As far as I can recall, I’ve only ever watched two seasons of The Real World - Hawaii and New Orleans (the first one). These were consecutive seasons that aired in 1999 and 2000 respectively. I would have placed them later in the 00’s, only because I wouldn’t have guessed that the younger version of myself was at his MTV-iest at ages 10 and 11. I wasn’t even at post-13 “real” teenage years yet. And although I remember watching TRL after coming home from school back then, I didn’t think MTV had left a big impact on me. That is, until I recently became obsessed with The Challenge.
Rebranded from the original title Road Rules: All Stars and then Real World/Road Rules: The Challenge, MTV’s The Challenge has entered my life after more than a decade of dormancy in a very big way. Somehow I got turned onto the show’s 23rd iteration, Battle of the Seasons in 2012, and not only watched every one of those episodes and the episodes of subsequent seasons (Rivals 2 and Free Agents), but have voraciously binged on past seasons as well.* Since moving to Milwaukee in August of 2013, I have watched 20 seasons of The Challenge, often finishing each in a day or two. I started out with more recent seasons like Battle of the Exes or The Island, which had a mix of cast members from my new favorite, current seasons and older veterans from the bygone days. I finished up recently by wading through the early seasons, and memories from my 10 and 11 year old brain are finally surfacing once again. I totally remember seeing these people. Until watching Battle of the Sexes I had completely forgotten about The Real World: New Orleans. Then Julie and Melissa get into a spat in the first episode and a wave of prepubescent nostalgia hit me like a wall. It’s a strange feeling remembering part of your personal TV history that had been hidden for years. So thank you, The Challenge, for bringing back fond memories of my childhood. And certainly a big thank you to the YouTube user who uploaded these old Challenge seasons that are no longer available on MTV’s website.
*All The Challenge seasons with the same format as a previous season are referred to by a number as well, e.g. Rivals 2, but for some reason this wasn’t implemented for what should have been Battle of the Seasons 2
I now unabashedly love The Challenge and everything it provides. First are the titular challenges, which have gotten more intense and physically demanding while maintaining a level of embarrassment that allows us all to laugh at what the contestants have to subject themselves to. We get to make fun of Johnny Bananas for thinking Dutch is the official language of Australia, or the couples on Battle of the Exes dressing up in wedding day attire and force feeding themselves an entire wedding cake. At the same time, we get to look on in excitement when the teams compete to cross an obstacle course on top of a semi-truck while it drives around a NASCAR track at 30 mph, or when players go down a 50 yard slip-n-slide that launches bodies into a lake housing a colored Tetris puzzle that needs solving. It’s the best of both worlds, at least for the viewer.
Even more intense are the elimination challenges, in which the cast is dwindled down each episode following a one-on-one event spectacular. Sometimes the two contestants have beef and look forward to putting the smackdown on a foe. Sometimes they’re friends and loathe having to not only take out someone they like in the house, but an ally in a game in which backstabbing is the norm. Either way, the win-or-go-home mentality makes the animal instincts take over. Whether it’s in the Gulag, the Ruins, the Inferno, the Gauntlet, or whatever else the elimination stage is called, the contestants put on a show worthy of the gladiator fights of ancient Rome (with considerably more eyeliner and bronzer). Just this season on “Free Agents” we’ve had a circular hallway turned into a human particle accelerator and a contestant losing total feeling in her right arm after competing.
The audience also gets to learn a lot about the contestants facing off in the elimination, both from the camera time they get leading up to the event, and how they carry themselves during and afterward. Take Brandon, for instance. Brandon was introduced on Fresh Meat 2* and wasn’t able to truly compete for very long because his partner busted up her leg and they were unable to compete in the elimination.** Brandon got another shot the very next season on Cutthroat, but because he didn’t know very many contestants, and The Challenge is nothing if not cliquish, he was sent into elimination four times in a row for his team. He clearly wasn’t pleased with his team’s decision, but Brandon kept giving everything he had and came back three times with only the slightest pissed off attitude. He wasn’t enthralled with his situation, but he made the best of it, kept partying, and got into a great fight with Ty that secured him a spot on future Challenge seasons.
