Everyone has his thing, a guilty pleasure, if you will. Some people swear by their favorite daytime soap opera. Some mark out for professional wrestling every Monday night. And others totally sing along to Heart’s “Alone” on the way to work in the solitary confines of their own ride.
Point being, all of us have that one thing of which we aren’t especially proud, but of which we're especially fond. Hell, some people have many. In addition to professional wrestling, solo karaoke Heart sessions and far too much celebrity gossip, I have MTV’s The Challenge.
Look, MTV hasn’t exactly been must-see television for a while. Music videos are so turn of the century, TRL ended long ago, Carson Daly moved on, Teen Mom can only entertain for so long, and The Real World hasn’t been relevant in years. Plus, the network's ventures into original scripted programming haven’t exactly been met with major awards and fanfare.
Yet The Challenge lives on. The show, which began in 1998, begins its 30th season with an aptly-titled “Dirty Thirty” tomorrow night. For those unfamiliar with The Challenge, the premise is fairly simple. A bunch of former Real World/Road Rules types —- and a bunch of newer folks who have never appeared on either show, mostly because they needed some fresh content — compete in a series of physical and mental challenges. Some competitions are team-based, while others are individualized. At the end of the season, whoever wins the competition wins some money; this year, in honor of the XXX anniversary, that number stands at a cool $1 million.
Sounds simple and inoffensive enough, and yet it’s anything but. Alliances are formed. Petty spats turn into outright feuds, thanks to a nice mix of alcohol and undercutting. Hookups ensue; breakups are often quick to follow. In short, it’s a season of The Real World blended with Battle of the Network Stars.
Speaking of stars, The Challenge has even produced its own share of B- and C-level types. First and foremost is Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, who got his start on the tenth season of The Real World. He parlayed that modicum of fame into a spot on early seasons of The Challenge (then known as The Real World/Road Rules Challenge), where he quickly became one of the show’s more noteworthy figures.
When Mizanin would get a few drinks in him, he would morph into sort of a frat-boy version of the Rock via a character known as the Miz. All these years later, The Miz is one of the biggest stars in World Wrestling Entertainment, has appeared in movies and has even main-evented a WrestleMania.
While the Miz is unquestionably the biggest star The Challenge has ever produced, to those loyal to or familiar with the program, the show doesn’t lack for standout characters. There’s Johnny Bananas (I’m sure he has a real name, but it doesn’t really matter), known for his underhanded tactics and bro-like charm. CT was once the scariest character on the show – a rough-and-tumble type who didn’t mind mixing his booze with violence – but is now a family man who serves as an elder statesman of sorts. Wes is an arrogant jerk who kinda looks like a beefier Dale Earnhardt Jr. Camila is prone to drunken outbursts. Laurel is essentially the Golden State Warriors of the women’s division. And Darrell, also a family man, is 100 percent pure badass.
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As with any successful reality program, these characters and numerous others are what makes The Challenge so successful. Their alliances, feuds, hookups and drunken antics keep the show entertaining in between competitions, though the latter has certainly provided its fair share of moments. There was CT essentially backpacking Bananas and carrying him to victory. Kenny essentially doing the same to teammate Wes, who for all his bluster couldn’t hold up in the 2011 “Rivals” edition. And, of course, there was Bananas just last year extracting revenge for a previous slight from Sarah by cutting her out of half of a $275,000 prize.
Is any of this to be taken seriously? Of course not, but that’s pretty much the point. Yes, The Challenge is populated with Kardashian-like types whose fame is attributable solely to the fact that they’re on television. The level of immaturity and drunken buffoonery that has emanated from the show over the years rivals anything The Bachelor or The Bachelorette ever produced. The product placement is a bit overkill. And, yeah, it’s somewhat sad to see people who have to be nearing their forties chasing money by aligning with and scheming against people some 10-15 years their junior.
But that’s why The Challenge is a guilty pleasure. Like soap operas, pro wrestling, Heart sing-along sessions on the way to work, or whatever mindless entertainment gets you from one day to the next, the show provides a necessary break from reality. Life can be tiring, particularly as the years go on. It’s almost refreshing that, even as it takes on the Dirty Thirty, The Challenge shows no signs of growing up at all.