Type keyword(s) to search


The Challenge Needs to Fix Its Rookie Problem

"Ride or Dies" is the latest season that has ground to a halt as the veterans boringly pick off the first-time players.
  • TJ Lavin and the cast of The Challenge (MTV)
    TJ Lavin and the cast of The Challenge (MTV)

    Currently making its way through its 38th season, MTV's The Challenge has built itself into one of the landmark reality shows of the 21st century. In the past year alone, The Challenge has aired spinoff series on both CBS and Paramount+, all while serving as the lone tether to MTV’s past cultural dominance. That kind of confidence from the parent company means its place in pop culture (and on the TV schedule) is secure, so the act of pointing out where and how the show is currently struggling to deliver a compelling and satisfying product is likely to go unheeded. But it needs to be said: The Challenge needs to figure out a better way to deal with the veteran/rookie situation, or else it needs to stop casting rookies altogether. Because right now the competitive imbalance is grinding the show to a halt.

    The Challenge: Ride or Dies kicked the season off Season 38 on such a promising note. The all-rookie pair of Johnny and Ravyn won the season's first competition — when they made the bold move of putting mostly veterans up for elimination, they were rewarded with the elimination of at least one veteran. If you've watched The Challenge at all over the last several years, you'll know what a rarity that is. Rookies (loosely defined on The Challenge as players who have either never been on the show before or have been on the show but haven't become close enough friends with the veteran cast members to crack their inner circle) hardly ever win daily challenges, and when they do, they are almost always bullied, strong-armed, or coaxed by the veterans in the direction of targeting other rookies. They certainly never go after the most powerful veteran cast members, for fear of retribution after the next challenge. It's become a repetitive cycle of ruthless elimination of rookie cast members that happens every single season.

    This is, to be clear, great for the veterans. And it's probably great for MTV and the show's producers, who know that viewers don't show up every season to watch some random cast member from Love Island U.K. or Ex on the Beach. They show up every season to watch their faves from The Challenge: Johnny Bananas and CT and Wes and Nany and Laurel and Aneesa. But The Challenge used to be a battle among those beloved veteran cast members. Now, for at least the first half of every season, we get to watch all our faves lazily band together and tread water while the rookies flail helplessly — with the game increasingly stacked against them — until a good six to eight weeks into the season, when the veterans are finally forced to turn against one another. And since the finals on The Challenge have been trending towards including anywhere from six to 10 players, it adds up to seasons where very little time is spent watching our faves actually scheme, plot, and compete against one another.

    It wasn't always this way. The Challenge has evolved a ton over the two-plus decades of its existence. Initially an offshoot of The Real World and Road Rules, The Challenge has long since outlasted its parent shows. Once the show moved into the realm of elimination-based mega-competitions, we started to get players returning again and again and again. Soon enough, the recurring contestants began carrying out rivalries, romances, triumphs, and betrayals over the course of multiple seasons. The Challenge became that rare thing on reality TV: serial programming that crossed over from season to season. Recurring cast members are very much a feature on this show. Ride or Dies features Johnny Bananas on his 21st Challenge, Aneesa Ferreira on her 16th, Nany Gonzalez on her 12th, Darrell Taylor on his 10th, Veronica Portillo on her 9th, and Tori Deal and Jordan Wiseley on their 7th.

    But as the seasons wore on and MTV dropped The Real World and Road Rules, The Challenge lost its feeder system. The show had to look elsewhere to replenish its rosters, so it began casting entirely new people ("Fresh Meat") who'd never been on The Real World or Road Rules before and dipping into adjacent MTV shows like Are You the One?. Things really began to change around season 31 when The Challenge branched out to British reality shows and Big Brother to expand its ranks. By the time the "War of the Worlds" season hit, cast members were coming from shows like Survivor (domestic and overseas editions), Vanderpump Rules, and Ultimate Beastmaster, among many others.

    Some of these newbies turned into fairly compelling cast members. Many more didn't make an impact at all, in part because they never really got a chance to play the game. As MTV began to cast from more and more far-flung reality shows, the core veterans of the show quickly realized that they were going to have to band together in order to retain their positions of power on the show. You'd think that would have resulted in a fun showdown between veterans and rookies, but time and again, it hasn’ot be the case. The veterans show up on day one committed to an alliance — usually agreed to before the season starts, in what's been called "pregaming," which is technically not allowed, but is almost impossible to prevent in practice when you're casting a bunch of people who know each other in real life. efore the rookies are even able to feel out the competition, they're being targeted and pitted against one another.

    Again, this is great for the veterans, who invariably end up with a huge advantage every season. But it's become incredibly frustrating for viewers to watch rookies get mowed down week after week. Worse yet, it's taken away from the intrigue of watching these veteran players we love go up against each other. It no longer makes sense for the veterans to battle each other — which would be interesting and fun to watch for the viewers — so instead they just bunch up and bully the new kids. This new alignment was most frustratingly evident in season 35's "Total Madness," when longtime enemies Johnny Bananas and Wes decided to be friends instead of foes because that was just the smartest game play. That may have been a sign of emotional maturity from two of the most obstinate jocks on the show, but it was certainly not fun for us at home!

    "Ride or Dies" has been especially frustrating because thus far it's featured some very formidable and likable rookie teams: the aforementioned Johnny and Ravyn; the beguiling Horacio and Olivia; even a team like Survivor alums Michele and Jay, who have been on The Challenge before but are treated like rookies because the veterans still view them as outsiders. Few teams have played harder than these three, but two of them have already been eliminated, and the third has been up for elimination three times and had to fight their way out of it. Early in the game, these three teams had built that rare unicorn on The Challenge: a rookie alliance that seemed like it might be strong enough to do some damage. But then, after Johnny and Ravyn made their big move in Episode 1 and got veteran Kailah and her boyfriend eliminated, they were rewarded with show host TJ Lavin introducing a new team to the mix: Johnny Bananas and Nany. This was followed in the next two weeks by the additions of veteran teams Jordan/Aneesa and Darrell/Veronica. So every time a team was eliminated, the field was replenished by a veteran/veteran pair, further stacking the deck against the rookies.

    That deck-stacking is also felt during the show's elimination rounds, where two teams compete in a physical challenge, with the losers going home. The rest of the players get to watch from an elevated platform and are allowed to shout not only encouragement but also assistance. So when there is a puzzle or some other kind of strategic element, the peanut gallery can — and have — sway a challenge. Most often, you guessed it, this advantages the veteran players, who have better, stronger, longer-lasting social bonds to each other.

    If The Challenge is so insistent on making it impossible for rookies to advance, so be it. But then maybe don't cast so many rookies every season? It drags down each season into a frustrating slog of waiting for the inevitable to happen, and robs the show of actual competition. The Challenge needs to structure the game in a way that gives the rookies a fighting chance of getting one over on the vets, or else why bother casting them at all?

    New episodes of The Challenge air Wednesdays at 8:00 PM ET on MTV.

    People are talking about The Challenge in our forums. Join the conversation.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer 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.

    TOPICS: The Challenge