*The model for both Fresh Meat seasons has a bunch of brand new people paired up with Challenge vets to make two person teams. I assume this started after Road Rules stopped providing cast members and producers wanted some new blood, hence the title. We’ve gotten some of the most iconic contestants from these two outings, though, including Kenny, Evan, Big Easy, Laurel, Cara Maria, Eveyln, and Diem
**In what might be the best moment of this season (which takes home my award for worst post-TJ Challenge season) Brandon gets the team DQ’ed for drinking beers with breakfast instead of the injury to his partner Katelyn holding them up.
Before discussing the most important part of The Challenge, I want to give adequate space to the unsung hero of this show, TJ Lavin. Since taking over hosting duties with season 11’s Gauntlet II, TJ has provided the show with a personality and attitude that were completely absent from previous hosts Johnny Mosely and Dave Mirra. Those former hosts did nothing more than recite rules and exposition, and while Dave tried cracking a smile every now and again, Johnny was as bland as a mayonnaise sandwich. By the time I finished the first Battle of the Sexes Johnny had completely worn out his welcome. In the same way OITNB fans hate Jason Biggs’ character, every time the host appeared on camera I would burst out with an “Ugh, Johnny.”
But then The Challenge producers gave the show the only missing piece to an otherwise perfectly constructed entertainment spectacle. TJ Lavin has consistently been a very enjoyable part of every season, and sometimes can steal the spotlight for an episode. TJ immediately staked his claim as the best host the show will ever see during the first two female eliminations on that Gauntlet II season. After Jo left the show in such a crazy induced panic that she called the local Trinidadian police on the first night for basically being around too many drunk people, Cameron and Jisela decide to cede victory to their elimination opponents. TJ slams these girls for quitting, questioning their intentions for coming on the show in the first place. He even calls out the other contestants, telling any other possible quitters to get off the show right now (start that clip at 15:05). Had I actually watched every season of The Challenge in order, I imagine this would have been the moment the whole thing coalesced into a perfect show in my brain.
For great TJ moments, watch any trivia challenge and you’ll see the glee in the host's eyes when he eliminates contestants for dumb answers. But TJ also takes pride in awarding contestants who compete at a very high level with his (and frankly the show’s) signature line, “You killed it.” And guys, TJ is so amazing that after a real like BMX accident that sent him into a coma, contestants from the show sent him cards and gifts in the hospital. They love him so much for being the best host possible, and so do I.
Now onto the most important aspect of the show: drunk idiots doing stupid things to each other. The challenges and eliminations are all well and good, but the interpersonal stuff is the real treat here. The fights are always highlights because everyone is too drunk to make any sense, and they have to work around the ‘you throw a punch and you’re out of the game’ rule. On two occasions an uninvolved contestant has become collateral damage after being hip checked into a potted plant. After coming out bloodied from one fight, CT says about Adam that he wants to “smash his head and eat it.” As insane as that is to read, watch the clip and you’ll know he is 100% serious. Then there’s the greatest drunken fight against an inanimate object in Challenge history when Camila, screaming about Johnny Bananas being a terrible human being (they dated a bit, but she’s also kind of right), grabs a wicker chair bigger than her and heaves it over her shoulder. But that’s not all! Camila then walks into the pool fully clothed, seemingly to stay there forever. Not jumps, not falls. Walks into the pool. Camila hasn’t been on The Challenge that long, but she knows how to get the camera’s attention. This past season she yells at CT while out at the bar, prompting CT to yell back. Nany then comes to Camila’s defense, only to have Camila misconstrue Nany’s intentions somehow, and start screaming at Nany instead! Pure gold.
