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Why Tough As Nails has the best reality TV challenges right now

Why Tough As Nails has the best reality TV challenges right now
Phil Keoghan, host of Tough As Nails, on episode 8 of season 3. (Image from Tough As Nails via CBS)

CBS’s reality competition Tough As Nails is mostly challenges: every-day tasks turned into games that people race to complete, trying to win money.

There is no social game and there are no twists on Tough As Nails, which Phil Keoghan hosts and co-created; it’s just three challenges per episode that give its contestants a chance to earn cash as a team and advance in the individual competition, which has a $200,000 prize.

While Survivor 41 has delivered mostly recycled old challenges that are either obstacle courses followed by puzzles, or endurance challenges where people stand and balance, Tough As Nails has given us some absolutely outstanding individual and team challenges this fall.

Of all the reality competitions I’ve watched this year, from The Challenge: All Stars to Frogger, I think Tough As Nails has my favorite reality TV’s challenges right now. And they’ve improved since last season.

At the end of last season, I answered a question: Does Tough As Nails rely too much on brute strength? I thought it was tipping in that direction, but season three seems to have adjusted course. (The finalists this season range from 34 to 54, and there are two men and two women.)

There have been physical tasks, but there’s a lot more emphasis on attention to detail and communication, both of which make tasks more complicated—and thus more entertaining to watch.

Dirty Hands team member Lia Mort works on irrigation during Tough As Nails season 3's episode 6 team challenge
Dirty Hands team member Lia Mort works on irrigation during Tough As Nails season 3’s episode 6 team challenge. (Image from Tough As Nails via CBS)

In season three, most episodes have remained in the same location for three very different but thematically similar challenges.

In episode seven, for example, teams had to construct a lighting grid and hoist it above the stage at The Wiltern theatre in Los Angeles; for the individual competition, they had to set up DJ stations on the stage; and for the elimination challenge, the two contestants had to place letters on the marquee outside.

While none of those compares to, say, sliding down the face of the Luxor in Las Vegas, as Fear Factor once did, or trying to retain your sanity in Anderson Cooper’s fun house, as The Mole 2 asked its finalists to do, they are very successful in testing the contestants as they work in groups and individually.

The tasks themselves are relatively simple, at least on paper. Here are some of season three’s team challenges:

  • running a pit stop on a race course, replacing tires and filling gas
  • replacing the light and chains on two massive buoys
  • assembling and hanging ski lift chairs
  • a Tough As Nails version of Top Chef’s mise en place challenge, with a series of head-to-head challenges on specific trade-focused tasks

The individual competitions have included:

  • cutting, bundling, and boxing cilantro
  • taping off and painting parking space lines by hand
  • delivering packages to houses
  • repairing fences

And here are some of the elimination challenges:

  • using a lift to replace broken light bulbs in stadium lights
  • assembling a rocking chair after creating dowels
  • moving valeted cars
  • loading boxes into a truck

Tough As Nails has particularly strong challenge design because the tasks themselves appear simple, but actually performing those tasks, especially in a high-pressure situation, gets tricky.

It’s easy to pop up a table and place two record players on it, but remembering the position they were in—or even realizing that yours are not in the right position—is more difficult, especially when the example DJ station is in the lobby.

While installing sprinkler lines on a farm, teams were spread apart across a massive field, and couldn’t hear each other, and so water got turned on or off when it wasn’t supposed to be.

One of Tough As Nails’ goals is to highlight and celebrate people who work in trades, and while I didn’t like the expository approach the very first episode took, it’s mostly backed off from that heavy-handed rhetoric.

As a result, it’s actually doing a better job of highlighting those careers. Every time I buy a bundle of cilantro in the future, I will have newfound appreciation for the people who cut and bundled it in a field for me; I had no idea that so much of that was done by hand.

Tough As Nails is just challenge after challenge, with interstitials of teams driving to and from their locations, processing what just happened or sharing stories about their lives.

The cast is so likable that I actually don’t care who wins or loses in either the team competition or the individual competition; I just want CBS to give them all more and more money.

The only time I find myself really rooting for either Dirty Hands or Savage Crew is when they’re behind in their overall number of team wins, because I want both teams to win the maximum number of times, so they have to battle in one final challenge for the $60,000 team prize.

Compared to other shows with challenges, that means there are much lower stakes, especially since no one ever leaves the competition.

But that means there’s even more camaraderie, and all of the competition—even between friends—is still a joy to watch.

As Lia said in the penultimate episode, after securing a spot in the final four by beating Mike at a dowel-making and rocking-chair-assembling challenge, “I just love competing. Everybody here has such a great heart, and it’s so much fun to push ourselves against each other.”

I’m glad it’s fun for them, because their competing on Tough As Nails has been super-fun for me to watch, too.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

Discussion

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Happy discussing!

Chuck

Friday 10th of December 2021

It may not be a "social game," but the social aspect of the game is pretty awesome. These players really do end up caring about each other and learning from each other. I know several people who are happy with the final winner this season, myself included. It was really good to see that the challenges were more balanced between needing strength, smarts, or both. My only thought is that sometimes they "balance" the challenge based on the player's weight. I don't think that's the best way to even things out. It's basically saying that they think smaller players are weaker than larger players and I don't know if that's true. All it means to me is that bigger players have to do more work in the same amount of time. Phil is also a great host. He's not smarmy and there's a warmth about him that many hosts lack.

Kyle

Monday 6th of December 2021

It is also great how much they cheer each other on and rarely is there a (sore) loser. Instead there is just someone who beat another competitor. There are few shows that I enjoy watching that my 5yo wants to watch with me. Tough as Nails and Legends of the Hidden Temple are two that he absolutely loves and wants to watch all of the time.

Melissa

Monday 6th of December 2021

I love Tough As Nails so much! As you said, the challenges are great. And I do feel like they're more balanced this season. But mostly, I think the casting is excellent. I just love them all! I really want to see Lia win though. :)

Melissa

Thursday 9th of December 2021

YAY, SHE WON!!!!!!