Reality TV has a short shelf life. In just a few years, The Apprentice candidates got glammer, and stupider. Big Brother turned into a goulash of psychological despair. And Tyra Banks, as we all know, is a warlord. But what if we told you that, after an absurd 33 seasons, the greatest reality TV show is yet to falter? What if we told you that this show takes all the good (and maddest) bits of reality TV, and thus is greater than the sum of its parts? What if we told you to watch it immediately on Netflix? You would, wouldn’t you, and you’d call us a liar.
But lie this is not. Such a show exists, and it is called The Challenge: an ongoing MTV series that pits various contenders against one another in the quest for a ridiculous cash prize (as in a figure north of $500,000, which is far more than Brian Dowling ever got for sitting in a big chair). Granted, all of that doesn’t sound particularly new other than a big fat American cash injection.
What separates The Challenge though – and what makes it sublime TV – is that this is a reality show made of reality shows. First beginning life as a spin-off for alumni of MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules (fly-on-the-wall, standard strangers-in-a-house stuff), weekly tasks require the athleticism of an Olympian on roids. Two guys face-off in a penalty shootout – and the ball and goal is on actual fire. Plus they’re American, so they play football like they’re on Mars. Another involves sliding across the bonnets of wet cars that are suspended 50ft above the Strait of Gibraltar. And, in the closest brush with pure thumbs down Roman bloodsport, guys just have to knock one another over using riot shields. Concussions ensue. There are lots of strange, overconfident nods to small towns (“That’s how we do it in Fort Campbell, yo!”) and, unsurprisingly, many meatheads succeed. The same can’t be said for small girls from Louisiana with star tattoos and names like Jemmye.
It satisfies our inner, unyielding hunger for a pre-health and safety era, but it’s the psychodrama that keeps us tuned in. Following the first few seasons, contestants were plucked from other shows: Ex On The Beach, Are You The One?, The Bachelor, Big Brother and Survivor – all places where reality stars cut their teeth and hone the skills that keep them on payroll. Which is largely histrionics, explosions and needlessly explicit love affairs. And they hire on these shores too. Heaven is: watching Love Island’s Theo Campbell compare a fellow American contender to Eminem’s mother in 8 Mile. She is not best pleased. And, as the stateside contestants talk politics, tactics and plot, the best of Geordie Shore can be found staring blankly, more concerned with the fact that they “just like everyone in ‘ere to be honest dallin’”.
Other, unnecessarily complex mechanisms are at play. Contenders are granted immunity, or sudden deaths, or sometimes both, and none of it really ever makes sense. People get voted off, too. But that’s all OK. Because therein lies The Challenge’s greatest achievement: it doesn’t really need to make sense. The broken hearts and bones are entertainment at its wildest and its basest, and you genuinely find yourself rooting for these bizarre characters, like Cara Maria, the scrappy Challenge veteran who looks like a Paramore fan who pivoted to Capitol riots, and Tony, the handsome young dad that wants to atone for his prior bad boyfriendisms. Of course, there are the villains, like The Challenge’s resident sociopath and seven time winner Johnny Bananas, who never quite explains as to why he replaced his surname with the worst fruit in the bowl, and who thinks its OK to plant fake handwritten notes in peoples’ bedrooms to whip up domestic hysteria. Then there’s Marie, the all blonde, all-American New Yorker that believes ‘Basket Case’ is her challenge because she is a self-styled ‘basket case’.
Of course, the need for utter shite on Netflix is diminishing with the prospect of real life happening once again. But with that comes hangovers, and downtime, and the slow realisation that, actually, staying in and howling at 30 fully grown adults chasing beach balls down a sand dune is pretty fun. And if all that fails, know that The Challenge has humiliated those that deserve humiliation. Stephen Bear – the reality TV equivalent of a tapeworm, and a Big Brother winner cast on The Challenge prior to his revenge porn charges – embarrasses himself before dozens of women and men more athletic and skillful and finer and camera-ready than he. A misogynist in the laughing stocks. There’s a spectacle that will never grow old.
Images | mtv