Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new column, Reality AF. Every Monday, Terry Terrones will check in and talk about the state of reality TV, plus provide a Top 5 list of what’s coming up this week that you should not miss.
Sorry Major League Soccer, but we all know that The Challenge is America’s fifth major sport. It’s a title bestowed upon the series by former ESPN writer and current founder of The Ringer, Bill Simmons, years ago and it’s a surprisingly apt descriptor for a reality show.
At first glance, The Challenge has the DNA of a typical reality series. Contestants live together and compete in challenges. When not competing, players form and break alliances, drink to excess, and sometimes even date as they gradually eliminate each other from the competition for a cash prize.
The Challenge has elements of Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Love Island, so it’s no surprise that contestants from those three series are in this new version. But what makes The Challenge so brutal are the ridiculously over-the-top challenges and eliminations that are physically and mentally draining.
Jumping out of a plane and landing on a bullseye with different point values, having your hands and feet tied while holding a weight that forces you underwater, and throwing your competition off a semi-truck while it’s moving at 50 mph are par for the course. The eliminations are even crazier, and the premiere episode of The Challenge: USA provided great examples of both.
In the “Down to Do the Math” challenge last week, players had to repel down a 22-story building while solving a series of math problems. To be fair, this was the level of math a typical fifth grader can handle, but contestants on this show aren’t known for their intellect. During trivia challenges held in previous seasons, players didn’t know what continent the USA is on, what language is spoken in Australia, and thought Muhammed Ali’s real name was Mahatma Gandhi.
Last week’s elimination game, “Knot So Fast,” had teams take 250 ft. of rope and weave it through a structure for 20 minutes. Then teams switched positions, and the first team to unravel the rope won, sending the losing team home. It’s a brutal challenge that requires brains and brawn.
Every season of The Challenge is a blast but The Challenge: USA has improved the series. Here’s three reasons why this new iteration is the best in franchise history.
Love Island and Big Brother players bring new energy.
Love Island alum Shannon went from saying, “My body is sore and I didn’t even start the game yet!” early in the episode and being an obvious vote out to performing well and convincing challenge winners Angela and Tyson to vote a different team into elimination. Big Brother teams also showed up, with Kyland and Azah getting an elimination win even with the latter’s eyelashes falling off and sliding onto her cheeks. Players from both these series bring a playful yet stealthy energy to the series.
Survivor and The Amazing Race players ramp up the strategy.
While Love Island and Big Brother contestants have clearly come to play (despite host TJ Lavin saying Big Brother players, “lay around the house and don’t do much” in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview) it’s the players from Survivor and The Amazing Race driving the strategic gameplay. Survivor fans watch Shan pretend to be friends with everyone, see Sarah sizing up her competition, and witness Tyson’s tireless scheming. Meanwhile The Amazing Race alums are sneakily manipulating things behind the scenes. With only three people from the franchise, they’re content helping the other groups take each other out.
One of the biggest issues with The Challenge is that stronger players can gang up on weaker ones. This season’s twist, called The Algorithm, looks to even the playing field by randomly picking competing teams each week instead of allowing players to choose their own partners. This is bad news for a strong duo like Angela and Tyson, who had asserted themselves as the team to beat. This would normally have led to an alliance between them, with the pair attracting other strong players and building a larger, stout alliance. But with The Algorithm that strategy doesn’t work. Now everyone is in play, which should make for a great season. Overall, this new version of an old favorite is off to a strong start.
New episodes of The Challenge: USA air Wednesdays on CBS.
5 Reality Shows to Watch This Week
1. Maui Shark Mystery (National Geographic, July 11)
Why you should watch it: SharkFest kicks off Sunday so there’s going to be a bunch of shark related content on NatGeo in July. For this week, I’m most interested in this feature which explores why a large group of tiger sharks congregate in Maui every year. What are they doing? Family reunion? Gossiping? Underwater basket weaving? The mind boggles.
2. The Bachelorette (ABC, Season Premiere July 11)
Why you should watch it: Fan favorites Rachel Recchia and Gabby Windey set out on a JOURNEY to find love. “Journey” is in all caps in that last sentence because you’re going to hear that word about 30 times a week on this show. I used to be addicted to every Bach series but I haven’t watched any of the last few seasons from the franchise. My heart just couldn’t go on. However, I’m willing to give it a rose… er, a chance and see if there’s still a spark.
3. Below Deck Mediterranean (Bravo, Season Premiere July 11)
Why you should watch it: Yes, this is the third Monday show I’m recommending but this week, it couldn’t be helped. This is a must-watch franchise. They could run different versions Below Deck year-round (which Bravo practically does) and I’d be happy. This is why I’m giddy to see Captain Sandy and an almost brand-new crew (Zee returns) jump back into the Mediterranean.
4. Edge of the Earth (HBO/HBO Max, Series Premiere July 12)
Why you should watch it: This four-part documentary series premieres tonight. Part travel journal, part nature documentary, it follows the adventures of four action-sport athletes. I’ve watched the first episode and it has some jaw dropping cinematography. It’s stunning!
5. Forever Summer: Hamptons (Prime Video, Series Premiere July 15)
Why you should watch it: A group of college kids from wildly different backgrounds work and party in the Hamptons during the summer. Sounds like a recipe for drama.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model.
When he’s not applying for Survivor, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
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