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My First Time: ‘The Challenge’

MTV/Ringer illustration
MTV/Ringer illustration

Though the world of reality TV is as complex and varied as any ecosystem, it can be roughly divided into two camps. There’s aspirational reality, which offers voyeuristic looks into the lives of the freakishly talented, or at least the rich-enough-to-drown-their-fortunes-in-pinot-grigio. And then there’s what we’ll call desperational reality TV, which comforts us with the knowledge that, whatever our failings, at least we don’t do that to ourselves on national television.

I prefer the former over the latter, which is how I managed to go 18 years and all previous 27 seasons without seeing an episode of MTV’s The Challenge: Rivals III, formerly known as The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, formerly known as Road Rules: All Stars. The Challenge is desperational reality’s Patient Zero, the first to turn something that could at least be spun as an intriguing social experiment into a long, alcohol-assisted journey into the human spirit’s heart of darkness.

Or at least that’s what The Challenge looks like to a first-time viewer. Which, given the show’s place in Ringer office lore, I was bound to become sooner rather than later. So in the world’s lowest-commitment act of stunt journalism, I decided to dive right in.

The first thing you notice about The Challenge is that the challenges are the least important part; it took me exactly 39 minutes and 40 seconds to figure out that the title of this show refers to the dumbed-down American Ninja Warrior stunts required of the contestants and not the experience of being locked in a house with 25 other people.

Instead, The Challenge’s great innovation is its contestants. This show’s genius — or rather, the genius of Bunim/Murray Productions, which also gave us The Real World, Bad Girls Club, Project Runway, and the Kardashian Komplex — is its recognition that truly great reality stars are a nonrenewable resource. There’s a finite amount of people with fuses this short and inhibitions this low, and casting them out into the world after a single season is a waste of talent.

Enter The Challenge, a reality show with a cast sourced entirely from other reality shows, including The Real World, Are You the One, and increasingly, itself. It’s a greatest hits collection of emotional dysfunction, the personality equivalent of running clothes through the dryer one too many times until they’re weird and misshapen. Over as much as a decade (a decade!) these people have been put in front of a camera and paired off and pitted against each other until they become the most concentrated possible version of a pure, animal drama machine. It’s the reality TV equivalent of pure-breeding. Or incest.

Because of this, any competitive structure beyond “trap these people in a house together” is hilariously unnecessary and almost purely decorative. But there’s a byzantine set of rules anyway, which go as follows: the contestants are sorted into pairs on the basis of previous relationships (Battle of the Exes), lack thereof (Fresh Meat), or in this case, pure hatred (Rivals, a gimmick in its third incarnation on the current season). In its reliance on past hookups, flare-ups, and fuck-ups, The Challenge gives the Marvel Cinematic Universe a run for its money.

In theory — the operative term here being “theory” — the teams are then evaluated on the basis of their performance in a physical challenge, like navigating an obstacle course or aggressively humping a bar of soap. (Contestants were told they had to uncover a sequence of numbers in the soap using only their crotch, which is a very roundabout way of saying “we want you to look like you’re boning.”) The loser automatically goes into a two-team elimination round ominously called “The Jungle,” because this season is filmed in Mexico; the winner gets to choose the other team up for elimination, because that’s how you maximize middle school–level fights over who’s trustworthy and who’s plotting behind your back. Over this season’s four episodes to date, a team has been sent home through the standard elimination procedure exactly once. (One contestant had back problems and was deemed physically unable to compete by the doctors who are a constant and alarming background presence on this show; the other decided he had a girlfriend to get back home to, instantly making him the most relatable member of the cast.)

Nothing gives the lie to the idea that competition is in any way central to the plot (rather than a superficial distinction from The Real World, the show’s central tributary) than the rhythm. Anyone who’s ever sat through a Top Chef marathon knows how televised contests are supposed to work: optional smaller challenge, main challenge, 20 minutes of infighting, solemn elimination, lame speech, fade to credits.

The Challenge, meanwhile, couldn’t give a shit about pacing. The most recent episode ended in the middle of a challenge; the one before that with a screaming match between housemates — cause: someone asked someone else a question — complete with the solemn and contractually required declaration that “I’m not here to make friends.” Eliminations are an afterthought, relegated to the middle of an episode if they happen at all, and challenges exist to ramp up or repair tensions between teammates. Or to make them pretend to have sex, in the case of the aforementioned soap bar.

Presiding over all this is T.J. Lavin, a BMX rider whose defining personality trait is hating quitters. (“Don’t take care, see you never!” is the kind of would-be insult that makes you appreciate why, in RuPaul’s Drag Race parlance, Reading Is Fundamental.) The Challenge is a well-oiled machine that hurls drinks and has inadvisable sex all by itself, so Lavin’s role is more announcer than facilitator. Eventually, he’ll hand out a huge amount of money ($275,000) to the winning team and a decent amount of money ($50,000 and $25,000, respectively) to the second- and third-place teams. And then it starts all over again.

Which brings us to the single weirdest thing about The Challenge: a complete and total lack of urgency. On any other show with this much money on the line, eliminated contestants would express a modicum of disappointment, and those still in the running more of a competitive instinct. On The Challenge, however, all this dissipates with the knowledge that it’s entirely possible anyone could have a second, third, or 14th shot. Contestants frequently refer to what they’ll do “next time” they’re invited back to some dorm-like house in some tropical locale. They forgo tearful goodbyes in favor of the casual hugs of someone leaving a weekly dinner party. And the momentary, acute sadness of leaving television is replaced by the longer-lasting melancholy of knowing this could go on forever.

Skipping straight past The Challenge’s source material and into the show itself is a disorienting experience. All the tics that make reality almost as fun to scapegoat as it is to watch are present, accounted for, and put in fast-forward; the cycle of disbelief to glee to superiority to shame and back again plays out at corresponding hyperspeed. Each episode of The Challenge leaves me somehow both more satisfied and more empty inside than a single episode of any other show, like I’ve compressed my most ill-advised Netflix binge (looking at you, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding) into 42 minutes. As a crash survey of the increasingly well-defined subspecies that is the Professional Reality Star, The Challenge is unparalleled. As a portrait of a particularly exhibitionist strain of the human condition, though, it’s as grueling as any prestige drama. To recover, I often find myself returning to the comforting embrace of aspirational reality, the Good Witch of unscripted TV. House Hunters — quite possibly the least, er, challenging show on television — usually does the trick.