Any given episode has great moments of intoxication, probably because production force feeds alcohol to the contestants. People cry, verbally spar, hookup, skinny dip, put on weird costumes and basically make complete fools of themselves. And it’s all amazing to watch.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to The Challenge that has stuck with the show since the beginning. Misogyny runs rampant through this competition, mostly in the form of the male contestants bemoaning the quality of play from the female contestants. While earlier seasons only occasionally showed the men talking secretly about getting rid of girls to make the team stronger, more recent seasons have seen a huge uptick in this agenda. The term “trim the fat” has been used a lot recently to refer to getting rid of the girls, under the guise of playing the game to win as opposed to, say, being a decent human being. One of the worst instances of abuse in the show’s history was on Fresh Meat when Wes & Casey are sent to elimination. Casey is 100 lbs. soaking wet, and the elimination is a long hike carrying heavy bags. When Casey can’t keep up, Wes berates her for being weak and calls her a “stupid bitch” multiple times for lagging behind. Wes is my least favorite contestant ever, and a true douchebag, but his actions aren’t far removed from a lot of the male rhetoric on the show.
While the misogyny can’t be ignored, there have been some very strong female competitors to play the game as of late. Paula has had the respect of everyone on any season after her first few forays, and Laurel, Emilee, Evelyn and Cara Maria could go toe-to-toe with the men in any challenge. They’ve shown that women don’t have to be beholden to any of the guy contestants, and indeed are feared by many of the men.
The last thing I want to discuss about The Challenge is the interesting evolution of the game from past to present. The early seasons feel much more laid back than the current ones, feeling more like a game show than athletic competition. The challenges are somewhat physical, but are clearly designed so any person could reasonably compete. In the first season using the modern format, The Gauntlet, only one of the eliminations pitted contestants in a direct altercation. Either they had to hang upside for a while, put a puzzle together the quickest, or ride a mechanical bull the longest. The easy going attitude was part of the house dynamic as well. Recent interviews with cast members like CT and Johnny Bananas, who’ve been participating in The Challenge for over a decade, talk about earlier seasons being solely excuses for the young contestants to party. They recount the cast drinking to excess every night despite having challenges early in the morning.
Not that the cast doesn’t drink anymore. Far from it. But the contestants now come into The Challenge after months of physical training. Every house is now equipped with a full gym for the contestants to use during taping, something that was added with the new generation’s attitude change from partying to winning. Just check out Johnny Bananas and Leroy training before the most recent season below. The contestants on recent seasons are committed to staying in peak physical condition, and approach the show like an athletic competition instead of a game. It’s no wonder The Challenge has earned the nickname “America’s Fifth Major Professional Sport.” Watch the first three seconds of the trailer for Free Agents and you’ll see the challenges themselves have gotten more intense to match the seriousness of the contestants. Moreover, the final challenge, something that used to be a couple mile race down the beach with some puzzles thrown in, has become a multi-day ordeal that sees contestants sleeping on mountains overnight and trekking over ten miles total. The Challenge is no joke, and it’s no wonder there has been speculation over steroid use on the show. The drama is still there in bunches, so the higher level of intensity only makes the show better to watch.
So now that I’ve thoroughly convinced you that The Challenge is totally worth your time, you must be asking yourself where to start watching. The easy answer is, any season from 7 on will do. Those early seasons are available on Daily Motion or YouTube without commercials, and are only half hour programs. Then there are the middle seasons on MTV.com, but those have lots of commercial breaks. However, it’s basically the only place to see that content. The best option for a newbie, if you’ve got Amazon Prime, is to start with season 18 The Ruins. You get a lot of the attitude from the new generation of contestants, with a healthy mix of all stars from the older seasons. The Ruins is also my favorite season, so there’s that. Prime also has seasons 19-24 up there to watch, all of which are fantastic.
Now I’ll leave you with the best elimination in Challenge history: CT vs. Johnny Bananas on Cutthroat.