There’s something unavoidably stupid about MTV’s The Challenge, the reality game show that is now in its 24th season. Stupid, and yet—addictive. Bunim/Murray productions—the force behind The Real World, Road Rules, and every spin-off and mash-up of those two that currently takes up airspace on MTV—is the best in the game when it comes to making compulsively watchable reality television. The Challenge, in particular, streamlines the production process even further—everyone on the show is already a veteran of another Bunim/Murray production, or, better yet, is a veteran of The Challenge itself. The Challenge started out as Real World/Road Rules Challenge, and as the conceit changed for the contest every summer, the name changed, too. Fresh Meat was an occasional name for the show, as was Gauntlet. Rivals II is a follow-up to Rivals, which offered a unique further turn of the screw, even for the annals of MTV—each person is forced to compete for prize money with a nemesis from a previous season. Did you break a mirror in a fight with someone? Or sleep with someone’s ex? Congratulations, now you’re partners.
Rivals II does not add a lot to the formula, but it is a virtuoso execution of it. The drama starts immediately, and it never slows down, even when the show itself does, dragged down in the 90-minute première by a little bit too much weight around the middle. The players are paired up and sent to their shared villa; everyone starts drinking as soon as possible, a shared shibboleth toward as much drama as possible; and flashbacks inform a new viewer what the history behind all of these characters is, quickly and efficiently. Host TJ delivers the oft-repeated theme of the show: “If there’s one thing you can all agree on, it’s that you love money more than you hate your partners.” Oh, good.
Helpfully, each character is supplied with a descriptive tagline, which flashes under their name whenever they speak to the camera directly. Macho alpha male CT, for example, is “The Boston Bad Boy;” Zach, “The Sensitive Hulk;” Jasmine is “The Sassy Waitress;” Anastasia is “The Newly Single Vixen.” It’s a satisfying collection of ciphers funneled into a selection of absurd challenges—some that require physical agility, and others that require pure politicking. Because most of the players have played the game before, even this new season’s debut has the air of well-worn passages—the contestants are all familiar with the political power plays, even as every revelation sends them into fresh paroxysms of outrage. Challenges and a popular vote single out two separate teams who then face off in elimination rounds. These are fought in the jungle of Phuket (continuing in the long tradition of Americans using pristine third-world countries as the backdrop for their own drama). The stakes are clearly outlined and musically scored for the appropriate emotional response in every moment.
The question then is—well, does all of this sound and fury signify anything? What’s the point of this show?
It’s possible The Challenge is designed to be a show that brings about Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature in its participants—an orgy of terrible behavior, cleverly edited and arranged for our viewing amusement, so that the audience may revel in the players’ humiliation and also feel superior to it. In some respects, that’s true—the stage is constantly set for continued chaos, a chaos that typically demeans the characters into saying or doing something that they wouldn’t otherwise. But one of MTV’s strengths is that it aggressively humanizes its reality show participants—and similarly, The Challenge never quite allows you to feel only contempt for who you’re watching. The contempt is there, of course, and some contestants invite it more than others. For example, CT, a veteran of The Challenge, often goes out of his way to be as frustrating as possible on camera. And other characters say things that are clearly designed to be soundbites—Brazilian Camila says of her team, “We’re both loud, and crazy, and we both have an accent. which is going to make things even spicier.” There are repeated moments that require you, as a viewer, to check your humanity at the door. The love triangle involving a girl who is struggling with ovarian cancer, for example, or the enthusiastic humor around public defecation.
But its saving grace is primarily that the show gets too close to these people, even when they are performing their worst selves. Which probably speaks to the incredible staying power of the show, 24 seasons in, with presumably a rather low production budget. The contestants are remarkably stripped of their facades, and some of the rival pairs are clearly on the road toward reconciliation, which is surprisingly moving. Strangely too all the participants know what is required of them—flirtation, fistfights, and gender-normative posturing. These people, after all, are professional reality show contestants. If this is a theater of the most awful aspects of humanity, the players are in on it, which makes it ever more like farcical, ironic performance.
Which is to say—The Challenge is designed to be the perfect hatewatch. It’s not so awful that it’s an affront to humanity, and it’s not angry or belittling. But it’s also not particularly intelligent, nor is it emotionally complex. It’s a soap opera with real people and openly contrived adventures; it has a huge cast of characters you don’t need to get to know too well; and it will be on all summer, on repeat, for whenever you want to put something on TV that isn’t too taxing. It invites you to be excited or condemnatory of its characters, and then to forget it entirely until your next viewing; to produce just the right level of emotion to be engaged, but not too engaged.
- CT starts a fight. His reasoning: “I got all these young bucks, stickin’ their chest out. I just want them to know, the old man’s in the house.”
- In many respects, the challenges look and sound like extreme couples counseling for extremely dysfunctional marriages, which makes the show all the better.