One of the biggest victories of the Paramount+ launch has been its commitment to programming for people nostalgic for 1990s-2000s MTV reality programming. Particularly The Real World — which just completed a very intriguing "Homecoming" season with the show's inaugural cast — and its offshoot, The Challenge. To coincide with the launch, P+ brought together 20 cast members from the early years of what was once called The Real World/Road Rules Challenge to compete for a $500,000 prize. That prize money, a bounty unheard of in the early years when teams competed for a share of $25,000 sponsored by Chili's, is only one aspect of The Challenge that must seem incredibly foreign to these old-schoolers.
The Challenge is now a high-production-value athletic contest with competitions inspired by Hollywood stunt performers. This kind of culture shock made itself known in the first episode of "All-Stars," as the alumni were put in teams of two and tasked with diving into a frigid lake in Patagonia to retrieve giant boxes. More than half of the participants either gave up in waist-deep water or had to be rescued from drowning by the medical crew, something that was incredibly illustrative about how much the show has changed in the last two decades.
So now with two episodes' worth of the show having aired, giving us a sense of who came to play and who maybe regrets showing up, how do we handicap the field of now-eighteen Challenge all-stars? We've separated the remaining players into Contenders, Pretenders, those who might end up earning TJ Lavin's ire by quitting, and those who probably won't win but we'd like them to stick around for as long as possible.
The top contender on the men's side has to be Mark Long, of the original Road Rules season and six subsequent Challenge seasons. Mark apparently rallied behind the scenes to get an old-schoolers season, and when you see how jacked he got for the occasion, it becomes apparent that Mark put this season together so he could win it. He hasn't exactly excelled in the first two competitions, though, so he may not want to start mentally spending that half a mil quite yet.
Among the men, the players we expected to be huge physical threats have proven to be… huge physical threats. This includes past Challenge champions Alton Williams, Darrell Taylor, and Derrick Kosinski. So long as the elimination tasks remain as brute-strength-focused as they've been, that trio will be hard to beat. One somewhat surprising name in the ranks of the season's top contenders has been Nehemiah Clark, who was pretty good in his four previous challenge appearances but, with the exception of "Gauntlet III," which he won, was always snakebitten by not being buddies with the alpha-dog alliances. His win in the episode 2 challenge could be a good omen for him going forward.
Among the women, it's hard not to see Aneesa Ferreira having the best odds to finally win her first Challenge. She's never really stopped competing on The Challenge — in fact she and Darrell both competed on the season that's still airing on MTV — so she's really in her element. She's one of the social strategy leaders, she's friends with a ton of people, and she probably wants it more than anyone. Her main competition among the women looks to be Ruthie Alcaide, who went toe-to-toe with Aneesa in episode 2's trivia challenge. Ruthie made her mark on The Challenge in the show's "Battle of the Sexes" season, dominating the competition like few others have in a season. As we'll see in this week's episode, however, Ruthie and Aneesa do not like each other, so that conflict could mean that one of them doesn't last to the end of the season.
I'd also name Jemmye Carroll a contender, considering she's one of the youngest all-stars on the show and has at times shown herself to be a tenacious competitor and a savvy strategist. Finally, I wouldn't have thought so before the season started, but Jisela Delgado's strong performance in the premiere episode also bumps her up into the realm of contenders. Jisela has never done well on any of her three previous Challenge seasons, but the intervening years seem to have granted her a mature determination (she chalked it up to Mom energy during that lake challenge) that might end up proving all the doubters wrong.
There's an element of "won't get fooled again" to seeing Eric "Big Easy" Banks on the All-Stars cast. Every season he's done this to us, showing up as a new man, determined to prove his worth, ready to finally win the big one. And every season has seen a whole lot of arguing over whether the others were giving Big Easy a chance, before ending in disappointment or, in one case, medical emergency. I'm not buying it this time around. I'm also not buying that this, of all seasons, will be Beth Stolarczyk's moment of triumph. Despite being on her best behavior thus far, Beth gets cast for drama, not to win it all, and despite having won some elimination challenges on past seasons, she has a shelf life that will almost certainly expire long before the season is over.
Sometimes the editing of the episodes tells you more about who's a contender than the actual competitions do. Through two episodes, we've barely seen anything from Arissa Hill or Jonna Mannion, which tells me they're not in this for the long haul.
Finally, while kudos are due to Laterrian Wallace for surviving the episode 1 elimination challenge, his Challenge track record is pretty abysmal for someone who looks and talks like he should be a titan in competitions. And he proved in episode 1 that he's not good — and not interested in getting good — at the social game of the show, so I'm not expecting much out of him.
This particular list has the chance to grow in the coming weeks. We already know from the season trailer that somebody ends up quitting, earning the dreaded "see you never" epithet from T.J. Whether that person is one of the two people we're listing here is anybody's guess, but so far, both Kendal Sheppard and the great Katie Doyle seem more than a bit rattled by the competition. In episode 2, Kendall refused to jump from the platform to the water like everybody else who lost the trivia challenge, not exactly a rule-breaking maneuver but one that felt like a refusal to play the game as intended. Kendall was voted into elimination and she found the strength to win, so maybe that'll mark a turning point for her, but from the way she was talking to Derrick at the beginning of the episode, it seems she's already wondering why she's even there.
Katie, meanwhile, is a longtime Challenge veteran and huge fan favorite, but through two episodes, she's shown a maturity that is great for her as a human being in the world but might lead her to decide that returning to the days of screaming fights and bloody noses on The Challenge is no longer for her. You'd have thought that her fight with former close friend and roommate Trishelle in episode 2 might have sparked a fire within her, but instead it seemed to demoralize her further.
The dominant theme for The Challenge: All-Stars so far has been an elation to see all these old faces again and something approaching joy in watching them compete against each other while reflecting on the old times. So while some of these folks may not be top contenders, here's hoping they stick around for as long as possible. Chief among these is Syrus Yarbrough, the Real World: Boston alum who's back for one last hurrah and remains one of the most likable characters the show has ever had. I hadn't thought about Teck Holmes in forever — I'd actually forgotten he'd ever actually competed on Challenge, although he did, in the earliest seasons when they were still riding around in an RV, Road Rules-style — but it's been fun to watch his string-bean self bounce around in these hellish Challenge environs. I'm similarly enchanted watching Yes Duffy just be an all-around good dude, and watching him help his team with the competition in episode one with math was a joy. Finally, my problematic fave Kellyanne Judd may be a mess, but she's often a delightfully frank mess and seems always willing to upset the dominant alliance, which on this show is incredibly refreshing.
All told, The Challenge: All-Stars is a hugely promising season full of familiar faces that — despite my episode 1 reservations — will probably not involve T.J. Lavin trying to murder these old people every week. Which is great news. Here's hoping we get a $500,000 winner we can all believe in.
New episodes of The Challenge: All Stars drop Thursdays on Paramount+ through May 27.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.