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.
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.