The only thing more irritating than a person who is always talking about politics is a person talking about politics in a way that implies that his interest in politics makes him a more substantive person than someone who isn’t interested. Sure, it’s nice to be invested in the policies that shape people’s daily lives and the people who make them, but not everyone who is interested in politics is necessarily smart or serious-minded. They’ve just paid attention long enough to know and understand the characters and the story. The people who aren’t up to speed often don’t feel like putting in the work, and are daunted by the sheer volume of information regarding the factions, histories, agendas, and betrayals.
This is a problem for MTV’s deathless The Challenge, the reality competition that has been pitting former Real World and Road Rules cast members against each other for cash prizes since 1998. There are Real World cast members who do the show, then go on to have normal lives outside the spotlight, with videotaped proof to show their kids one day to illustrate that Mommy was young once too. Then there is the other kind of participant, the kind that settles in Los Angeles after her season has wrapped and descends into the madness that is the Bunim-Murray Lifestyle. You do college tours and pop up at spring break events, or maybe get a gig co-hosting a local morning radio show. But mostly, you loaf around waiting to get the call that it’s Challenge time, while limiting all your social interactions, both sexual and platonic, to others within the circle.
It’s hard to get excited for a new season of The Challenge because it typically requires as much depth of knowledge as watching a Senate session. And no one will entertain the argument that you’re a person worth engaging with because you’re able to characterize the complex relationship between Challenge stalwarts Paula Meronek and Dunbar Flinn. That’s assuming such a characterization can even be made, seeing as how so much of the interaction that ultimately affects what happens during a Challenge season takes place off-camera as the cast members inbreed, as they are wont to do. The producers do their best to catch viewers up with talking heads that explain the current events of their Jacuzzi-sex ecosystem, but of all the times I’ve tried to watch this show, I’ve never felt like I could get my arms around all of it. That makes The Challenge frustrating for someone approaching the show looking for showers of tears spawned by a grueling physical challenge, who instead gets a serialized soap with nuances a casual viewer can’t understand.
The other issue with The Challenge, generally, is that even if you understand the relationships or manage to ignore the interpersonal specifics, it gets harder with each passing season to watch the same people compete over and over again. All-star seasons of reality competitions usually suffer from the malaise of lowered stakes, but when contestant compete as often as they do here (Johnny “Bananas” Devananzio, for example, has competed eight times) it’s hard to care which of them wins more cash to add to their pot. The producers have tried to inject new life into the franchise by periodically having a Fresh Meat season that includes newcomers, but those newcomers typically have as much trouble penetrating the long-standing relationships and alliances as does the audience.
Still, the show’s producers try every season to reshuffle the deck in a way that will yield new drama. In this season, The Challenge’s 23rd, the concept is Battle Of The Seasons, as the producers have taken eight teams of four—seven comprised of Real World casts and one from a Fresh Meat Challenge season—and set them off on a quest to win a quarter-million dollars. It’s a smart strategy insofar as it encourages participation from former cast members outside the band of usual suspects. A good number of this season’s group are first-timers, including Real World: Austin’s Lacey Buehler, a bookish hippie-chick who looks totally unprepared for the competition, as does Real World: Back to New Orleans’ Preston Roberson-Charles, a gay guy who spends all his time talking about how his gay-gayness is going to get him gay-liminated. And as is always the case, much of the drama between the cast members is backward-looking, such as the breakups of two intra-season relationships that didn’t end well, that of Back to New Orleans’ Ryan Knight and Jemmye Carroll and Austin’s Danny Jamieson and Melinda Stolp.
The reason to watch The Challenge isn’t really for the interpersonal drama, even though that element makes up the bulk of the episodes. A bit of it is interesting in this premiere, like the hook-up between Cancun’s Jonna Mannion and Return to San Diego’s Zach Nichols, which leads to one of the show’s sturdiest dramatic scenes: the over-the-phone breakup with the significant other back home after meeting a sexy new castmate. But The Challenge’s real draw is its competitions, which are among the most extreme, dangerous and physically taxing of any you’ll find in this genre. Compared to the dig-up-and-assemble-puzzle-pieces challenges of Survivor, The Challenge’s competitions are miniature Ironman Triathlons with bungee cords and helmet-cams. It’s hardly uncommon for contestants to leave in ambulances, or at least get nasty bruises and harness burns.
In the first challenge tonight, the teams have to climb rope ladders over a body of water and onto an intersection of beams they have to shimmy across before climbing back down. It’s simple enough for most of the teams, but a couple contestants in particular have trouble: Preston, who is afraid of being labeled the Unathletic Gay Guy and Eric from the Fresh Meat team, whose massive size remains a liability even after losing 70 pounds since his last go-round. Both men have the unfortunate luck of climbing to the top of the ladder before tumbling 30 feet and smacking the water. In Eric’s case, he can’t muster up anymore might, but Preston pushes past his boundaries, climbs back up the ladder and completes the challenge, ensuring his team’s safety. His performance earns him hearty applause from his competitors, and it’s a genuinely great moment.
During the acts that focus on the insanely difficult competition of the week, The Challenge is absorbing television. It’s just a shame it has to be swaddled in so much reality drama from people who have, for the most part, gotten much, much too old for this.
- The best quote from the premiere came from St. Thomas’ bro-ish Trey: “I’m not naïve, and I’m not gullible. But I am honest, and I am blunt. And right now, I don’t understand how this game works.”
- The Fresh Meat team includes Camila Nakagawa, who actually won the last competition. Why the producers don’t at least make the winner of the last season sit out the next is beyond me.