There’s something about turning thirty that really legitimizes a person as an adult. I remember turning thirty, and almost overnight feeling like others treated me with more respect. It was almost as if society didn’t feel the need to question me as much because I’d proven I could make it in life. Thirty, man. It’s a big deal.
And so I find myself contemplating the meaning of “The Challenge XXX: Dirty Thirty” season premier, celebrating 30 years of the longest running reality competition. In 1992 MTV pioneered reality television by introducing the true story of 7 strangers picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real, and “The Real World” was born. Eventually, “The Real World” begat “Road Rules” which took the concept of throwing strangers together in front of cameras and literally took the show on the road.
Once both shows had proven they could maintain an audience, crossover became natural. MTV’s producers conspired to connect the casts of “The Real World: Boston” with “Road Rules: Islands” in a competition for a cash prize. The ratings were strong, and the backbone for “The Challenge” was set. After a couple of seasons tinkering with the formula, the combination of MTV’s reality TV fan favorites plus increasingly ridiculous competitive settings was perfected.
As a youth, I ate it up, and now as a grown man… I inhale it. I can’t even feel ashamed. There’s just something special about the surreal blend of reality TV celebrities playing games designed to stretch the definition of competition, and now that “The Challenge” has turned 30, it’s OK to admit that the show continues because it has proven it can make it in life.
Which sounds crazy, but doesn’t look crazy once you really recognize what’s in front of you. While the physical challenges are entertaining for their inventiveness (seriously, I’m pretty sure the Hunger Games were inspired by “The Challenge”), one does not win “The Challenge” thanks to physical prowess alone. Winning “The Challenge” requires diplomacy, and diplomacy requires intelligence. Which again, sounds crazy when you hear every other word out of the mouths of the drunken contestants getting bleeped out, but when you look at the social manipulation that success in “The Challenge” requires, it’s easy to see that the show is actually really [bleep]in’ smart.
“The Challenge” delivers an insight into competition that professional sports can’t even match. Sure, a sports fan can turn on TNT to watch the NBA, but all that fan is privy to is the game itself. On “The Challenge” the fan has access to the time between games, as a significant part of each episode follows the relationships and subterfuge that takes place when competitors can’t ever escape from their opponents. On “The Challenge” contestants play their game, and then are forced to spend all of the rest of their time surrounded by the people they just battled alongside and against. Also, a lot of them are good looking, and, uh, nature finds a way. Tensions can’t help but run high, and the cameras run the entire time.
If you’ve never partaken in ”The Challenge” as a guilty pleasure, a typical “Challenge” season goes something like this – all of the contestants are brought together to “the house” where they will live and sleep when they’re not competing. Each contestant brings a certain reputation with them, because part of the joy of the show is seeing old favorites return to fight another day, often with secret alliances and agreement in force before filming even begins. New contestants are instantly assessed as “rookies” or “fresh meat” that are required to prove their mettle against “the veterans.” The host explains the structure of the season’s rules, with twists and turns aplenty. There is always money on the line, and some circumstance that forces players into an elimination challenge against another contestant to maintain their spot in the house. Losing competitions may or may not put a contestant on the chopping block; losing the political game always puts a contestant on the chopping block. Every episode is basically the same. The plot structure is the reality television version of any episode of “Scooby Doo” or “Batman” from the 1960s. The formula just wins, and if that doesn’t seem awesome, thirty seasons say otherwise.
The future of “The Challenge” probably looks exactly the same as its past and the present. Watching people scheme doesn’t get old, and after thirty seasons, society doesn’t need to question “The Challenge” anymore.
Thirty, man. It’s a big deal.