A few seasons ago on MTV’s The Challenge, then 5-time champion and master dissembler Johnny Bananas stood on a summit in Argentina after completing a grueling two-day final with his partner Sarah, a bright, sincere person of perhaps too much character for high-stakes reality TV competition. They had just won.
But there was a twist: since Bananas had accumulated more “mini-game” points at the various obstacles throughout the final, he was deemed the ultimate winner. Therefore, he could either split the $350,000 in prize money with his partner or keep it all for himself.
Distrust between Bananas and Sarah had been showed throughout the finale; the season was subtitled “Rivals III” for a reason. In the end, Bananas chose to keep the money. Confessing his decision, it was all he could do but not turn and look at Sarah, who fell to her knees in sobs of disbelief.
This was as genuine a surprise as surprises come on reality TV, and a rare moment of pure villainy. But Bananas is smart. You don’t stretch a stint on The Real World into an over decade-long career as a professional contestant on The Challenge by sheer physical strength and athleticism. The man has a brand to maintain, a narrative to spin. If he splits the money, he’s the good guy with the most wins in Challenge history. There’s really nowhere else for his storyline to go. But if he keeps it all, he’s the bad boy, again. Suddenly, he’s reclaimed his crown as the dirtiest player in the game.
The Challenge, like other reality show competitions, works hard to construct an illusion of itself in order to give its participants something to shatter. On The Bachelor, the rules are really only in place so they can be broken—hell, that’s just good TV; on The Challenge, the viewer is led to believe there is a way to play a clean, honest game—that is, to win without backstabbing and betrayal. This is patently false; everyone knows the only way to win is to play dirty. But the show maintains the façade to perpetuate conflict and accentuate its antagonists.
Now, with The Challenge: Dirty 30, which premiered last night, the long-running series, like the sport’s GOAT, Johnny Bananas, is capitalizing on what makes it worth watching in the first place. Billed as a celebration of the “dirtiest players in Challenge history,” the producers have scraped the bottom of a barrel full of cast members from the show’s 29—yes, 29!—previous seasons to find the 30 most deceptive, cutthroat contestants. This is a natural evolution for the show—eventually, all reality TV shows must lean into themselves; or, in The Challenge’s case, lean in further—but for fans it amounts to the climax we were never aware the series was building towards. Without becoming overly hyperbolic, it’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my entire life.
On last night’s season opener, host TJ Lavin—a straight-shooting former BMX rider with a proclivity for graphic tees and hatred of quitters—looks into the camera and explains the situation: he would tell the cast they were playing for their share of $350,000, when they would really be playing for their share of $1,000,000. This is the equivalent of scientists feeding cocaine-fuelled lab rats even better cocaine. One anticipates the revelation an episode or two down the line with a mixture of horror and glee.
Until then, our appetites must be sated with a first-night party at the Challenge house, this time set in Cartagena, Colombia. All the usual suspects are there, among them Bananas; Camila, otherwise known as the “Camilanator,” whose drunken bouts of rage are replayed in exaggerated slow-motion every season; Jenna, a blonde bimbo-type who is savvier than she appears; Devin, who in light of his less-than-impressive physical stature proclaims that he is “a social genius”; Ashley, nicknamed Smashley, who was most certainly not the first winner to use her prize money to purchase breast implants; and Cory, a jheri-curled bro for whom the term “polidicking” was coined, due to his strategic, err, dicking. You know the old Oscar Wilde quote, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Well, that’s sort of applicable here, if “power” is considered the ability to send someone into an elimination challenge that likely involves solving a block puzzle.
There are newcomers, too, of course, including the gender nonconforming rabble-rouser and “professional cuddler” from a little-watched Real World season, named Ammo, who ironically must conform to a gender for the purposes of the competition. Most notably, though, there’s a couple spawned from the ridiculous matchmaking bacchanal known as Are You the One?, Derrick H. and Tori. Derrick H. was on season 5 of Are You the One?, saw Tori on Are You the One?: Second Chances—a season of the show that featured failed singles from previous seasons of the show—decided he liked her, tweeted at her and slid into her DMs; they started dating and now they’re together on a different MTV reality show that will likely tear them apart. I guess this is the world we live in.
Anyway. The party is eventually broken up by a text from TJ, who informs them that their first challenge is tomorrow morning at 6am. At this point, Smashley’s luggage has still not arrived, so she decides to calls it quits and leaves the show. She has been in Colombia, one presumes, for less than 24 hours.
The challenge itself takes place at some old Colombian fortress-like structure. TJ explains that it will consist of three competitions. In the first one, everyone has to roll barrels from the bottom to the top of the fortress. The top four male and female finishers are safe from elimination, and watch as the remaining competitors are split into teams for the next competition, which involves carrying giant cannons from the bottom to the top of the fortress. Are you sensing a pattern here? The Challenge, at its core, when you brush past the booze, sex and eating gross stuff, is a series of very literally Sisyphussian tasks.
In the last competition, the remaining combatants must once again race down the ramps of the fortress, pick up a heavy cannonball, carry it back up and actually fire the thing. The winner for the guys and the winner for the girls will then choose three out of the four remaining losers (of his/her sex) to go home. Jenna, who during the race is compared to “a fembot from Austin Powers”and a “stallion at the Kentucky Derby,” takes it home for the girls; Cory wins for the guys. Out of some misplaced sense of loyalty, Cory spares Tony, who has not one but two baby mommas; because she’s probably the weakest player left, Jenna spares Jemmye. Never underestimate a fembot’s ability to coldly evaluate a situation and make the best decision for her fembot self.
The remaining six players—three guys, three girls—believe they’re being sent home. Instead, they’re sent to the “Redemption House.” It’s a smaller house from where it will presumably be possible to get back into the bigger house. And if they do get another lease on life, as self-proclaimed social genius Devin says, they’ll be coming for blood—here a metaphor for “revenge sought in a field of battle that may or may not pertain degrading oneself by drinking a lot of milk and running long distances.”
In this way, the show itself is playing dirty, nakedly manipulating its cast to create drama and spur conflict. It’s not fair, really. Then again, this shit has never been fair. Now they’re just being plain about it.