At thirty-three seasons — several lifetimes, in TV years — you'd expect MTV's The Challenge to be the doddering old geezer of those reality shows you watch out of habit more than anything. And while the soap operatics of its constantly recurring and overlapping cast has yielded some big payoffs in recent seasons, clearly a mandate was handed down at Viacom a couple years ago saying that if The Challenge was to go on, they'd have to start integrating cast members from far-flung reality series. It makes sense, considering that the feeder systems of BOTH The Real World and Road Rules have dried up, new blood has to come from somewhere. For a while there, it was sister show Are You the One? and since the fanbase didn't fully revolt at the wave of Hunters and Nelsons and Kams (and in many cases, probably couldn't distinguish AYTO talent from late-stage Real World alums considering they only watch The Challenge now anyway), you can see why MTV got brazen and opened it up to UK shows like Geordie Shore and American cousins like Big Brother.
Even so, "War of the Worlds" was a shock to the system of Challenge fans, as it stacked more than half of its 34-member case with international or off-brand shows. True to its title, this season scoured the globe, picking up contestants from American Ninja Warrior to Love Island to Survivor: Turkey. And with the balance of casting so dramatically altered, suddenly this show that had become very comfortable with its nucleus of veterans calling the shots was thrown into chaos. Viewer-friendly chaos, as it turned out.
As two longtime Challenge viewers, Joe Reid and Sarah D. Bunting weathered that chaos and, after Wednesday night's season finale, are ready to weigh in on how this Challenge makeover shook out.
Joe Reid: Sarah! So good to convene this Challenge summit with you. At what point in the season did you realize you were really enjoying this new shake-up (or … were you not)?
Sarah D. Bunting: I was sort of neutral on the shake-up, to tell you the truth; after all, I've been watching this shteez as long as they've been making it, and since we're now at the point in the show's history where even vets from the Fresh Meat seasons have gotten old enough to "retire," The Challenge's occasional infusions of new blood don't faze me particularly. Overall I'm in favor, though, because there are certain veterans I've come to despise, and now that the transfusions are coming from shows that prize the physical and puzzle game, or at least put it ahead of "social"/hook-up game, that ups the chances that a tiresome dingus like Bananas will get ousted early. And he was -- not so early that it was unsatisfying, either. This was a well cast and constructed season, despite containing some of the same irritants as always (oversubscribing "veteran" and "rookie" status, mostly in time-wasting talking-head interviews; alliances that kill any suspense; Cara Maria). If it weren't for Teej continuing to call the women on the show "females," the season would be nearly perfect.
JR: I was really in the weeds in the early going, not sure what to make of this heavily-British, mostly unfamiliar cast of characters. I found myself clinging to cast members I knew (people like Zach or Amanda or even Big Brother Josh) in a way that, in retrospect, was really unhealthy. Is this what Joe Biden's polling numbers are all about?? Anyway, for me, I came around a few episodes into the season, when the cast took part in one of their little well-past-drunk late-night pageants where they all dressed up in costumes, and Bear and Georgia dressed like the Joker and Harley Quinn and were slobbering all up on each other in their heavily-accented "Oi luv ya, less mayke a baybee" talk, which, while horrifying when it comes to the future of the human race, was deeply entertaining in an "Okay, I get why people watch British Big Brother even though there's no competition strategy element" way.
JR: My thing when I praise The Challenge is that it doesn't get nearly enough credit for being a great soap opera. Which a lot of people take to mean that there are romances like CT and Diem (or, ugh, Zach and Jenna). But what I really mean is that the serialized storylines take many seasons to tell. The downfall of Johnny Bananas in episode three of "War of the Worlds" was a development that's taken years to arrive at. It started with the infusion of young, roided-up talent like Hunter and (though he wasn't on this season) Nelson who took constant aim at Johnny. Then it was just a matter of time before the wall of "veterans" that Johnny would use to pad his numbers when it came time to vote on eliminations got thinner and thinner through the attrition of age and finding better things to do with life. This season, Johnny's top allies were flaky-as-hell Zach and … Kyle? Who he met like two challenges ago and is British and mostly doesn't care about Johnny? I found it all very satisfying, and doubly so since Wes was there to watch it all go down. I … love Wes? This is not a new development; I've been a Wes fan for several seasons now. But if you told me a decade ago that I'd end up here, cheering on every pseudo-Machiavellian maneuver he makes, I'd have been so perplexed. Sarah, tell me I'm not alone.
SDB: You definitely are not; I too love Wes, and have loved Wes for many seasons, probably longer than you (you know me and famous gingers), although on his RW season I fully wanted to throw him down a manhole. Challenge-wise, I tend to love him for two reasons: 1) he's usually allied against players I dislike; and 2) he's not drinking the Flavor-Aid about said alliances. I've often wondered how he would have played it had he ended up in first place in one of the recent seasons that asked winners to choose how, or if, to split the money with their partners, because boy howdy am I sick of Hunter, Literal And Figurative Cramp complaining that his money was "stolen" from him. No, boo-boo; Ashley declined to underwrite your horseshit, like a boss. Live with it. … But we're not here to re-litigate past seasons, although if we were, trust that I could file a LENGTHY brief on Bananas, well, Bananas-ing Sarah. Instead, let's talk about Bear, who is perhaps the new Bananas, at least in terms of understanding precisely what he's there to do -- give good rage-watch -- and doing it expertly. Also cute, not for nothing.
