Even a casual fan of MTV’s long-running reality-competition show The Challenge knows the one word that can strike fear into the heart of any Challenger: Bananas. Having watched seventeen of the twenty-eight seasons of The Challenge, I am no casual fan, so when I heard that Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio was returning for Rivals III to be partnered with fellow Challenge heavyweight Sarah Rice, I knew the only possible outcome for this season was the two of them with a check on top of some beautiful mountain.
What I could not have possibly predicted was the sharp decline in quality of this season. I have long longed for the glory days of The Challenge when there was less complaining and the challenges were more athletic. The show started to go downhill when MTV allowed players from its reality dating/game show Are You the One? to compete in Challenges; barring a few exceptions, these kids are less athletic, less interesting, and more likely to start stupid drama and/or quit during a challenge. Though past seasons have felt ridiculous, however, none have felt so purely fake as this one. Justin Booth, who served as executive producer for most of the lifespan of my fandom, was replaced this season by Lisa Fletcher. I can’t help but think that this change led to some of the phoniness of the season. The drama of the season grew increasingly preposterous, building up to what amounted to racist and misogynistic bullying and a disgusting final twist.… But I’m getting worked up.
A little background for the uninitiated: The Challenge, originally The Real World: Road Rules Challenge (you see why they changed it), is a spin-off of the iconic reality series The Real World (1992 – present). The premise of the show was to take members of old Real World casts and have them compete on a show like the Real World but with athletic competitions and for cash prizes. They kept the nice locale, unlimited booze, and sexual tension of the original show, but added competition and money. Genius. And these aren’t silly, elementary school field day style challenges either. Think more American Ninja Warrior than Disney Channel Games (RIP). Celebrated sports analyst Bill Simmons calls The Challenge “America’s Fifth Major Sport” (which means if you watch the NFL you super can’t judge me for my fandom!). It’s an airtight premise, but what really makes this show worth watching season after season is that though old people leave and new contestants come every season, there remains a reliable cast of players who have created a narrative arc to follow. We follow their stats and their spats. It’s what makes a theme like Rivals III, where competitors are partnered with people they hate, even possible.
Johnny Bananas is the Michael Jordan of The Challenge. This season, Bananas snagged the elusive sixth ring (they don’t actually get rings), making him even with MJ. Before you set this paper on fire in response to the comparison I just made, let me qualify. The NBA and The Challenge are two different ball games in that one is not a ball game at all. Challenges range from the impossible (scaling a 14,000 foot mountain on no sleep) to the inane (licking peanut butter off a plastic board to reveal a secret combination for your team’s lock). Though certainly silly, the game also involves strategizing and politicking to stay out of eliminations, and occasionally great depth perception or tangram chops or some other wildcard skill. The Challenge is unpredictable, which is why it is so extraordinary to have such a standout player. Bananas is so good that the only time his arch nemeses, CT and Wes, have beaten him in a final is when they were partnered on Rivals II.
He’s had various Scottie Pippens along the way—Tyler on Rivals (season 21), Camilla on Battle of the Exes (season 22), his whole boat on The Island (season 16), and Sarah of course—but that’s where the MJ analogy ends. He’s pocketed almost $700,000 in prize money over the course of his 13-season career, which is impressive for a Challenger but nothing on Michael’s career millions; he wasn’t always the MVP on his winning teams, and good ole 2-3 never stabbed his teammates in the back to win extra prize money…. But I’ll get to that.
Poor Sarah has been plagued by terrible Challenge partners. After making it to the final in her very first season (and losing to a Bananas armed with a ridiculous squad) she got Vinny on Fresh Meat (season 12) who lasted two episodes, then lazy Katelynn (season 21), then Vinny again who got them DQ-ed for fighting (season 22), then Trishelle whom everyone called “Trashelle” because she’s a certified garbage human being (season 24). Sarah’s reputation on The Challenge is the lovable camp counselor. When everyone is bored in the house, it’s Sarah who comes up with the games and the parties to keep them occupied. When grown-up adults are peeing themselves about doing heights or water challenges, Sarah’s telling the confessional camera how excited she is to do something she’s never done before. And when it’s time for Sarah to get it done, she kicks ass.
Two seasons before Rivals III was Battle of the Exes II (season 26), and Sarah and her badass, one-handed partner Jordan were dominating. Sarah & Jordan and Bananas & Nany were the frontrunners out of the gate, and I expected to see both teams in the final. But in the final elimination, Sarah had the chance to basically guarantee a win by sending her friend and ally Bananas in. So she threw him into a physical elimination against a much bigger team, and Bananas and Nany lost and went home. Bananas famously once said, “This is a dirty game, bro. I’ve always said, all is fair in love, war, and Challenges.” He must have forgotten that after Sarah’s power play because after he lost the elimination, there was bad blood.
When Bananas and Sarah returned for Rivals III, they were portrayed as mortal enemies because of the Exes backstab. I saw through it from moment one; that was the first red flag. I didn’t think twice about it before the season began, but when the premier started I immediately sensed the difference. Johnny was butt hurt, which makes sense; he had lost a lot of money. But he now had the best female partner currently in the Challenge game, and if he didn’t like her anymore he certainly still respected her. Bananas and Sarah weren’t even good at pretending to still hate each other on camera, but the producers still followed that storyline. There are plenty of reasonable critiques I could have leveled at the Challenge over the years, but contrived drama was not one that would have even crossed my mind. With the entirely phony fights that spontaneously erupted throughout Rivals III to the fact that Bananas and Sarah dominated almost every Challenge, this season was mishandled.
That brings me to the twist. The producers decided that in the final challenge, the Challengers would not only be competing against other teams in the final but also against their partners. The partner with the most individual points at the end would get to decide whether to split the prize money with their partner or take it all for themselves. This twist was incendiary but ultimately stupid and could have a real-life effect on the spurned partner. For all three teams, the male partner ended up with more points, which made the end reveal of split it or just split feel grossly gendered. Spoiler alert: Johnny took the money. He left Sarah crying at the top of a mountain with zero dollars. After an entire season spent “repairing” their “broken” relationship, which was broken because Sarah threw Johnny into an elimination, Johnny acted the hypocrite and stabbed her right back. If it was real, it’s all kinds of wrong, mostly because within the framework of the show there’s nothing really condemning this obviously terrible act. But it also looked so fake. I would bet the value of the many hours I’ve spent watching this show on the fact that Fletcher took Bananas aside and said, “If you take the money we’ll pay it all and give Sarah her share too,” just to create drama.
I was fine with a show where people got drunk and yelled at each other or threw their best friends into physical combat, but I’m not really okay with a production that allows for the emotional terrorizing and actual robbery that took place this season. With Bananas’ likely retirement post-cash out, it may be time for this Challenge fan to hang up her jersey as well. If truly all is fair in love, war, and MTV Challenges, maybe I’ll start watching Unreal instead.