Originally, I was going to publish this review two weeks ago. For scheduling reasons, I got bumped a few weeks, but it didn’t matter because I only had one sentence at the time. I wrote it immediately after watching episode four of The Challenge: Invasion. It said, “The greatest television event of our generation is happening right now, and you’re missing it.” In hindsight, that was a little dramatic, but to be fair, the Champions had just made the most epic entrance since the alien in Alien. That opening no longer works because the Champions followed up their legendary entrance with a poor showing in the first challenge—they were never going to win four on six, and they weren’t meant to—and now the novelty of having Champions vs. Underdogs has worn off and it’s just another Challenge. (For those in need of a more comprehensive explanation of the show and it’s background, I explain a lot of it here.)
I’ll rewind a little bit. After last season ruined the Rivals franchise for me, I was nervous about what this season’s format would be. When I realized they were making an All-Star team (and that Johnny Bananas would be returning after last season’s disaster) I was nervous that it would just be a bloodbath, but the new framework is more thought out than I gave it credit for. The season began with only 18 Challengers, either rookies or competitors who had never won. Instead of immediately moving into a gorgeous mansion in an exotic location, they lived in “The Shelter,” a dilapidated cabana on the beach—a move that harkened back to one of the best Challenge seasons “The Island.” To get a pass to the lovely Challenge mansion, “The Oasis,” and meet the fearsome Champions, the “Underdogs,” as they were re-christened, had to either win a challenge or win an elimination; this is what challengers typically call “earning your stripes.” The structure of the show elevates having won a Challenge (capital C, as in a whole season) to godlike status. For the Champions to even deign to compete against you, you need your stripes. This is genius. It solves the problem we’ve seen in recent seasons of lame game play. If you separate the wheat from the chaff early on, you can demand a higher level of athleticism, which almost guarantees a more watchable season.
The season hopefully has some epic Champion smackdowns in store for us (that’s what they’re there for right?), but Invasion, surprisingly enough, brings a maturity that we have not seen for a long time if ever on the show. There are too many parents for “No parents. No rules. Summer all the time!” to apply to this season—Tony, Darrell, and now CT. Tony’s sobriety story is actually quite touching, and I’m not Tony’s biggest fan. And in CT’s first Challenge since his on-screen love Diem’s death, he is shockingly subdued, cheering on Tony’s rehabilitation and gushing about his son. For every Challenger that is finally growing up, though, MTV has also tracked down a middle-school grade mean girl to stir up drama. We even got the golden “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to win” from Kailah moments before she lost an elimination and went home, and only a few days after she literally peed her bed. After a refreshingly (for the most part) dramaless episode, other than a disappointing blackout episode from Nelson, the gaggle of Underdog girls hell bent on keeping themselves entertained (Amanda, Sylvia, and worst of them all, Ashley) reopen the gossip mill, spilling to the male champions how “Jenna got f***ed on the airplane.” C’mon ladies. This season’s cast is almost comically divided into adults—Laurel, Nicole, CT, Darrell—and teenagers—Ashley, Amanda, Nelson, Zach. And of course, if the adults are oil and the teenagers are water, Johnny Bananas is the dish soap, dissolving the boundaries between them.
After Johnny Bananas’s infamous backstabbing at the end of Rivals III, I was all out on JB. He was disgusting to me, and I was still in shock on Sarah’s behalf. I unfollowed him on Instagram, and I’m only admitting that I followed him in the first place to demonstrate how upset I was. I was hoping he would retire as the winningest asshole in Challenge history and be out of my Challenge watching life forever. But here he is, once again, and I’m not surprised. He’s an addict, and I’m not sure he’s capable of doing anything other than Challenges. So far, he’s lying pretty low this season; most of the shots of Bananas are him laughing at the Underdogs’ disastrous attempts at politicking. But I’m wary of Bananas, and especially with a softer CT this season, there may be nothing to temper Johnny’s conniving Challenge prowess.
Maybe we won’t need CT’s raw strength, though. As the Champions were eager to point out, while Johnny has the most wins, Darrell has the best record. Johnny has won six of his thirteen challenges, but Darrell won four of the six he competed in. I’ll say what’s on all our minds right now: I love Darrell. He’s athletic, smart, and he lays low, plus, he’s old school. That could be just what the Challenge needs.
On the Underdog side, I think we’ve all been sleeping on Dario. He hasn’t gotten a lot of screen time, but he’s making successful power moves on Ashley K. and it’s looking like his Challenge game might be as strong as his flirt game. When Dario first emerged from the hell that is Are You the One with his twin brother Raphy, I thought he was a joke, but he is playing a quietly strategic game. (Throwing Sylvia into elimination was obviously the right move.) He could be the Underdog to watch.
I’m treating this ridiculous show with mock seriousness because I actually find it wildly entertaining, and I want to own that. But while I hesitate to elevate this to an artifact of high culture worthy of study, partially because you won’t believe me and partially because I know it’s not entirely true, I do think that the deeply problematic gender dynamics, casual homophobia, and cultural appropriation of the host culture provide a look into an America outside our Ivy bubble. Jenna crawling back to Zach after he, in Laurel’s words, “totally dogged her on national television,” (read: cheated on her) is heartbreaking, and the juxtaposition of confessionals from the two of them (“I miss Zach” vs. “Jenna still has a great butt. Pow!”) is hard to watch. The show is working to showcase queer characters and their authentic storylines, but no one says anything when Bananas says that Nicole has “a lot of testosterone” or when the house tacitly agrees that Shane is a weak player when he’s proven he’s not. When Nelson tells a woman on his team that the boys are going to decide on the vote, and the girls will fall in line, no one calls him out for blatant sexism. But these are real people who really talk this way, and, as my friend lovingly pointed out to me today, “we are not the target audience for this show.” I have a lot of thoughts on this, and would love to engage with my peers about the way the show presents these issues, but none of you guys (except Hannah, shouts out) watch.
I watch The Challenge because I’m a messy bitch who lives for drama, but also because it takes me out of the stuck up world of prestige (and prestige dramas). This Spring Break, yeah, maybe watch Paolo Sorrentino’s maximalist musing The Young Pope, but if you need a break from high art, reach across the aisle in your own way, and give The Challenge a chance.