A punishing challenge with giant blocks of cheese and a celebrity(ish) contestant make us optimistic for a revitalized season

By Josh Wolk
Updated February 16, 2009 at 04:08 PM EST
Sonja Flemming/CBS

The Amazing Race

S14 E1
  • TV Show
  • CBS

Wow, who woke up Bertram Van Munster? He and his production team had gotten complacent last season, giving us lame challenges and lamer casting. But season 14 of The Amazing Race is off to an outstanding start with the best challenge in years; I haven’t been that excited by a cheese-based sport since I played a pickup game of Gouda-ball while traveling in Sweden. But before we get to that, let’s do a quick rundown of the new teams:

CHRISTIE AND JODI: two flight attendants, and the obligatory ditzy blondes who think that flirting their way through the race is a viable strategy, even though a flirty team has never ever won. Flirting may be difficult for them, however, as their expressions never seem to change. If they want to minxily raise an eyebrow, they will have to do it manually.

TAMMY AND VICTOR: upbeat, overachieving siblings. He’s the older brother who treats her like a little kid, etc. His voice is a little high-pitched, and every time he spoke it reminded me of Will Ferrell’s Harry Carey impression.

MARGIE AND LUKE: mother and deaf son. He’s out to prove that deaf people are just like everyone else, which is slightly at odds with the producers’ efforts to sanctify him and only show him when he’s talking about his deafness.

STEVEN AND LINDA: married 17 years. This Virginia couple will be seen as ”the hicks from the sticks,” says hubbie Steven, a stereotype that Van Munster and Co. are all for encouraging. All that was missing from their introductory video package was a jug band soundtrack. I get the feeling that their backpacks are entirely filled with spare blades of wheat to chew on.

KISHA AND JEN: sisters who are former college athletes, shown playing volleyball and basketball. They didn’t get much distinguishing air time this week, but if we’ve learned one thing from Race and Survivor, it’s that the people who brag about being the most athletic are usually the ones who fail the most miserably at physical tasks.

PRESTON AND JENNIFER: the ”Nate and Jen” of this year, an attractive dating couple whose idea of a perfect evening is strangling the other one until he/she feels the very last ounce of life leaving her/his body, and then and only then can he/she live a fulfilling life. Oh, and allegedly they’re in love.

BRAD AND VICTORIA: an older loving couple. Compared to the usual assortment of bickering young ‘uns, this pair serves as a quaint reminder of what it was like when couples used to love each other. It’s the equivalent of, ”In my day, bus rides were a quarter!” except it’s, ”In my day, girlfriends and boyfriends didn’t openly wish that the other one would be eaten alive by a vicious animal! Wasn’t that a time!”

MEL AND MIKE: a father-son team that is the closest that The Amazing Race has come to a celebrity presence. Mike is, of course, the writer of The School of Rock, as well as the writer-director of The Year of the Dog (a rueful Molly Shannon comedy that I recommend). I’m not sure this is the kind of star attraction that will put butts in seats (”Look, it’s the guy who had that small role in a Jack Black movie!”), but as a writer, he knows how to craft a sound bite, i.e. ”Being gay and having a gay father definitely has its advantages. You don’t feel like you’re disappointing your parents, since they beat you to the punch.”

AMANDA AND KRIS: the ”this experience will tell us if we want to take it to the next level” couple. To me, this is a dangerously boobytrapped way to test a relationship: it’s like saying, ”The only way to know whether my heart is strong is to jab it with a lawn dart.”

MARK AND MICHAEL: tiny professional stuntmen who usually double for children. Boy, I’d love to get them drunk and wheedle some Jonathan Lipnicki anecdotes out of them.

JAMIE AND CARA: one of two types of attractive-women teams on The Amazing Race. There’s the ”tee hee, we’re gonna flirt!” type (Christie and Jodi), and then there’s the ”Some people think we’re bitches — and we are!” type. Jamie and Cara, former NFL cheerleaders, are the latter. They also have matching long, red hair, which I suppose is the next logical step from having teams dress alike. I think by season 17, all pairs of teammates will run the race while wearing matching ski masks.

