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‘The Challenge’ Premiere Recap: Death to the Veterans

‘Double Agents’ cements a transition toward a new generation of competitors. Plus, TJ Lavin exits a helicopter.

MTV/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The global pandemic has shut down all modes of normal life. But MTV’s The Challenge stops for nothing. What—you thought they’d take a season off? The NBA returned, the NFL returned, the NHL returned, MLB returned—why wouldn’t America’s fifth sport also find a way to compete? This past September, production plunked down in Reykjavik, Iceland, to begin filming the 36th (!!) installment of The Challenge. They’re in their own bubble—though, it’s worth noting, they are not being held underground like last season—and they’re ready to kill each other for a million dollars. And we’re ready to document every moment: from the feats of strength to the bad decisions, from the bonkers late-night fights to the extraordinarily dope shit TJ Lavin does.

A Very Necessary Breakdown of TJ Lavin’s Entrance

One of the more enjoyable moments in each season of The Challenge comes at the very beginning, when all the contestants are assembled in a group and our legendary host, TJ Lavin, appears, setting off a flurry of excitement, as if these people are witnessing the second coming of Jesus Christ.

To kick off Double Agents, TJ swoops in on a helicopter and … it seems like it’s the happiest some of these people have ever been?

Screenshots via MTV

Why does it feel like this is the first time these people have ever seen a helicopter? I’m pretty sure I’ve watched at least half of them literally jump out a helicopter before! This should not be that exciting.

Besides, it’s what happens after the helicopter lands that’s truly amazing. First, TJ tosses the pilot a “hang loose” sign:

Big mood right here, as they say.

It gets better: TJ then runs his fingers through his hair like he’s the X-Games’ answer to Derek Zoolander.

Like I said, everyone is losing it over this. Nelson’s acting like a 32-year-old woman at a Harry Styles concert. Several people literally squeal when TJ takes off his sunglasses. I’m pretty sure Cory starts crying!

“There comes a person out of the helicopter with sunglasses,” says Nam, a new contestant ported over from Ultimate Beastmaster (it’s a real show, I looked it up). “Looks super dope. I think this guy means danger.”

I think this guy means danger—lemme get that on a poster for a B-level action movie starring TJ Lavin (Super Dope: The TJ Lavin Story).

I love how aggressively The Challenge has leaned into the idea that TJ is the only star on this show. The Challenge is not a story about super-athletic maniacs going to war with each other—it’s a story about a bunch of peons vying for the approval of a man who has a great eye for jackets. His strict stance on quitting (don’t do it, unless you want to be bathed in shame for the rest of your small, sad life) has, through the years, evolved into a full-on persona defined by unwavering strength and coolness. This is his show. That final is his final. You better fucking clap when he exits a helicopter.

Wes Bergmann vs. This Guy’s Shoe

The first event of the season required contestants to fight over a single, color-coded piece of metal—a setup just begging for a dogpile. Which is exactly what happens. Obviously: The Challenge’s game designers are old pros at this point; they understand the laws of cause and effect and plan accordingly. What they couldn’t have planned for is CT ripping off another person’s shoe and then discarding said shoe straight into Wes’s face:

The Challenge—rightfully so—devoted about five minutes of the episode to this. Here it is in slow motion:

And here is TJ:

Could anything be more perfect than this? It’s CT, by far the most likely person to steal someone’s shoe, throwing a shoe at Wes, the person you’d most likely want to see get hit in the face with a shoe. It’s also a bit of foreshadowing: Later in the episode, both CT and Wes are thrown into elimination. Just incredible, artful, perfect stuff. It almost makes me question whether all of The Challenge is just a simulation.

Partner Up!

Do you remember being in science class, just minding your own business, when all of the sudden the teacher sent you into a spiral of adolescent social anxiety? The dreaded “partner up”—a devastating free-for-all that encourages class warfare and leaves you grouped with the kid who smells weird if you don’t move fast enough.

Quite unexpectedly, Double Agents kicks off with a partnering that’s triggeringly similar to the ones we all went through in school. After the first challenge’s winner, Aneesa, hand-picks her teammate (Fessy), you’re expecting that the rest of the contestants will pick partners based on some predetermined order. Instead, TJ is just like, “OK, all you losers figure it out for yourself.”

It’s a fascinating turn of events that doubles as a social experiment and an opportunity for players to flex their strategic muscles. We get some of the high school awkwardness—like CT turning down Kam’s request to partner up, Big T not even knowing her partner’s name, and some of the rookies being picked last solely because they’re rookies. But we also get to see who’s thinking on their heels—Wes makes a beeline for Natalie, one of Survivor’s most dominant competitors; established allies like Kam and Leroy couple up with other people rather than each other to expand their influence and avoid becoming an easy target. And we get to see who’s not thinking: Nicole partners with Devin, who sucks; CT partners with Ashley, superficially creating a pairing of unstoppable former champions but in reality forming a partnership that everyone else will immediately want to destroy. (Which is exactly what happens.)

The Challenge is constantly tinkering with its formula, trying to find new ways to force people to scheme. The “partner up” fiasco was an ingenious twist to start the season. That said, everyone should’ve seen the other twist coming—that these partnerships are subject to change. There’s no way MTV would’ve been that slapdash with the process if the pairings were gonna be permanent.