JR: We will save our lengthy, hour-long debate on Ashley-versus-Hunter for another time because I disagreeeeeeeeeeeeee, but moving on to agreement, because BEAR! What can I say, bruv? He's … awful? Like, as a person you'd have to spend an afternoon with, much less several days and nights, I can't imagine it. Like, walking downstairs to pour yourself a bowl of cereal, and there's … Bear. With his robe fully undone and probably weird skimpy underwear even though he's fit but not hot, and he mumbles something garbled but mean and you can't even begin to try to decipher it because you're still back on where he got the bathrobe from? That's living with Bear. Which doesn't even get into the loud braying during competitions and the exaggerated childishness when it comes to eliminations. And yet, as a TV presence and a catalyst for the other contestants to rally against? Oh man, I loved Bear so much. And the fact that he WON Big Brother UK, under their system where it's all fan voting, gives me so many questions about the Brits, and only half of them are about Brexit. I am only sad that Bear kicked into high gear after Bananas and CT were gone.
Besides Bear, though, I thought the new blood really paid off. Theo was something of a garden-variety Challenge fuckboy, but a) I could look at him for days, and b) he could bring it in challenges. "Ninja" Natalie, Dee, and Mattie upped the capability quotient of the Challenge women by a huge factor. And then Turbo … just a gift from the reality TV gods. I want Turbo to start a career as a traveling strongman and have him managed by Barry's NoHo Hank. I want so much more Turbo in my life.
SDB: Turbo's plaintive "Why, why you show me fingeh?" in the finale needs to become my new ringtone. ...I agree with you generally about the new blood, not least because so many of them could bring it physically, and weren't taking it with quite such deadly seriousness on the social-game side, because here's the thing about the alliances, and the tribunals, and all these other aspects of the game that suggest to the uninitiated that eliminated and DQ'd players are actually literally going TO BE KILLED? It's really a lot of self-seriousness for what is, in the end, a game show -- a game show eighty percent played by stupid people who are bleeding IQ points they can't spare getting ripshit drunk. For many of these maroons, it's their full-time job, so fine, take it SOMEWHAT seriously … but you're not fire-jumpers, so let's settle it down with the bombast. This was one of the gifts of the rookies this year: they haven't been in the game so long that they've forgotten it IS a game, and it really did breathe new life into the franchise, because they wouldn't always do what they "were supposed to."
And the more screentime a scrappy sparkplug like Georgia got, the less was devoted to...what do we even call the Kyle/Cara/Paulie hate triangle. "Kyrlie"? I'm interested to hear your thoughts on that, and on Cara's heel turn, partly because I'm still not clear on exactly what Kyle "did to" her and partly because that whole mishegas goes to your point about soap subplots that span seasons.
JR: Exactly! Just like the toppling of Bananas ("Bananas Lost-er"?) was several seasons in the making, the dramatic arc of Cara Maria: Challenge Heel has been an incredibly slow burn. This is a woman who was picked on for so many seasons, bullied by the likes of Johnny and Wes and Paula and whoever, and as a result of that, she'd earned the audience's sympathy. And then her persistence (plus a bit of Stockholm Syndrome as she began to align more regularly with Johnny) paid off and she started winning. Of course, we should have known that we were creating a monster, and in recent seasons, Cara's ego and her expectation that she should just make it to the finale by divine right have been so deeply grating. It's honestly the same attitude that drove her reaction to Kyle hopping from her bed to several other beds. This is … The Challenge. All dick is ephemeral and constantly on the move, Hop on while the hopping is good, but that's about as far as your investment should go.
Of course, if these people had healthy perspectives about sex and relationships, we wouldn't have a show to watch, so I won't get too finger-waggy at Cara and Kyle for their two-week hookup to have evolved into a years-long vendetta. The infusion of Big Brother Paulie initially seemed like a nightmare, considering his volatile personality and highly punchable sneer-face. But, much like with Bear, I came around to Paulie's hilariously short fuse (and short … everything; Jon Snow towers over this lil' guy) and tunnel vision and started to look forward to whatever little thing would set him off. I was only disappointed to see that Da'Vonne and Natalie had forgiven him his Big Brother trespasses, since he was such a monster misogynist jerk to them. Where did you land on Paulie, Da'Vonne, and the Big Brother-fication of the show? It's only going to keep happening more and more, I think.
SDB: The Big Brother-fication of the show in theory? Fine with it. As a franchise it was 60 percent of the way there. In practice, with Paulie? He's a hateful little fartknocker, but the beauty of this particular Challenge is that he got his. He got most of the way there, and then got knocked out, which was fun to see, on its own merits and because it left Cara Maria: Sore Winner on her lonesome, and then SHE got left on the beach! Flawless work, and if production had their thumbs on the scale knowing that these outcomes were the ones the universe wanted, I am fine with that too. But these are professional social-gamers who nevertheless have a slightly different perspective on Challenge gameplay that seems to have been vital to this season.
And speaking of vital, is it me, or is Teej enjoying himself more than we've ever seen him now that the Challenges themselves are getting increasingly random and brutalizing? Understanding of course that it was probably 12 years before we ever saw that dude's teeth, my man seems to be relishing the job at last. And I cannot lie, Joe: I would have knocked you down to get at him in that pilot uniform.
JR: Who is having more fun on television than TJ Lavin? Specifically TJ Lavin during a trivia challenge. That's maybe my favorite part about this show — and as you can see, I love MOST of the parts — is the glee on Teej's face when he's like, "No, it's the NILE, you idiots!" This season felt like MTV promised him they'd let him drive dune-buggies all day over giant desert sand dunes during his off hours, and he jumped at the chance to live his Fury Road fantasy. Glad to see one person living his absolute best life right now. Here's to Teej, and to another season of this increasingly global, ever-evolving, bafflingly satisfying TV show.
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Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. She's also the editor-in-chief and publisher of Tomato Nation, and true-crime blog and podcast The Blotter Presents