There is a think piece baked into the first episode of The Challenge: All Stars. As Paramount+ kicked off this new season with the so called “OGs,” on Thursday, surely the minds of the faithful began reflecting on time and age and culture and our own perceptions and expectations. The impulse flows from the same vein that Real World: Homecoming is mining, and in both, the effect is more profound than might have been anticipated.
This should be obvious, right? If you cast the “legends” of the Challenge, they will be older human beings. Muscles won’t twitch as fast, lift as heavy, or endure for as long as they did in the days of yore, in the time when bodies were young and the world was a sunny mystery and the party flowed on forever. On a show like the Real World reunion, the cast was able to mine the years between themselves appearing on national television in their late teens/early twenties, and who they have been shaped into by the decades that followed. I found that to be beautiful and compelling and very human. Do we all not want to be better than we were yesterday? Are we pulling it off? That theme rang through the loft in Manhattan, but it was talked over from the comfort of couches. The Challenge has decided to make that question a bit more visceral. Like, immediately.
That this show exists is a miracle wrought mostly by Mr. Mark Long. As quarantine dragged on, he spearheaded a campaign to recruit old school Challenge cast members for one more ride. MTV got involved, and here we are in April of 2021, watching people who have never appeared in HD, suited up in official franchise Under Armor gear, or had a chance at this level of money fight it out once again. This isn’t a low stakes, shot in Los Angeles program like the Champs vs Pros offshoots. We’re in Argentina, the production level is off the charts, and TJ is here!
Your mileage may vary on your perception of the cast. There are true old school folks, people like Mark Long, Beth, Ruthie, Syrus, Teck, and Yes, but there are also folks like Jonna, who is a full two years younger than Jenny West. You know, the Jenny who obliterated the competition on her way to winning Total Madness less than a year ago. In-between are a few still “current” players, your Darrells and Aneesas, fresh from Iceland and Double Agents. They’re joined by competitors like Derrick and KellyAnne, who I’m surprised we haven’t seen on recent seasons. I’m perfectly fine with this wide range. Jenny may have been dominating the competition, but Jonna has been raising a family, like many of her fellow cast members this season. These people have arrived fresh from their versions of “real adult life,” and been dropped back into a reality television house and a competition that has changed a lot. So how did they do?
Well, not great. Not at first. As Jisela reminds us, the last time she was here, they were doing sugar cookies in the sand. Now? We know the level things have gone to, and in episode one, production wasted no time literally pushing them into the deep end.
Despite it being an individual season, the cast was split into two teams and asked to pick captains, which the wily vets immediately recognized as a dangerous role. From there, they were asked to do a little math and retrieve the answers in the form of blocks suspended deep beneath the surface of a chilly Argentinian lake. As person after person dove and failed, I couldn’t help but feel for the folks designing these games. To go from pushing the limits of very fit 20 and early 30 somethings to making something competitive and compelling but doable for this crew had to have been hard. These folks are still tough and strong, but time is undefeated. We just saw Darrell lose to a much quicker Cory a few weeks ago, and it was hard not to be bummed when imagining a younger Darrell cruising through that elimination. Well, here we get to see a whole cast attempt the same thing. Sure, some medical attention was needed here and there, and the shoreline of crumpled bodies was compared to an old folks home, but what we learned is, these folks have heart. Jisela ends up being a crucial member of her team after spouting a fair amount of self doubt beforehand, and we’re left with a view of the moxie and personality that lifted this show for so many years.
Well, that and the partying that immediately breaks out after the straightforward (thank God) elimination voting. Ace gets his feelings hurt for a spell, but seems to feel better after a few drinks. The ensuing hangovers are adult sized, but Laterrian appears to have been unaffected enough to kick Ace’s ass in a pole wrestle elimination that leaves the uninitiated a little shaken by its intensity. Ah, Ace. Your fellow Real World: Paris cast member CT is poised to dominate young competition in a Final soon, and you’re the first one going home here. That’s tough. That’s the Challenge.
This is a world without Big Brother, without fitness show winners, without dull personalities. Are all of the bodies as chiseled as they once were? Well, mostly not. But these are folks we’ve seen grow up, returning to us now from lives with kids, careers, husbands and wives, all of the daily hustle they may have found unimaginable the last time that we saw them. I would still put my bet on folks with more recent experience (hello, Derrick), but all of the cast members are back for more compelling television and I thank them and MTV for it.