The Challenge is America’s Greatest Sport. The Challenge is a glorified Wipeout. The Challenge is the finest show on television. The Challenge is trash entertainment. The Challenge is emblematic of America’s ills, a mirror to what’s wrong with us. The Challenge is a beautiful pageant of humanity.
All of these things are true. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his opposing ideas would love the “first rate intelligence” of The Challenge…or at least enjoy a highly entertaining descent into madness.
This is pretty simple, really. We live in a world sculpted by reality TV, from its disturbing White House takeover to our daily interactions on social media that neatly conform to pre-prescribed lengths and formats. Ideas are bite sized. We all have cameras in our pocket, and they change the way we behave and interact with reality-if we can even agree on what that construct is.
The Challenge takes this, pours sugar all over it, and sets it down on a bright plastic table next to some sort of tequila or vodka spiked drink waiting in a giant glass that’s virtually bottomless. The sun is shining, the people are beautiful, and they’ll engage in bloodsport and drunken tirades for your entertainment. After years of appointment viewing with my girlfriend (now wife), after watching it go by from the corner of my eye while her and my old roomate watched and talked storylines and I tried to ignore what I arrogantly, wrongly believed to be a lesser form of entertainment, I’ve long since seen the light. I’m here to tell you that true greatness has been with us for years, airing weekly on MTV.
Simplicity breeds beauty, and the format that has been refined since its 1998 debut as an offshoot of The Real World (the second season would pit them against an all-star team of Road Rules veterans in a challenge, hence, The Challenge) became a sciencey social experiment of perfect television in the 2000s. Send a cast of approximately 30 very different individuals to a foreign country, united only by the fact that they have already been willing to embarrass themselves on national television (mainly via the aforementioned shows, but more recently MTV has opened casting to some of its other, lesser reality vehicles), throw them into a communal house (totally isolated from phones, computers, even books and magazines), provide alcohol, engage them in intense competition for always growing amounts of money, mount cameras, and profit. We ALL profit, really. The average episode goes something like this: every cast member competes in a daily competition. Sometimes team based, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone. They generally rotate in format to reward either brute strength, endurance, quickness, or quick wits, and there are specialists among the cast in each. The weakest guy or girl is objectively identified by the competition results, then everyone is sent back to the communal house. There, the politicking is on as its up to the rest of the group (or a select number of winners from the daily competition) to select someone to go against the loser in a dramatic head-to-head elimination battle. The large cast is whittled down to 6, usually through some twists and turns lobbed from the producers. Those 6 (3 guys, 3 girls) then make “The Final,” the all encompassing goal of everyone who starts out. This is where they are sent to climb mountains, run near marathons while solving puzzles along the way, jump out of planes, swim oceans, compete for days on end without sleep, and generally be very entertaining as they strive to be the best, to outlast the competition and come away with sizeable chunks of money. Last season’s winner, one of the perennial female favorites Cara Maria, took away $380,125. Not bad! And she’ll be back in competition this season (there’s generally two a year), so, the potential for making a big chunk of money annually really isn’t out of the question. They are (technically) professional athletes!
And that’s what elevates this show: there’s a relatively small pool of folks they’re drawing from to cast each season. There’s usually only a few new faces each season, and they are immediately subjected to a hierarchy of alliances that stretch back well over a decade. People have made this show their career! They train year round! They politic off camera, at home. They’re often from wildly varied backgrounds (and even ages, with people sticking around into their 40s these days), but they come together for this. This is life. The NBA has recently done its best to replicate the brilliance of year-round Challenge, with its closely monitored free agencies and trade market, summer leagues, and unending torrent of social media fodder from the players themselves. Almost as if they learned from the best…
At some point, competitors shifted from treating it like a paid vacation of alcohol, hookups, and light competition to thinking of it as a real way to make money and create fame for themselves that could become lucrative outside the show. The producers matched the increasing intensity, taking it from something you might see on Most Extreme Elimination Challenge to something more akin to Ninja Warrior with Lord of the Flies overtones. Bones have shattered, tendons have ripped, muscles have exploded, guts have been puked (there’s always puking). The most infamous moment in elimination history came about because Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio, considered by himself and, more begrudgingly, many others as the Greatest of All Time, claims he was cutting weight for a Final (strategizing for an endurance fest, plotting ahead, SPORTING) when THIS happened:
Welcome to CT. This is incredible! What human being couldn’t enjoy the absurdity of this moment? Its a ridiculous premise that leads to a ridiculously impressive display.
And how do they play the social game, which may be the more essential skillset required for making a Final? All bravado? Quietly riding the coattails of stronger competitors? Are they prone to blowing up in the house? Can they back it up? At home, many run fitness Instagram pages. They shill for nutritional shake companies. They start businesses and diversify via their winnings. But they still get wasted and yell at each other on national television, and absolutely brutalize each other for love of competition…and winning money. This is genius!
And it all starts again tonight. The sugary hour of 21st century Americana. The Challenge: Final Reckoning kicks off at 9/8pm central on MTV.