Summer is filled with a lot of terrible reality TV, and while some may consider that a bad thing, I absolutely love it. This summer saw the return of what I’ve long considered the best reality competition show of all-time, MTV’s The Challenge. Now in it’s 24th season, The Challenge has alternated between several formats, including The Gauntlet (rookies versus veterans), The Inferno (“Good Guys” versus “Bad Asses”), Battle of the Sexes (men versus women), Battle of the Exes (teams made up of couples who used to date) and The Duel (two competitors meet at dawn, choose a pistol from an ornate wooden box, stand back-to-back, take ten paces, and then turn and fire. The winner is whoever doesn’t die. Just kidding. It’s just a season where there were no teams). This season is the second installment of the Rivals format, featuring two-person teams made up of a player and their most despised Challenge rival, forced to work together to compete for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.
For those unfamiliar with The Challenge, participants on the show are all former cast members of MTV’s The Real World or the long-dead Road Rules, save for a few randoms who joined The Challenge family as part of the two Fresh Meat seasons. While on the surface the Fresh Meat slant seemed like little more than a gimmicky way to throw some new pretty faces into the mix, the seasons did produce a handful of contestants who would go on to play big roles in future seasons, including Challenge superstar Kenney “Mr. Beautiful” Santucci (who has earned more than $225,000 competing on this insane show) and Kentucky resident Eric “Big Easy” Banks, whose sole claim to fame is being the heftiest contestant ever to appear on The Challenge (that is, if you don’t count me spotting him at Keeneland’s most recent Spring meet as a claim to fame!).
The Challenge has everything you want in a summer reality show. Beautiful locations, a cast comprised of a bunch of mentally unstable, narcissistic twenty-somethings who spend most of their waking hours working on their abs and guzzling alcohol, and the possibility of seeing random acts of violence occur at the drop of a hat.
When it comes to the actual challenges on The Challenge, woo boy. This is some Hunger Games-level stuff right here. Each week, contestants who are nominated for elimination face off in a classic ThunderDome showdown, battling one another in physical challenges that make shows like Survivor look more like Nickelodeon’s Double Dare. MTV subjects these kids to acts that I’m pretty sure are outlawed under the Geneva Convention. A competition from a recent season required one team member to hang from his feet and pull himself down a rope into a tank of water, his mass serving as the counterweight that lifted his teammate into the sky so he or she could place puzzle pieces on a 20-foot wall. The person in the tank had to hold his breath long enough for his teammate to fit the piece on the wall, and then come up for a breath before heading back into the tank to hoist his teammate up again. Wash, rinse, and repeat about 15 times. That’s nightmare sauce right there, folks. On the Battle of the Exes season, the final competition was one of the most depraved acts of mental and physical abuse ever broadcast on American television. The last three teams competing for the grand prize of $150,000 were dropped in the Icelandic wilderness for a two-day, seven-part test of endurance called Viking Quest. The teams raced dogsleds across a glacier then jumped half-naked into an ice-cold river. After camping overnight in the freezing cold, they were awoken pre-dawn to start day two, during which they covered twelve miles on foot in deep snow, ate chunks of rotten shark meat, a sheep’s head and a Viking horn filled with sheep’s blood, busted open a lock box to get a key that unlocked snow shoes they had to wear as they ran to the next checkpoint, completed a puzzle using huge logs and boulders for game pieces, tunneled their way through a giant snow bank with pick axes, completed another puzzle that required them to manipulate an oversized wooden totem pole, and then climbed a mountain that looked like it was made of razor blades and broken glass. And they did all this for, at best, $75,000 each before taxes. I probably wouldn’t do even one of those things, much less all of them, for the $48,000 or so in take home pay that’s left after Uncle Sam takes his cut. I remember looking at my wife during the final episode and saying, “We literally might see someone die tonight.” It was that intense.
But the real beauty of The Challenge, the reason I watch every episode despite the fact that I outgrew MTV’s target demographic about 10 years ago, can be summed up with two letters: CT.
Chris “CT” Tamburello is, quite simply, the greatest alpha male in the history of reality television. The dude is a straight up monster. He is a physically imposing, world-class trash talker who possesses a competitive motor built without an off switch that’s powered by the blood of his enemies. He is essentially Jeremy Renner’s character from The Town, only taller, slightly crazier and with a bleaker future. His “pawked the cawr at Hawvawd Yawd” Boston accent and checkered past make him the kind of bad boy that every woman on the show wants to date so she can “fix” him. But because he’s a volatile, unpredictable, opponent-crushing freak, every guy on guy on the show is terrified of him (language in video slightly NSFW):
Several seasons ago, he had to be restrained by seven bros all the size of nightclub bouncers so he didn’t murder another contestant named Adam who was about a third of his size. And I don’t mean metaphorical murder. I mean he actually wanted to kill this kid. In a more recent season, he berated, threatened, and brow-beat one of his fellow competitors, Wes, for nine hours straight (it’s CT, and this one isn’t bleeped, so you know the language in the video is NSFW):
And the best part? That dude Wes he was mean-mugging in the video above is now his partner on this latest Rivals season. See what I mean? Best. Show. Ever. CT is a bear in a cage and the other contestants are pointy sticks that MTV uses to poke him over and over and over again. They won’t be happy until CT hulks out, rips off some dude’s arm and uses it to pulverize him into a fine red mist.
And just so no one thinks MTV isn’t an equal opportunity offender when it comes to casting deranged individuals, past Challenges also have featured some of the worst female cast members ever to put on a swimsuit and scream in each others faces. In fact, as ferocious as CT is, his most destructive moment pales in comparison to the scorched-earth smack-down a cast member named Laurel laid on one of her fellow contestants a couple of seasons ago [language and level of verbal abuse NSF-life, much less work, even thought it’s bleeped; the main confrontation starts around the 1:35 mark]:
As the father of a young daughter, there are several professions I hope she never pursues when she grows up: Stripper, adult film “actress,” one of those girls on Instagram who posts an endless stream of selfies. But, without a doubt, being a contestant on an MTV reality show is right at the top of that list.
The contestants on The Challenge are celebrated and rewarded for displaying behavior that, outside of this weird alternate reality, would get them thrown in jail or run out of their communities Frankenstein-style by angry, pitchfork wielding mobs. So while you couldn’t pay me enough to let CT, Laurel or any of the other psychos on The Challenge within 10 miles of anyone I care about, there is no way in hell I’m missing a second of this show.