Phil began the race in southern California, and as he gave the dramatic setup, Margie signed his instructions to her son: This was a completely unnecessary step, as Phil hasn’t tweaked this speech in 14 seasons. You could seal my head in concrete, and I’d still know that Phil was telling me that the world was waiting. What next, telling a blind person, ”Okay, now Phil is raising his eyebrow!”

The first stop was Locarno, Switzerland, and I could instantly tell they’d made a welcome tweak to the show formula: less time in airports. No more endless red herrings about people nearly missing planes or wheedling ticket agents. It was just check in, we’re taking off, we’re landing, and let’s get this race going.

The producers have also decided to use the time saved from ditching the airport shenanigans to show more local scenery. The teams had to take a train through the Swiss Alps, and it was the greatest ad the Switzerland Board of Tourism could hope for: I wanted to book my ticket that day. Then we ducked back into the train for my second-favorite type of Amazing Race sight: a couple fighting. Jennifer and Preston were trading this witty banter:

JENNIFER: There is no love in the air right now. He’s frustrated, and I can’t be around frustrated Preston. It’s annoying.

PRESTON: You say stuff that just irritates me.

JENNIFER: Maybe you need to control your anger.

PRESTON: Maybe you need to control your mouth.

Wow, it’s just like His Girl Friday!

The hicks confessed that they’d never been out of the country before, and were nervous. This was not a surprise. What was surprising was Jennifer’s comment, ”I’ve never in my life been in a train station.” That seems like an odd blind spot for an adult, but even if you hadn’t been to a train station before, losing your depot virginity hardly seems like a stressful thing. Assuming, say, her entire family had not once been killed by a conductor, what’s the big deal? She’d been on a plane: it’s safe to say you can safely transfer that knowledge over to a train station. It’s like being terrified of entering a Wendy’s for the first time after a lifetime of eating at Friendly’s. Jennifer’s worry also surprised me because she’s very good at generalizing things. For example, she assumed that since Swiss people speak a different language, it must be the same different language that, say, people in Spain speak, which is why she said ”Es mas importante!” to a Swiss cabbie.

Having adjusted to international travel, Linda the hick now had to adjust to physical exertion. She was horribly slow as they dashed to the campground route marker, wheezing as she attempted to run. The blondes had better speed, perhaps because they were the first team I’ve ever seen travel with rolling suitcases. To me that takes a lot of the thrill out of the game, much the same way as if I saw someone on the Tour de France zip by with training wheels.

I was disgruntled when everyone fought to get to the first clue marker, only to be bunched up at a campground, leaving in three shifts, 15 minutes apart. Stops like this render all previous tension moot. But the next day made it all worth it, as a Roadblock had one team member leap off a dam for a 70-story bungee jump, the second highest in the world. Last season was missing this kind of adrenaline; my stomach flip-flopped just knowing this leap existed. This may be the first episode that I’ve ever watched while wearing a diaper.

Victor, Luke, and Mike did it first, with varying degrees of fear. Victor said he never knew he had a fear of heights, because he’d ”never thought about this.” Really? I’ve never had a boa constrictor wrapped around my neck, but I’m still pretty sure that would scare the crap out of me. Michael the fearless stuntman leapt off as if it was a low diving board. Jodi, on the other hand, was so spooked that a crease appeared on her forehead. When she jumped, she emitted a dog-whistle-like squeak, and yet didn’t yell. And then when it was over and she bobbed on the bungee, she said, with a flat affect, ”Thank God that’s over. Bring me up.” Can one’s emotions get Botoxed?

From there the teams dashed back to a different train. Victor and Tammy arrived first, but when other teams arrived behind them, Victor hatched a plan to seem unsure of what train to take, as if to throw the others off of the trail. Enacting this plan basically involved putting a question mark at the end of all his statements: ”Some lady told us to take it, but we’re just gonna risk it?” This was the worst con game in the world? Brad and Victoria outshined Victor when they noticed that the blondes had taken a slower train; they simply let them dash ahead, and then slowly backed away, waiting for the later train that would arrive at the destination sooner.

