For a reality series to last 36 seasons, you have to expect some kind of evolution. Shows like Survivor and Big Brother have largely held onto their central formats but have introduced new game elements and twists. Other shows have swapped out judges and/or hosts. Still others have switched networks. But the majority simply don't make it this far.
MTV's The Challenge has arguably evolved more significantly than any of its contemporaries. From its inception in 1998 as an offshoot of The Real World — a kind of between-seasons special event where a handful of Real World alums were put into an RV and sent to complete challenges for a cash reward — The Challenge has steadily shifted its format, grown in prominence, and acquired a mythology all its own. And it returns tonight for its 36th season, dubbed "Double Agents," a season filmed under strict COVID protocols and one that highlights just how far the show has come.
Monday night's pre-premiere kick-off special, The Challenge: Double Agents Declassified, introduced the 30 competitors who will be vying for the million-dollar prize this time around, and the assemblage of longtime veterans — each with their long and winding backstories through multiple seasons of the show — combined with some really intriguing rookies highlighted just how much this show has evolved.
In its earliest seasons, the then-Real World/Road Rules Challenge was pretty much exactly that: a team of Real World alums took on a team of Road Rules alums in an RV tour of some corner of the United States, competing in various tasks against each other, all for a (modest) cash prize. It started as what seemed like a lark, but grew in popularity. The fifth season, "Battle of the Seasons," leveled things up, with much larger teams competing in one location (usually vacation spots like Cabo San Lucas, Montego Bay, Acapulco, and Telluride) with an elimination format where each episode one or more competitors would be sent packing. This essential elimination conceit remains to this day, although the format has evolved in countless other ways, from the ways the teams are divided — Real World vs. Road Rules gave way to season themes like Vets vs. Rookies, pairs of rivals, pairs of exes, Team America vs. Team World — to its pool of contestants.
As the popularity of The Real World flagship waned (and Road Rules was jettisoned entirely), The Challenge began casting "fresh meat" contestants who were brand new. Starting with season 26, the show began adding cast members from other MTV shows like Are You the One? Eventually this casting expansion would include shows that weren't on MTV — or even aired in the United States at all. Over the last ten seasons, the show has brought in players from shows like Love Island UK, Geordie Shore, Ex on the Beach, Big Brother, and eventually Survivor. Of the 30 cast members on "Double Agents," only eight originated on The Real World.
Despite this evolution away from its roots, The Challenge remains a show that's deeply invested in its own legacy, and that was evident in quite a few of the cast introductions in Monday's "Declassified" special. CT is back for his 18th season and, after a few seasons where his "dad bod" caught a lot of attention (not all negative), he's back this year with a more toned silhouette and a storyline about how he kind of lost himself for a while amid a struggling marriage. With multi-time champion Johnny Bananas not appearing this season, we seem to be set up for a few major Can They Finally Win It narratives. Leroy is back for what he says is his final shot at the win, this time coupled up with girlfriend "Killa" Kam. There's also Leroy's original Real World castmate Nany, who's selling her bridesmaid status hard, as is Aneesa, who's back for her 14th season and looking for some damn respect. Then there's Darrell, a multi-time winner who hasn't won since the show upped its grand prize to a million dollars, and Theresa, who's back for the first time since becoming a mom.
The Challenge has expanded so much that it's begun to usurp other shows and even other sports. This season features a cadre of Big Brother alums — Josh, Kaycee, Fessy, Amber — most of whom have been on The Challenge so many times that they have their own Challenge mythologies, alliances and rivalries themselves. Three-time Olympian Lolo Jones joins the cast this season, having already participated in the Champs vs. Pros spin-off season. Professional wrestler Lio Rush is one of this season's rookies, and while The Challenge's internal culture (which is a real thing) continues to hold to an ethos that requires rookies to "prove themselves" (i.e. get put up for elimination early and often), he's got the potential to be a deeply interesting character.
The show also appears to have seen surge in budget over the last several seasons. What began as a series of low-overhead competitions two decades ago has evolved into challenges involving giant moving vehicles, explosions, underwater events, and more chances to suspend its contestants high above water than reason would seem to call for. The present-day Challenge resembles a series of stunt-man challenges with big-movie budgets more than the scavenger hunts of old. In addition, the show's living quarters now reliably include professional-level gyms so that the players can train as they go along.
The show's music budget also seems to have been beefed up and let off the hook. No longer beholden to featuring current MTV hit songs, the show is now free to fully explore licensed music. This has resulted in some absolutely unhinged (and often wonderfully anachronistic) music choices, be they classic rock or, as in the case of Monday's "Declassified" special, a choice '80s sound drop like "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."
Season 36 is the first to have been filmed under COVID protocols, which required some reimagining of the usual Challenge tropes. As outlined in a Variety piece last week, the producers set the season in Iceland, nixed the traditional late-season endgame location change, and even built their own nightclub on the grounds in order to preserve the inebriated fraternization that tends to goose the interpersonal drama on the show.
That we're even getting a season of The Challenge right now is an accomplishment in itself. That there appears to be much to look forward to, including a format that would appear to encourage more devious and complex strategy (a historical weakness for a show that tends to just pick off the rookies and anyone not under the wing of a powerful veteran), bodes even better. However it shakes out, the show that's never stopped evolving is staying true to form.
The Challenge: Double Agents premieres Wednesday December 9 at 8:00 PM ET on MTV
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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.