MTV's The Challenge: Why The Real World/Road Rules Mash-Up Still Slaps

In case you didn't grow up with the MTV that played reality shows more than music videos, allow me to introduce you to one of my favorites of this era: The Challenge. Now, if you just happened to scroll past this on Netflix (as two of their 36 seasons just went up) and aren't really aware of what it is, buckle up, because you're in for one wild ride. Or inferno, or duel, or whatever you want to call it. Now, I'm assuming you're familiar with other MTV competitive reality shows, The Real World and Road Rules. The Challenge started in 1998, originally as a blend of their two reality shows at the time, called Road Rules: All-Stars. It took The Real World alumni and put them in the Road Rules RV to tour the country and work together in challenges.

MTV's The Challenge, Why It Still Slaps Decades Later (Image: ViacomCBS)
MTV's The Challenge, Why It Still Slaps Decades Later (Image: ViacomCBS)

Like The Amazing Race meets The Real World. It was great…but there wasn't a big element of competition, and the stakes were virtually non-existent. And trust me, I love The Amazing Race… but this format was just boring. So, they went back to the drawing board and introduced a little cash incentive to spice things up, and voila! The Challenge as we know it was born. But what makes this show so great that I'm still writing about this (and it's still on the air) 36 seasons later? Here are my top 5 reasons why The Challenge still endures.

It stays fresh and relevant by continuing to change. Each season of The Challenge is different – from dividing the cast into guys vs girls, forcing rookies up against veterans, pitting Road Rules and Real World alumnus against each other, even stacking the cast full of "villains" and exes, the only thing you can count on is that there will be drama, producers manipulating the cast, and all the tempers flaring.

It's shenanigans without the social media posturing. Imagine the wildest college living situation – I'm talking constant party floor in the frat house at the university known for serving education in a shot glass – then strip away social media and phones, stuff that in a powder keg, and put a nice cash prize on the line. They all know the status quo of reality television, and everyone is here to explode…or hook up, or get revenge, or kickstart their pro wrestling career. Someone has beef, they deal with it in person then and there…or just throw their suitcases into the pool, like mature adults.

Pure, 100% mid-2000s nostalgia. Clues arrive at the cast on a cutting edge T-Mobile Sidekick phone. You know, that's the one that has the screen that slides out to reveal a full keyboard! Besides the clearly dated technology and prizes (like a car stereo system, or a home projector), the styles feature chunky highlights, skirts over flared low-rise jeans, and copious amounts of hair gel, all with an alt-rock soundtrack. Millennials like to say their "music video era" '80s MTV is the best, but I think the network really hit its modern stride in the 2000s "Jackass era" – which includes The Challenge. But somehow, it's all endearing and reminiscent of simpler times and a young adult experience that is charming no matter when you actually were a young adult.

It does things no other show does. Yes, the early-mid 2000s were lousy with terrible reality competition shows, but the main ones have endured – and most of the main ones have been imitated in some form or fashion. Ever heard of a little show called Big Brother? Their first season had no challenges…until The Challenge did it and then execs at CBS basically said, "Hey, let's do that". Just remember, The Challenge did it first…and somehow makes watching it feel less skeezy, even though at the end of the day you're still watching trash television. Because it keeps changing, not only the cast but the game itself, it's managed to stay fresh. Survivor? You get the point. Amazing Race? We always know they're racing. But The Challenge? New games, new drama, every season. Suck it, Big Brother.

It's always about the Challenge over anything else. Cast members aren't generally pro-athletes, they haven't trained for this; they are cast from other reality tv shows across the board and are now competing in bonkers physical and mental challenges. These people are from dating shows, social shows, and a few from physical shows, like American Ninja Warrior, but overall, it's always an interesting mix seeing people cast for their bold personalities working together in teams (or not) in physical tasks. It's like a "best of the best" or a modern tournament of champions – and though there may be a lot of drama, at the end of the day, the challenges are the only thing that really matters.

Bottom line? Sticking a bunch of crazy 20-something-ish reality TV stars in the same house and making them live together while competing against each other for an obscene amount of money is a baller format for a tv show. Kudos MTV and The Challenge – now, if only those early seasons were available on streaming…

About Eden Arnold

Having spent far too much time in front of the television growing up, Eden has lots of opinions about television (as well as movies and everything else). She puts this to good use along with her journalism degree and writing experience with by-lines over the years in many print publications, books, and online media outlets. You can find her on Twitter at @Edenhasopinions

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