Introducing: The Bubble Bar

On Total Madness last season, the contestants spent their nights out at three extremely similar Czech Republic bars. (Hilariously, they were all underground, to keep with the theme.)

This season, though, bars are out because of the pandemic. But they can’t not have nights out—75 percent of The Challenge is life-ruining makeout sessions and pointless fights that only happen because everyone was partying too hard. Without the rampant boozing, The Challenge is just American Ninja Warrior starring people who can’t spell. So what did MTV come up with as a solution?

Allow me to introduce you to the Bubble Bar:

That’s right—they literally just bought one of those giant snow globe thingies and stocked it with off-brand liquor and couches from IKEA. And I love it. The Bubble Bar is Iceland’s hottest club. I can’t wait to see the first fistfight in the Bubble Bar. I can’t wait to see Nany poke a hole in one of the Bubble Bar’s walls in a fit of drunken rage.

Although I do have to wonder: What’s the circulation situation in there? Seems like things could get disgustingly foggy.

The Game Has Changed

At the onset of each Challenge, the veterans form a coalition to destroy the first-time competitors. This is the way.

Or, at least it used to be.

Ever since it started recruiting from outside The Real World network, The Challenge has been slowly evolving. This season only half of the 30 competitors come from MTV, and only nine come from The Real World universe. And as the makeup of the cast has changed, so has how the game is played. The seniority system is basically nonexistent now, because there are so few who are actually senior. Meanwhile, MTV has been deliberate in its recruiting, practically building in preset factions with its casting. The Brits stick together; the Big Brother alums stick together; the Survivor people watch out for each other. The longtime Challenge competitors no longer hold a majority on their own show. Gone are the days when the mere presence of a CT or Wes is enough to sway the game. (I’m convinced this is why Johnny Bananas opted to sit out this season; not because he’s in a contract dispute or too busy making a late-night travel show on NBC.)

So it’s really not that surprising when in the premiere, the entire house targets Challenge vets CT and Ashley—and later, when Aneesa and Fessy send Wes (and his rookie partner Natalie) into elimination. Both CT and Wes talk about how everyone needs to be strategic when targeting big players like them. “Why do you want to go to war right now?” Wes asks. But to that I ask, “Why wouldn’t they?” The strategy of sending the weakest links into elimination, letting the stronger players coast to the final, has never been a sound one; any chance to take down a player or team with high odds of winning it all must be taken. Slow-playing only helps those already in power—which is why The Challenge’s traditional power players have always advocated for it.

Now though, their quorum is gone. Their once-manipulated subjects have been replaced by Big Brother people who don’t know them well enough to fear them, and Survivor competitors used to playing a much more treacherously political game.

This is a good thing—like how the NFL got way better when coaches realized that you could throw the ball. Sure, it might be sad to see a messy legend like Ashley go home on night one, but it just speaks to how much more ruthless the game is. If you want that million dollars, you’re gonna have to earn it.

The Double Agents Power Ranking: Week 1

After each episode, we’ll determine the players who are best situated to win it all—and the ones who are hanging on by a thread.

The Top Six

1. Fessy: My guy just missed out last season; he’s the easy favorite to start out. The only thing that can stop him is getting teamed up with a dud.

2. Tori: Currently paired up with Cory and unencumbered by the absent Jordan, Tori’s the girl to beat.

3. Natalie: The Survivor alum—and again, she’s one of the best contestants in the history of that show—is probably the most-feared female competitor, and after winning the first elimination, she holds political power and already has her ticket to TJ’s final. Having an early skull proved to be a detriment last season, but because Natalie is so intimidating—and savvy—I don’t expect the rest of the house to constantly target her.

4. Cory: Having Tori by his side is a huge plus, he has a shocking amount of allies, and he seems to have gotten over his seasons-long case of “being a big dumb idiot.”

5. Kaycee: Most things being equal so early on, it just feels smart to bet on a person who was one Jenny away from winning last season.

6. Kyle: I’m sorry, but you just can’t count out Kyle. The man with a sick accent and a second face just finds a way. Partnering with Nany, though, is a high-risk, high-reward move.

The Bottom Six

30. Gabby: Less than an episode in and Love Island’s Gabby is already shedding tears for no reason. (If you watched her season of Love Island, you know that Gabby crying is a REGULAR OCCURRENCE.) She doesn’t have the size; she doesn’t have the fortitude.

29. Joseph: This dude fell asleep at the Bubble Bar and his partner doesn’t even know his name. GTFOH.

28. Josh: Just because he’s Josh.

27. Nany: Sorry, but in a season that requires you to win an elimination to make the final, Nany prevailing over a pretty stacked female cast feels unlikely.

26. Lolo Jones: Lolo couldn’t hang when she was on Champs vs. Pros—I don’t see her faring better in a full-blown season, surrounded by even more bonkers reality-TV personalities. She’s already misstepping in the premiere, falling in love with Nam because he’s “funny.” THERE’S NO ROOM FOR ROMANCE ON THE CHALLENGE.

25. Nelson: Mark my words—Nelson will never win a Challenge.