Entertainment

MTV's The Challenge and the Future of Reality TV

The Newest Season of the Long-Running Franchise Is Better (and More Innovative) Than Ever

By Sam Eichner ·
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Photo: MTV via EW.com

One of reality television’s longest-running, most successful franchises, MTV’s The Challenge, is in a state of innovative flux—although, to be fair, it always is.  

Now in its 31st season, and 20th year on TV, The Challenge is better and more popular than ever. As Rolling Stone reported, in a recent wide-ranging interview with the co-creator Jonathan Murray and the President of Entertainment & Development for Bunim-Murray, the production company responsible for The Challenge, as well as The Real World, the show is a fixture near the top of the cable ratings. Its latest iteration, unsubtly subtitled Vendettas, is currently airing on MTV. If the last season—The Dirty 30wisely leaned into the perception that, contrary to what the show and some of its players purport, playing “dirty” is the only way to win, the newest takes that once-heretical concept and institutionalizes it. On Vendettas, playing “dirty” is woven into the fabric of the game itself: players who win elimination challenges now receive “grenades,” which they can use to “blow up” other players’ games—by, say, picking the teams in the next challenge or simply stealing money another player has already banked.

This structure feels like the natural terminus of an idea that’s been gestating on The Challenge since its inception—that is, the concept of “rivals,” players who carry grudges from one season to the next like soap opera characters. In the past, players would become rivals of other players either because of an adversarial relationship on The Real World—where producers plucked them from—or from previous seasons of The Challenge. This is true of Vendettas, too. But the newest season is unique in its ability to create new rivals—via “grenades”—and give those new enemies the opportunity to exact their revenge, also via grenades, all in the space of one season. Ultimately, the kind of plotlines that used to take seasons to fully develop has been streamlined, compressed into a perpetual motion machine of instigation and vengeance, instigation and vengeance.

Still, The Challenge has always been an innovator when it comes to format. As Murray notes in the Rolling Stone interview, his competition series—which I’ve taken to describing as a mutant hybrid of The Real World, Survivor, summer camp and that one night you got wasted and started a fight—introduced themes (“Battle of the Sexes,” “Rivals,” “Battle of the Exes,” etc.) long before more visible shows like Survivor did. And yet The Challenge is ahead of the game in another, more significant way as well.

From 1998 to 2007, the show drew from Road Rules and The Real World, and then, when Road Rules disappeared, just The Real World. But in 2015, on Battle of the Exes: II, they began sourcing players from the bacchanalian dating show, Are You the One?, which also airs on MTV. Since then, as The Real World has flagged, Are You the One? cast mates—dumb, beautiful, drunk, sex-crazed and conflict-ready—have been a fixture on The Challenge. On Vendettas, the producers have taken this concept to a new level; the current season of the show boasts cast mates not just from The Real World or Are You the One?, but also two rival cast mates from CBS’s Big Brother and tempestuous Brits from MTV UK’s Geordie Shore and Ex on the Beach—including an animate Barbie doll named Melissa, a dreamboat named Joss and a tall, tattooed, self-proclaimed pirate named Kyle.

The infusion of new blood has given the old show a shot of life. Drunken hookups, previously a staple on the series, but more scarce as of late, given the fact that most people already know each other, are back and grosser/hotter than ever. When the recently-divorced veteran, Brad, gets with the promiscuous young Are You the One? firecracker, Britni, you get the sense he's exorcising some darker demons. Nicole Z.’s seduction of Melissa, who claims to be at least mostly straight, makes for great TV—is Melissa really attracted to her, or is she just trying to attach herself to a strong player? Even Johnny Bananas, the six-time champion and de-facto star of The Challenge, has found someone of interest, in the Big Brother-alum Natalie Negrotti. (Their burgeoning relationship has spurred a hashtag amongst fans: #Banatalie.)

The hookups on The Challenge serve a dual purpose. On the show, they can be a critical part of the alliance-building that can decide a player’s fate (they’re also plainly entertaining). Outside of it, though, they contribute to the sort of personal appeal a cast mate might have for a fan. While shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race mostly tend to reveal aspects of a player’s character as it pertains to the game, The Challenge excels in mixing those aspects with those that made cast mates on The Real World, in its heyday, a significant part of the culture. In a moment where reality TV stars have carved out a liminal space for themselves—between reality and TV—on Twitter and Instagram, the way in which The Challenge engenders and sustains connections between its fans and its characters is more important than ever. In fact, a particularly volatile social media beef between two Challenge cast mates might even influence casting—making the platforms an extra-textual continuation of the show itself.

More critically, though, The Challenge has proven itself adept and forward-thinking in the extension of its universe—from The Real World to the cadre of reality shows it now counts as planets in its orbit. It has always been instructive for critics to think of the series as sharing DNA with a soap opera, which brings back villains to face off with vainglorious heroes. But with its latest iteration, the franchise is perhaps more akin to a Marvel or DC, housing a portfolio of properties under one, growing umbrella. The sort of world-building at play with superhero movies—or Star Wars films, for that matter—is at play here, too: the type and number of people who now populate the world of The Challenge is growing exponentially, maintained by a human barricade of social media followers, who ensure that those who leave are never really gone.

Other reality shows, of course, have attempted to expand their universe in the past, with numerous spin-offs, reboots and reunions. Consider Bravo’s RelationShep, which attempted to parlay a cast member’s cult of personality on Southern Charm into a dating show. Or The Bachelor, another long-running reality TV franchise, whose impact on the culture is impossible to ignore. As I’ve written elsewhere, its primary shows—The Bachelor and The Bachelorette—have become proving grounds for lucrative spin-offs, like Bachelor Pad, and now, Bachelor in Paradise. On February 13th, in conjunction with the Winter Olympics, ABC will premiere the Bachelor Pad-esque Bachelor Winter Games; like The Challenge, it too is experimenting with becoming a cosmopolitan affair, drawing alumni not only from the American Bachelor, but from eleven different international versions of the show. Given its prevalence around the world—The Bachelor has iterations in 37 different countries—the franchise has an almost endless supply of besott-able young single people with which to populate any new or existing spin-off.

These advents are not necessarily surprising. While entertainment has become increasingly niche-ified, the corporations that finance it have become increasingly conglomerated. In 2011, Comcast acquired NBCUniversal. Last year, AT&T and Time Warner announced plans to merge (there is currently an anti-trust Department of Justice lawsuit seeking to block the deal). Even more recently, Disney announced its was purchasing a controlling stake in 21st Century Fox. And just yesterday, Deadline reported that early-stage conversations have taken place between Viacom (which owns MTV, among many other properties) and CBS, regarding a merger.   

Certainly, these deals have many ramifications on the entertainment business as a whole. But it’s not hard to imagine that one small byproduct will be the natural extension and more facile recombination of reality TV franchises, where a cast mate from a show on one channel is encouraged to participate in a show on another, and vice versa. Fortunately for The Challenge, and its fans, the franchise is ready-made to support an influx of new talent. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what kind of new talent, exactly, the future brings.

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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