And then came one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever seen. The best Detours and Roadblocks are the ones that truly break their contestants. Learning a local dance? Feh. Eating a big pizza? Phooey. Being briefly driven underwater in a Jeep? Back to Feh. But this was something special. Each team had to climb to a cheese ”aging shack” at the top of a large, slippery hill, and then collectively carry four 50-pound wheels of cheese down the hill on an incredibly rickety backpack-type contraption. At first it seemed like it would be a simple relay race of brute strength, but then the carnage started.

The cheese was heavy, the backpacks were fragile, and the hill was slippery with wet grass and animal poop. It was glorious. The cheese racks splintered into pieces, and the cheese fell to the ground and roll all the way down the hill into the woods at great speeds. At one point Luke lost his balance and his legs began pinwheeling down the mountain as he desperately tried to keep upright, until he finally tumbled to the grass, his cheese flying out of his hands. Mel, who had said he’d prepped for the trip by doing pushups and sit-ups, suffered a groin injury and could only slowly inch down the hill on his butt, cheese in his lap: if only he’d done some groin-ups! And all the while, locals below laughed and laughed, much like the Russian marching band when frat guy Dan attempted to master marching last season.

When the show cut to a wide shot, you saw some people trying desperately to climb the hill, and others nearly passed out on the way down, a giant hunk of cheese pinning them to the ground. It looked like Hamburger Hill. Well, I guess Cheeseburger Hill.

I thought Linda and Steve would be goners. Earlier in the race, weepy Linda demonstrated that she had the lung capacity and stamina of a popped balloon. And even when she wasn’t moving via her own power, she was incapable of going fast: She told a cabbie, ”Can you go fast, but follow the speed limit?” When they arrived at Mt. Cheese, Steve said to her, ”You gotta think. That’s the only way we’re gonna beat ’em. We didn’t get here by being idiots.” To which I thought, ”Then how did you get here?” But just as I began building up a head of steam of hillbilly mockery, Steve proved that, dagnabbit, he was the smartest: He just fashioned his wood backpack into a sled of sorts and rode the cheese down the hill.

When Marge and Luke finished first, they dashed off with Luke not realizing he still had a board strapped horizontally to his back. I figured he’d figure it out as soon as he tried to run through a narrow doorway; I just hoped there’d be a cameraman there to catch it. (What? If deaf people are like everybody else, you can laugh at them when they do a Keystone Kop pratfall.) The mother and son made it to the pit stop, which they had to find by listening for yodelers, which, frankly, was a cruel thing to do to a deaf guy. But they found Phil first, and the host signed ”You are team number one!” and the tears started flowing as Luke said, ”A lot of people think deaf people can’t do things. They can do a lot of things but talk.” And you can certainly add ”Lug enormous amounts of cheese through a field of animal crap” to that list.

Everyone else gradually trundled in, no doubt lactose intolerant for life, and last came Preston and Jennifer. I was a little sad about this, because I do enjoy a good dose of mutual loathing in my Amazing Race. In his farewell, Preston said, ”It was frustrating at times. I hated her at times,” and she said she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. If they do get married, I wonder how many times they will break up and then get back together during the walk down the aisle.

So which team are you rooting for, and who do you think will win? (They can be very different things.) What did you think of the cheese challenge? And at what point during the first leg do you think Mike White thought, ”What the hell am I dong here? I could be eating candy off a crafts service table on a movie set, and here I am rolling down a hill past my groin-pulled dad!” And while you’re mulling these questions, don’t forget to check out our new addition to EW.com, Phil Keoghan himself! He’ll be blogging after each episode, so send him a comment too. And to make him feel at home, end every post with a very special Browsie emoticon. /:-)

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The Amazing Race

Phil Keoghan hosts the globe-trotting adventure series.
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  • CBS
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