Few things signal a fine new season of The Amazing Race better than when a contestant yells the words ''Don't let the cheese hit me!'' and you don't laugh but rather fear for his life.
So it is in the premiere of season 14, when members of 11 teams must carry 50-pound wheels of cheese down a hill in Switzerland. And not just carry, but balance them on a wooden ''antique cheese rack'' strapped to their backs. Pretty soon, wood is splintering and cheese is rumbling anarchically toward such duos as:
·Margie and Luke, a mother-son pair. Luke is Race's first deaf contestant and proudly does not read lips. I know this can be a heated topic in deaf circles; fortunately in Race circles, you can usually see (no hearing necessary) when a giant block of cheese is coming at you or, as in episode 2, a pie is being thrown in your face.
·Mel and Mike, geezer dad and his perpetually grinning son, who's actually screenwriter-actor Mike White. He credits himself here as the writer of School of Rock, but truly touched greatness (just ask Owen Gleiberman) with his creepazoid turn in 2000's Chuck & Buck.
·Steve and Linda, married and self- proclaimed Virginia ''hillbillies'' who do a lotta yellin' and cryin'.
That's just the cream o' the crop; there's a crackerjack assortment of Race teams this season, and I really like the way the show has incorporated more 24-style split-screen editing that lets you know where teams are in relation to each other during competitions. So far, the challenges and roadblocks are real tests of brains and endurance, with a notable lessening of those long jabbering-at-ticket-agents-in-foreign-airports montages that were becoming a drag. And of course we couldn't have a Race without host Phil Keoghan, who sets up such challenges as the pie-throwing event with lines like ''Teams could find themselves...getting creamed.'' Phil is the TV industry standard for pure ham-on-wry. Even the ''hillbillies'' agree: ''I love the eyebrow!'' says Linda, when Keoghan raises it to convey his signature expression of amused dubiousness or is that dubious amusement?
The Amazing Race remains the most exhilarating reality show because it provokes such a wide range of emotions in the contestants and in us. You can always find a team to identify with and invest in; you can always find a few brats to detest. Then there's the subtler middle ground. I think the addition of Luke will prove edifying. Right now, other teams talk earnestly to the camera about his ''integrity,'' but if the deaf kid starts smokin' the competition, pious p.c. sentiments will probably degenerate as fast as Mike White's dad's pulled groin. Ouch. And yay. A–