On MTV’s top reality show, the drama runs deeper than money. It’s ‘life and death’
Do you like competition? Amazing stunts? Nasty scheming, drunken indiscretions and long-term character development most professional writers couldn’t dream of conjuring?
If you answered “yes,” it might be time to step up to “The Challenge.”
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MTV’s highest-rated program, the reality competition series, which debuted in 1998 as a crossover between “The Real World” and “Road Rules,” is entering its 37th season; its 500th episode will air during “The Challenge: Spies, Lies and Allies,” premiering Wednesday. The show has shot in 27 countries and this season’s competitors represent 10 nations.
Of all its qualities — imaginative stunts supervised by the coordinator behind “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Suicide Squad”; gorgeous people falling in love (or lust); idiotic, inebriated conflicts — one sets “The Challenge” apart from other entries in the genre: the “Boyhood“-like phenomenon of watching people change over time.
‘That’s the scariest human alive’
Clips of the stunts and fights on “The Challenge” amass millions of views, but the relationship viewers forge with veteran competitors — some have appeared on more than 15 seasons — is what gives it unexpected depth. Some have gone from callow, arrogant twentysomethings to centered parents while still competing at high levels against the new breed. Some, of course, never seem to change. Bless ‘em.
This season brings back a number of old hands. English roué Kyle Christie hasn’t won a title but is the sound-bite gold medalist. Devin Walker-Molaghan, another dependably hilarious interview, is an IT guy trying to prove brains can eventually overcome brawn. The physically and mentally tough Kaycee Clark played tackle football for the San Diego Surge; pot-stirrer Amanda Garcia seems to have embraced her nickname, “Spawn of Satan.”. And Cory Wharton, who in the past gleefully accepted the crown of “Challenge” hookup king, now appears to have settled down with controversial reality star Taylor Selfridge.
MTV’s venerable reality competition shares a stunt coordinator with “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Once you know what they entail, it’s clear why.
Aneesa Ferreira is the show’s elder stateswoman, and while she’s not expected to beat out the younger competition, one of the series showrunners, Emer Harkin, describes Ferreira as among the series’ most thoughtful players.
And as a bisexual woman of color on a popular reality series, Ferreira has herself been both an advocate for and an emblem of more diverse representation on other shows like “The Challenge.” While she’s been open in the past about the pressure that comes with that role, she’s also praised the series for being ahead of the curve. “This show is awesome because it’s a smorgasbord of people of color,” she told Hollywood Life in December. “I’d never seen anything like it. It was full-on representation. We talked about a lot of important things and I was happy to be part of that.”
In 14 previous seasons, Ferreira has seen and done it all — except win a final.
Then there’s Chris “CT” Tamburello. As Harkin says of perhaps the best-known returning player, “CT is the famous bad boy. We’ve seen him in every bad situation: all of the highs, the lows. To see the renaissance of his character, see him evolve into who he is today and be one of the most-loved reality stars of all time is something.”
Tamburello debuted on MTV’s “The Real World: Paris” (2003) as a charming Boston bruiser with a penchant for disturbing drunken brawls. After joining “The Challenge” in 2004, he cemented that reputation, especially in one Hulk-like rage in which his bloodlust couldn’t be restrained by numerous bulked-up cast mates.
“He was like a big gorilla going after [cast mate] Adam [King] in a onesie. I was like, ‘That’s the scariest human alive,’” says BMX star and musician Lavin, who has hosted 29 seasons of the series and its spinoffs.
Before reuniting with her “Real World” cast mates, Julie Gentry had to grapple with the very public life of a ‘naive’ 19-year-old from Birmingham, Ala.,: herself.
Over the years, however, Tamburello has matured before our eyes. His ill-fated love affair with contestant Diem Brown, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in her 20s, visibly changed him. Now in his 40s, he’s calmer, funnier. He’s a father who went from Greek god to “dad bod” (his words) yet remains a dangerous competitor, a four-time champion constantly revealing new sides. He has gone from the gamma-irradiated bull in the China shop to the jovial, even cuddly figure castmates call a “teddy bear.”
“The complexity of these characters, it’s real,” says Harkin. “You can’t contrive that for such a long period. You can relate to that, when somebody’s going through a really rough time, when you’re madly in love, when you’re at your lowest low.”
‘The heaviest story in “Challenge” history’
Episodes of “The Challenge” devote time to interpersonal drama , competitive politicking, daily challenges, and climactic head-to-head eliminations — and at times the focus on playing a “scared game” to dodge elimination, in the series’ parlance, can become tiresome.
But none of those power moves and own goals can match the real-life drama to which the series sometimes bears witness. The winding tale of Tamburello and Brown, captured by MTV in a moving compilation video, is Exhibit A.
“That’s the heaviest story in ‘Challenge’ history,” says Lavin.
Harkin said, “Diem, oh God, it’s very emotional to even talk about it. She’s one of our most beloved cast members.”
In one indelible scene early in her “Challenge” career, Brown, who had recently been through chemotherapy, had to remove her wig for a muddy, water-based race.
“It was just after her treatment, and her hair was just growing back, and she looked so beautiful. And she took it off. And she started to embrace what she was going through,” said Harkin. “What a moment. What a woman. She was just amazing.”
In 1992, original ‘Real World’ cast member Kevin Powell sparked vital conversations about race. It took 30 years, and a reunion, for many to listen.
Brown kept private that her cancer had recurred as she began filming her eighth season; she collapsed on set and died a few months later. She was 34.
“Diem spent some of her last weeks with us, very close to her passing,” Harkin said. “She wanted to be with us, doing what she had loved for so long, with the people that she loved the most.”
Although Brown’s story is unique in the series’ annals, Harkin notes that major life changes are commonplace: Challengers have explored their sexual orientation on the show, like Ferreira. Some have gone through marriages and divorces. Recently, Jordan Wiseley, one of the show’s most agile players, and bubbly-but-rugged Tori Deal got engaged on the show, only to break up later.
“We’re really going through life and death with these people,” says Harkin. Thinking of the journeys of the show and the grueling finals, she says, “T.J. and I will stand at the finish line; they’ve accomplished something that’s really remarkable. And you’ll always hear them —” in the panting relief of a finisher — “‘This is the best game in the world.’”
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
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