their intention to do the task and that was basically it. It was as simple as calling shotgun.]
 
The Roadblock was weak. One player had to rappel 120 feet down the middle of the circular staircase of the Lingotto Building, grabbing a clue as they went down. They were required to complete the rappel in two minutes. When you have an arbitrary time limit like that, you know this isn't going to be a Roadblock that's going to let anybody get too far ahead or too far behind. Vanessa and Jamie were the only two contestants we saw fail to make the descent in two minutes and both appeared to beat the clock the second time around.
 
Whatever.
 
But things got worse.
 
From there, teams had to rush off to an automotive history museum, but before they did that, they had to use the Active Park Assist Feature on their Ford Focus to parallel park. The point, such as I understood it, was that the feature was so wonderfully handy and easy that a child could do it, so it was weird to have it be a challenge or a task. But each team dutifully used the Active Park Assist Feature and each team dutifully declared that it was like eating a hot fudge sundae with Kate Upton in a bikini while listening to "Pet Sounds." Yup. That awesome. Ever. Single. Team. Close-ups of the instrument panels. Helpful sound effects. Over and over and over again.
 
When it comes to product plugs, "The Amazing Race" has never figured out a way to integrate seamlessly and this was the very opposite of that. This was an episode that didn't have any momentum anyway, being marred by awful product plugs. Makes me yearn for a Snapple.
 
At the automotive museum, they had to find a 1916 Thin Tin Lizzie and correctly realize that the spire on the back of a two-cent coin was their next destination. This was easy for every team but Brendon & Rachel. More on that in a bit.
 
The Detour, then, was the choice between Clean that Statue and Name that Salami. In Clean that Statue, teams had to clean a dirty statue. In Name that Salami, teams had to eat and gain knowledge about 14 different kinds of salamis and then run to a different salami vendor and identify the 14 kinds of salami.
 
The language used in describing the tasks didn't leave much doubt that cleaning statues would be easier than eating salamis, which explains why only two teams went with salami. And, indeed, cleaning the statue didn't appear to offer any impediments once you realized that nobody cared if you knocked the statues' heads off by accident. It was easy. And fast.
 
Was Name that Salami faster? Unfortunately, we'll never know, because Rachel & Brendon took on that Detour in the midst of a Rachel-esque meltdown. With one contestant becoming a blubbering red-faced infant and the other becoming an impatient, hard-headed dolt, Rachel & Brendon never came up with any salami-tasting strategy and they went back and forth and back and forth and back and forth again. We'll never know, therefore, if two rational people could have gotten that that Detour, come up with a clever mnemonic device for distinguishing seven salamis apiece and knocked the challenge out in 15 minutes, gaining a huge advantage. Darn you, Brendon & Rachel!
 
America's Least Favorite Reality Couple had an unpleasant nightmare of an episode. They had directional confusion getting to the auto museum and Brendon either did or didn't raise a fist in Rachel's direction to shut her up, which prompted the first in the episode's recurring refrain of "This isn't worth a million dollars" whines from Rachel. Things got worse when The Wonder Twins couldn't find a way to mentally activate the secret of the 2-cent coin and wandered around the museum looking for a place to stick the coin. Rachel's temper tantrum continued for the rest of the episode, built around her illusion that "The Amazing Race" was supposed to be fun and that she had thought she was traveling around the world with her best friend. Brendon didn't seem like anybody's best friend in this episode and Rachel didn't seem particular capable of having fun, but do you want to know the amazing thing?
 
Rachel & Brendon weren't the most unlikable couple in this episode!
 
Heck, they weren't the most unlikable couple featuring a woman named "Rachel" in this episode.
 
Somewhat Estranged Married Couple Rachel & Dave had a worse episode than their unmarried "Big Brother" counterparts. Dave came across as temperamental and potentially abusive, but Rachel, despite definitely winning the PR war here, still came across as an inciting masochist.
 
We'd already seen moderate bickering from Rachel & Dave last week, but things got even worst. They arrived at the Roadblock and even though five teams had gotten there ahead of them, Dave was ornery in his conviction that they had to try the Fast-Forward, because the word "helicopter" was used and he was a helicopter pilot. Rachel started off rational and explaining that if they were that far behind that many other teams, it would be a waste of time for go try a Fast-Forward that had already been completed. But as Dave kept insisting that a real helicopter would somehow be involved and this would be his chance to shine, Rachel started chiding him. Not good.
 
Then, when Rachel & Dave left the auto museum, they got instructions from a native in a Santa suit. Dave decided to ignore those instructions and to yap back at Rachel. This was another instance in which Rachel was 100 percent in the right, but kept pushing her point. From there, every word out of anybody's mouth -- mostly Dave's -- became ugly.
 
"Do you want to be supportive or do you want to continue to be the way you've been the whole Leg?" Dave asked, when Rachel's idea of being supportive was, you know, telling him the correct way to go.
 
Rachel responded, "I suggest you follow the directions of people who live here rather than thinking you know better."
 
Dave continued, "I'd keep my mouth shut before I say something I regret."
 
That obviously took things too far. You don't recover your image when you make not-very-veiled threats to your wife, especially not when your wife is really, really tiny and you're a huge military man.
 
[EDIT: The line as I originally transcribed it was "I suggest you keep your mouth shut, before you say something you regret."  That's a good deal more threatening. I think there's still a threat in what Dave did say, but it's not *as* bad.]
 
By the end of the episode, I was rooting for break-ups all around.
 
Yeah. That just wasn't a good leg.
 
 
Some other high-and-low-lights:
 
*** Brendon calls Vanessa & Ralph, "The Ogre and the Triflin' Ho." Yeah, I'm just gonna continue to take Vanessa & Ralph's side in this pointless bickering.
 
*** Vanessa may be mean, but she's FUNNY mean. Somebody bumps her when removing her rappelling harness? She says, "Ow. That was my face. You know how much that nose cost?" With a smile. After using the Ford Focus gizmo, she compared it to "Knight Rider" and shifted to KITT voice to say, "Well, Michael. I think you should wear your leather pants today." Choosing cleaning over salami, she smirked, "I haven't had that much salami since high school." Yup. I just like Vanessa. Sorry.
 
*** The salami task was really only designed for double entendre. "We deferred on the salami, because that was just too much meat for us to handle," Dave said. "We need to taste your salami," Stacy leered.
 
*** I would have wanted to do the salami detour. That salami looked good. It always annoys me when "Amazing Race" contestants do a food challenge and nobody pauses to enjoy what they're doing even in the early moments before they become full and disgusted. Why couldn't somebody just say, "Damn, this is some tasty salami. I didn't know there *were* 14 kinds of salami" before carping about it. Stop and smell the salami, y'all!
 
*** I would like to never hear Danny & Joey "Fitness" talk about women ever again, please. If I wanted to watch "Jersey Shore," I would watch "Jersey Shore." I do not.
 
*** Yeah, I don't think Mark & Bopper can read.
 
*** My Ford Focus doesn't have an Active Park Assist Feature. I'm a bit jealous.
 

Anyway... I've rambled too long about tonight's episode. What'd you think?