‘The Challenge: Fresh Meat II’: It’s turned into the ‘Real’ deal
The most memorable moments of “The Real World: D.C.,” which comes to a close Wednesday night, have come courtesy of the emotionally stunted and brilliantly muscular Ty. His impassioned wrestling with Emily, his flipping of Andrew over a balcony wall: As “Real World” misbehavior goes, it’s been moderately impressive. But it has made one thing clear: Ty is going to be one tough competitor on the challenges.
Sometime around “The Real World: Key West,” in 2006, “Real World/Road Rules Challenge” began to assert its primacy over the shows that spawned it. Dating to 1999, the year of the first challenge, which united former cast members of “The Real World” and “Road Rules,” this MTV series was an early adopter of the now-common reality TV phenomenon of serializing its stars’ narratives over several show arcs. No longer was one season living in a house of seven strangers the goal: Now, if you were lucky, you could appear on MTV year after year, competing for money and a re-up of your 15 minutes.
The 19th iteration of the show is “The Challenge: Fresh Meat II,” which begins with a “Meet the Meat” special Wednesday at midnight, after the “Real World: D.C.” finale and reunion show. This is the opportunity to create stars outside of the “Real World” system altogether (R.I.P. “Road Rules”) by bringing in new competitors explicitly for these competitions. Get used to them: Some of the most prominent faces on MTV in the last five years have been alumni of the original “Fresh Meat” from 2006: Kenny, Diem, Evelyn, Evan.
All in all, the challenges have minted a new generation of MTV reality stars far more effectively than the parent show. “Battle of the Network Stars” is also a touchstone here: There’s something entrancing about seeing familiar faces put into extraordinary circumstances. It’s a simultaneous assault on and creation of celebrity in action. The challenges are acts of desperation and triumph.
And they work because they are in fact challenging: The competitions have evolved into highly refined team battles -- in this case, each team pairs a Fresh Meat player with a veteran player -- that are a combination of “Real World” and “Survivor,” an implicit acknowledgment that those shows weren’t ever really that different. Each involves tests of will, and each involves the careful deployment of personal politics to make it to the end unscathed.
A bit of self-control is also required as a buffer against the debauchery and poor judgment that come with any sort of extended confinement. This season the competition takes place in British Columbia, and the contestants share what appears to be a puffed-up log cabin home. On the first night in the house, the Fresh Meat indulge in the open bar and their first taste of reality TV stardom: In other words, it’s a mess. As Danny of “Real World: Austin,” now on his fifth Challenge, puts it: “It’s amateur hour right now.”
“Fresh Meat II” figures to be a struggle between Wes, a bit of a naïf on “The Real World: Austin,” who has evolved into a ferocious strategist and emotional poet, and his archenemy, the narcissistic and dunderheaded Kenny. Both are concerned with Darrell, from “Road Rules: Campus Crawl,” on the winning team for four of the six Challenges he’s participated in.
Of the Fresh Meat, the most promising competitor is Noor, a member of the American national team in Australian rules football. Plenty of the others (Carley, Mandi, Vinny) figure to be more intriguing as characters than as athletes.
As for the onetime king of reality programming, “The Real World,” on hiatus until the airing of “The Real World: Back to New Orleans” this year, it’s useful now mostly as a feeder show for the Challenges. In other words: the minor leagues.