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The Challenge: USA May Have Solved Its Rookie Problem

A few key changes to game structure and an alliance of Survivor and Big Brother alums have the Challenge vets on the ropes.
  • Tiffany Mitchell, Michele Fitzgerald, Dusty Harris, Johnny Bananas (Photo: CBS)
    Tiffany Mitchell, Michele Fitzgerald, Dusty Harris, Johnny Bananas (Photo: CBS)

    By the end of the second part of The Challenge: USA's Season 2 premiere, audiences who had grown weary of the broader franchise’s custom of feeding rookie players to the show's veteran cast members may have felt an unfamiliar emotion: hope. For the first time in many seasons across The Challenge's many iterations, not only have the rookies gained the upper hand, but it looks like alliances have been structured to let them keep it.

    The Challenge: USA flopped when it debuted last summer. This was mostly due to a poorly designed game structure that involved a team-selecting randomizer that was dubiously random and challenges that were so punishing on the human body that hardly anyone was able to complete the season's final tasks. It wasn't really a failure of casting, which infused The Challenge concept with new faces from CBS reality shows Survivor, The Amazing Race, Big Brother, and Love Island. And yet when it came time to tinker with the show ahead of Season 2, the show's producers went to a familiar well and decided to add veteran players from The Challenge's flagship series, a move that seemed to communicate, "The CBS stars can't hack this game, so we're bringing in the ringers."

    This wasn't the first time that a Challenge spin-off had been muddied by casting too many people from the original series. The Challenge: All-Stars was conceived as a throwback series that would allow the show's old-timers from its earliest seasons to come back and compete among each other. And yet by that show's third season, they'd brought in players like Wes Bergman, Jordan Wiseley, and Kailah Casillas who were still active within the main The Challenge series.

    With veterans now in the mix, it seemed like you could easily predict how The Challenge: USA Season 2 was going to go down. The veterans would be shown deference by the newbies, they would be allowed to dictate the voting strategy. No one would want to go up against them in an elimination challenge because their familiarity with the game made them too formidable, and one by one, the rookies and second-year players would get picked off, en route to another finale dominated by the likes of Tori Deal and Johnny Bananas.

    This is what happens on The Challenge: Last year's The Challenge: Ride or Dies actually began with some strong showings by the rookie players, but after every elimination, the show's producers kept introducing more Challenge veterans into the game, ensuring a numbers advantage for the vets, and yet another endgame in which the new blood had no chance to win.

    While it's only been two episodes, The Challenge: USA's cast seems determined to break this trend. And at the risk of Lucy-ing ourselves with this football, there's reason for the audience to believe they will. For starters, the producers have structured the game to keep the veterans from wielding too much power. After the six Challenge vets — Johnny Bananas, Wes, Tori, Jonna Mannion, Cory Wharton, and Amanda Garcia — were introduced, they were spread out evenly over the three teams, keeping any of them from gaining a numbers advantage.

    Additionally, players now get to vote in secret for who should go into the elimination competition. This is a massive advantage for the rookies, because it takes away the veterans' most powerful weapon: intimidation. For all the athleticism required, strategy on The Challenge most often boils down to a top-down structure that relies on bullying in order to keep everyone in line. On most seasons, voting occurs in an open forum, which keeps most newer players from wanting to rock the boat and risk voting against the majority.

    Also working to nullify the veterans' bully powers is the fact that these newbies aren't just a random assortment of players from far-flung reality shows. The Challenge: Ride or Dies cast was made up of players who originated from 15 different TV shows across the world, from Love Island to Survivor Turkey to The Mole: Germany. Most of the rookies were the only cast members from their original shows. The Challenge: USA has a much more concentrated talent pool, with nine Big Brother alums, seven from Survivor, and two from The Amazing Race. Even though three of the BB alums (Josh Martinez, Faysal Shafaat, and Paulie Calafiore) are at this point more known for being on The Challenge than Big Brother, the rookies still have more than a fighting chance in a numbers game.

    More important than just simple numbers, though, is the fact that these rookies run in the same circles and have pre-existing relationships with one another. Veterans on The Challenge are able to bulldoze their way through every season because they all know each other and can divide and conquer the new players. Not this time, though. Episode 2 revealed a cross-team alliance of Big Brother alums Tiffany Mitchell, Alyssa Lopez, and Alyssa Snider, and Survivor alums Desi Williams, Michaela Bradshaw, Chanelle Howell, and Michele Fitzgerald, all of whom know each other in some configuration from previous seasons or outside-the-game connections. Together, they're able to guide the team votes, keep the anti-veteran voting blocs strong, and vote in big enough numbers to make it likely that veterans will see the elimination competitions.

    That's exactly how things played out in Episode 2, as veterans Tori and Jonna were placed into elimination, with two-time Challenge winner Jonna going home. That wasn't even the most thrilling part of the episode, which came during the deliberations among the winning Green Team. Wes, one of the great manipulators of rookie players in Challenge history, attempted to sway his team away from voting against veterans "just this first time" in order to stay safely unopposed to powerful veterans. On any other season, Wes would have been able to talk his way into his team voting in some unthreatening rookie and maintaining veteran numbers. This time, though, led by Michaela and Desi, the rookies on the Green Team held firm and voted for Tori and Johnny Bananas.

    It was a simple vote, but it was also a sea change in the usual Challenge power structure. And it bodes well for an exciting season. It's not about rooting for the veterans to get steamrolled —, the vets are great at the competitions, so it's not like they don't have a fighting chance. But with the rookies finally using the numbers to their advantage and maintaining a united front, these veterans are going to have to work hard to win this time. Players like Wes and Johnny keep saying they're the best players this show has produced. Now they get to prove it.

    The Challenge: USA airs Thursdays at 10:00 PM ET and Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on CBS through August 27, then just Thursdays at 10, with episodes streaming next-day on Paramount+. You can join the discussions in our forums.

    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: USA, CBS, The Amazing Race, Big Brother, The Challenge, The Challenge: All Stars, Survivor, Johnny Bananas, Tiffany Mitchell