This season of "The Amazing Race" is just struggling with producing drama. 

Although yes, two teams have started Legs in first and ended them in last, the more frequent result this season has been teams starting Legs in last and stumbling along for an hour without ever really coming in contact with anybody else and then going home. It happened with Libby & CJ. It happened with Harley & Jonathan.

And it happened again in Friday (April 17) night's double-episode that could just as easily have been titled "You Know The First Hour Is a Non-Elimination, But At Least The Scenery Is Beautiful."

Indeed, Friday's Namibia episodes were probably "The Amazing Race" at its most beautiful. There were boundless deserts, bounding wildlife and some of the best photography the show has utilized. 

At no point did I ever feel like Friday's episodes were anything less than gorgeous to gaze upon and thus I only sometimes felt frustrated that we were inching toward an inevitable non-conclusion at the end of the first hour and then yet another worst-to-worst demise at the end of the second hour. 

I can't say, though, that I wasn't frustrated by one of the most anti-climactic Roadblocks in the show's history or by yet another example of egregious product plugs, as "The Amazing Race" has seemingly lost the capacity to just integrate a product without being utterly obnoxious about it.

Let's talk a bit about Friday's "Amazing Race" after the break, but perhaps only a little because I'm once again in a distant local doing my "Amazing Race" recap late at night on an episode that doesn't merit great analysis.

Farewell to Steve & Aly, who had a pretty brutal two-episode edit after having been depicted as potentially the season's dominant team in the earlier going.

The Olympians had some great moments and capitalized on at least one task geared directly toward their athletic excellence, but when they began Friday's episode by talking about how well they'd been getting along, you just knew that a meltdown was coming, but what we got was one of the odder "Amazing Race" meltdowns we'd been treated to.

Portrayed as mostly a balanced and likable pair in the early going, Aly & Steve must've run afoul of the "Amazing Race" editors. Or maybe it was just Aly who sinned in some way? 

The first episode was a horror show of Aly whining and Steve basically smiling and ignoring her, or at least not engaging with her and responding. It had almost no resemblance to what we'd seen from them previously, so I'm not sure how these personality traits came to be exposed and underlined so repeatedly in tonight's episode.

The descent came almost from the beginning. Teams departed Monaco and headed to Namibia and their first Roadblock asked them to build a hut with a group of bushmen.

Steve and Aly had been alternating Roadblocks and this was Aly's turn and Steve suggested that she was well-suited for a task that asked "Who's feeling grassy?"

It wasn't a hugely gendered task. Yes, there was some digging and yes the guys who performed the task seemed better at it than the women, but I don't know why this was Aly's breaking point, as she spent the first chunk of the task complaining non-stop about how she had to do it and why Steve would have been so much better and other issues of general irrelevance. And Steve said pretty much nothing. He let Aly rant in the hopes that she'd eventually stop. She didn't.

Because of Aly's slowness with the Roadblock, Aly & Steve didn't get their choice in the next Detour, which led to more bickering. The choice was Pack or Track. In Pack, teams had to basically butcher a wildebeest and fill a bucket with meat and then feed it to a pack of wild dogs. The first three teams to reach the Detour opted for that and it appeared that it was the faster and easier Detour, but only three teams could do it at once. So Aly & Steve were stuck doing track, in which teams had to use telemetric tracking to find an elephant. I don't know why that side of the Detour was harder and  I don't know what teams ideally were supposed to do in terms of teamwork, but the editors concentrated on Aly & Steve's passive-aggressive hostilities and then Hayley & Blair's almost total refusal to work together.

So having completed that task safety out of last, Aly & Steve (and the other teams from the other Detour) had to drive 200+ kilometers to a major Namibian landmark. As they drove, Aly kept backseat driving and telling Steve to drive in the middle of the road, not too far to the left. She proved correct when Steve's struggles to keep on the road left them with a flat tire, a damaged hubcap and a deficit that they never recovered from either in the Non-Elimination Leg or in the subsequent Leg. And as they stood on the side of the road and Steve tried to change the tire and fix the wheel, Aly kept reminding him that she'd told him and they were in this mess because of him. Somehow it made things worse that Steve didn't get even vaguely worked up and didn't once tell Aly to stop hectoring him. In fact, he kept agreeing with her over and over again. Steve was so placid and accepting of Aly's ongoing blame that I certainly began to see his attitude as being nearly as bad as hers. When Phil called Steve on his lack of passion at the NEL Pit Stop, he had no reaction there either.

