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The Most Important, Most Artful Shots From the Premiere of ‘The Challenge: Total Madness’

For this season—which is seemingly inspired by HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’—MTV stepped up the graphics package, creating a show that is not only physically grueling and dramatic, but also visually stunning

MTV/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 35th season of MTV’s The Challenge—they’re calling this season “Total Madness”—premiered on Wednesday night. It brought back many of its well-worn traditions: CT’s massive body, Johnny Bananas acting like everyone’s father, Nany hooking up with someone, and competitions that are surprisingly physically demanding, to the point that you begin to wonder if the people on The Challenge should be legitimately considered professional athletes. But it also introduced new things: another influx of competitors from non-MTV shows like Survivor and Big Brother, Wes Bergman sporting a Yukon Cornelius beard, and most importantly, a wild upgrade in aesthetics.

The Challenge has always been a heavily edited show—the main thing that keeps it from feeling like an actual sport is the fact that every elimination challenge comes with about 600 camera cuts. But I can’t remember The Challenge ever being this boosted in post-production. “Total Madness” is flying through camera filters and low-grade graphics; it’s taking HUGE swings from the editing room. It’s, quite simply, astonishing. I can’t get enough of it. So, every week, I will collect the best moments of each episode in screenshots. I’ll lend some context to some of the images, but once in a while I’m just gonna be like, “Hey look at how The Challenge turned people into Jesus candles.”

Screenshots via MTV

See? Tremendous content. Let’s get to Week 1.

TJ Lavin, Dramatic King

This is the season’s first glimpse of TJ Lavin. (In this shot, he was opening the doors of a giant helicopter that drops all of the competitors in the middle of a random field. Then as everyone exited the chopper, he took their attendance like a grade school teacher?)

TJ has always been a bit dramatic. He’s like the BMX version of Chris Harrison—he’s always saying stuff like “this is craziest, hardest thing I’ve ever seen,” like Harrison, only he does it while wearing Vans. But again, this is “Total Madness,” and even TJ has dialed it up. It almost seems like one of his demands for returning as host for the 25th time was that MTV allow him to be more involved in the challenges. What do I mean, you ask? Well ...

TJ drove a tank through the playing field. It was the happiest I’ve ever seen him. Also though, shout-out to the actual guy driving the tank:

Good job, Kevin. (His name’s probably not Kevin.) And shout-out to the best shot of the premiere episode—a very convincing, very graphics-heavy shot from the tank’s POV:

I always wondered what the inside of a tank gun barrel looked like. Now I know!

Pirate Jordan

This is what Jordan looked like when he was running through his rivals last season:

This is what Jordan looks like now:

Sir, your shirt, what happened? Where is the collar? What … is that stain?

The Challenge or Chernobyl?

“Total Madness” doesn’t really sound like a theme—that’s more or less a description of every season. But it turns out there is a theme: It’s … heavily inspired by HBO’s Chernobyl, I think?

First of all, we don’t know where exactly this season is taking place. Usually, a season will start with TJ basically being like, “Welcome to beautiful Thailand,” or, “Welcome to just Turkey” (there were so many Turkey seasons for a stretch there). But this season has no such introduction. Instead, we’re just led to think that the season is set in a place that used to be occupied by Soviet Russia—more specifically, a place that may have dealt with nuclear fallout. There is no mansion this year; there is just a gigantic underground bunker:

And you better believe that bunker is full of gas tanks and pipes that are marked with a Slavic language:

The best part of the bunker reveal is when, after everyone rightfully freaks out about living with a bunch of fellow reality TV stars in a lair with NO WINDOWS, a few of the contestants make it to the end of the hallway and find this open space:

Everyone gets so freaking psyched about this.

And I’m sorry but, this doesn’t seem good? There’s still no outlet for fresh air or, you know, sunlight? Also no walls? This looks like hell!

Pretty sweet graffiti, though:

So true.

But the Chernobyl comps don’t end there; this season includes a “tribunal” in which a challenge’s winners interview losers in a smoky room. And then there’s an elimination board that looks like this:

I think I’ve seen something like that before …

HBO

I don’t know who at MTV got super into Chernobyl, but I really respect the commitment to this bit.

Math Is Hard

Tori was so bad at simple arithmetic that The Challenge hit her with a montage that evokes that Chihuahua PTSD meme.

Nightmare Fuel

Wes said that his strategy this season was to “play possum.” Like a second later he was calling someone a “piece of shit,” so, I don’t know how much he will stick to that plan. But really I’m just noting this because of the graphics department’s literal interpretation of the statement.

A Union Most Unholy

Bananas and Wes have teamed up. They are one person now. This screenshot is just like when Harry Potter and Voldemort jumped off a cliff in Deathly Hallows—Part 2 and then mashed their faces together. Only, Bananas and Wes are kinda both Voldemorts.