No wonder Aly & Steve never came close to recovering. Yes, they faced both a dull Speed Bump -- the second arts-and-crafts time-wasting Speed Bump of the season -- and eventually a U-Turn, but I don't think they were catching up anyway, because they went from competitive and unified to discordant and blasé in one night.

Coming into the episodes, I liked Aly & Steve. 

By the end of tonight's episodes, I wanted no part of either of them and I wasn't disappointed they couldn't do anything to save themselves.

But boy, I was disappointed in the "Amazing Race" producers for a Roadblock in which their only goals were to simultaneously disappoint and plug for Travelocity.

Teams were given a clue that told them to go to a sky-diving location in the desert. As always, some people seemed terrified and more people were loving the idea and the teams got to the Roadblock and the clue teases sky-diving and everybody got excited only to learn that the task required no sky-diving for them. Instead, the Travelocity Gnome pushed a briefcase out of a plane and it parachuted down and the participant had to run through the desert and find the case. The Gnome then got to skydive and the wandering contestants had to get him as well. One contestant after another got excited about sky-diving only to realize that all they were doing was running in the desert to acquire an extended commercial. Words can't express how lame this Roadblock was, even if it was fun to see how dominant Jelani was at the task, but also how confusingly bad Steve was, as Aly rolled her eyes and complained about his performance.

The teams then went off to the Detour with the Gnome and "The Amazing Race" made sure we got several minutes of conversations between contestants and the inanimate object and as many mentions as possible of this corporate mascot. "The Amazing Race" has done things with the Gnome before, but I don't think he's ever been plugged quite this relentlessly before and on top of the non-stop Ford plugging that has often superseded the substance of episodes, I fear that "The Amazing Race" has lost all semblance of grace when it comes to this selling out that I accept as a necessary evil, but not as the text of the show. [I can't say if this was more or less objectionable than the "Survivor" Sponsored Chocolate Reward this week.]

The Gnome was so important that he was even the judge in one of the two Detour choices in the second episode. 

The choice? Work or Play. In Play, teams had to do some sand dune skiing, which looked hard as heck, but culminated in downhill sand sledding, which looked absolutely phenomenal. In Work, teams had to chain five gang tires behind their cars and use them to smooth out bumps in the road. In order to pass, they had to get the approval of the foreman, The Travelocity Gnome, which is complicated since The Travelocity Gnome is an inanimate object. Make an inanimate object serve as "judge" in a Detour task is surely a new "Amazing Race" low of some sort and mean that there was no way to tell or care what teams were doing on that side of the Detour. At least Play was beautiful.

Matt & Ashley got to the U-Turn first and they U-Turned Jenny & Jelani in large part to force Jenny & Jelani to use the Express Pass that I'd forgotten they had. They also used the U-Turn on Jenny & Jelani because Jenny had been a bit cutthroat earlier and sometimes people forget this is a race. Jenny & Jelani did, indeed, play their Express Pass, but still survived in the now-equalized game and Jenny was irate at having been U-Turned, because sometimes people forget this is a race.

Tyler & Laura, meanwhile, U-Turned Steve & Aly, which was their death knell, but they never were going to catch up anyway.

A few other highlights from the episode:

*** Hayley's flirtation with their bush plane pilot was funny, especially because of how little Blair cared. I was also interested that Hayley's enthusiasm in relating to and playing with the native children was presented as a negative, presumably because she wasn't paying enough attention to Blair? Dunno.

*** I wonder if a last-minute insurance hang-up messed up that sky-diving Roadblock. That was awful. I also wonder why, with all of the great animal action in the episode, none of CBS' official press stills for the episode feature animals.

*** Matt & Ashley won the night's opening Leg, their first Leg victory. Laura & Tyler won the second Leg, their first of the season. Jenny & Jelani, who won the two season-opening Legs are the only team this season with more than one Leg victory. That's rather even.

*** Mike & Rochelle had a tough couple Legs and seemed to constantly be lagging, but emotionally they were quite successful and Rochelle announced that she's prepared to have Mike meet her son when they get back. "Finally," he said. So say we all. Good for them.

*** The teams picking animals to accompany them to the Pit Stop in the second episode was funny, as they were dragging camels and zebras and whatnot. But Mike nearly getting kicked in the crotch by his zebra exposed why maybe this wasn't such a great idea, as did the slow-motion walk to the Pit Stop. The rock-climbing scramble to the Pit Stop in the first episode was much better.

Aight. It's 1 a.m. where I am and I'm sleepy.

What'd you think of the two episodes?

A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.