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How did The Challenge USA start its season? A recap of the premiere

How did The Challenge USA start its season? A recap of the premiere
TJ Lavin, host of The Challenge: USA, during episode 1 of the new CBS reality competition. (Photo by Laura Barisonzi/Paramount)

The Challenge was once a must-watch for me, but over time I lost interest, and then became repulsed by its toxicity.

But the CBS reality star cast of The Challenge: USA—from its winners to the “that person, really?” players—drew me in to the new CBS version, and I liked this considerably better than The Challenge: All Stars’ first episode or any of the MTV seasons I’ve dipped in and out of in recent years.

During “The United States of Challenge,” a 90-minute premiere which followed another toxic show I’m just skipping this year as a viewer because it will never ever change, I went from kinda bored to fully engaged, with periodic frustration over the production’s choices.

Let’s get that out of the way first: The Challenge’s production is—comparatively speaking, and I say this with as much precision as possible—hot garbage. Moving to CBS didn’t change that.

Compared to The Amazing Race, Survivor, and Tough As Nails, its cinematography feels low-rent. The confessionals shot against a green screen look particularly fake, while cameras seem to miss conversations.

While TJ Lavin has his charms and his air horn, he’s still such an awkward host compared to Jeff Probst or Phil Keoghan.

My bad memory and I do, however, love that production provides players with branded shirts with their names on them.

Then there are the challenges.

Survivor plans challenges for months; The Challenge feels like it slaps its together in a few days and never tests them. (I hope they actually do.)

Over its history, MTV’s Challenge has consistently had injuries, DQs, and unfair situations—far more than other shows, which all involve risks, of course. MTV takes this as “proof” of how fucking awesome its signature show is.

Because I can’t imagine anyone wanting to intentionally hurt the contestants, I imagine it’s a budget issue, and that they’re working with more limited resources.

Don’t take my word for it about the shoddy production: Here’s cast member and Survivor winner Tyson Apostol on The Pod Has Spoken offering some shade about how Survivor is far superior behind-the-scenes: “Any other challenge show you can think of, Survivor does it bigger, better, and more proficient, and more professional, than any other crew out there.”

Heh, “challenge show.” Tyson also said the “Survivor challenge team is the best at building, and putting together, and creating sick challenges when they need to.”

Survivor’s challenges certainly have gotten repetitive and stale—if only they’d repeat some of the early season challenges!—and that’s why I think Tough As Nails has the best challenges now.

Anyway, Danny told us his wife told him “come back, don’t die,” which is a few steps closer to the truth than it needs to be.

But speaking of Danny: Wow, is this a great cast, because of both individuals and its mix of people.

It’s odd, in a good way, to see CBS reality stars—including winners like Sarah Lacina, Tyson Apostol, James Wallington—in this MTV show context.

In the premiere, we didn’t get to meet them while they’re doing something—building a shelter, waiting at an airport—but instead while they hung around the warehouse house.

It was 16 full minutes before a challenge showed up on The Challenge—and it’s a version of a challenge from The Mole season 2.

There were fragments of information. Xavier insisted he wasn’t part of The Cookout alliance, which is a curious choice, since he’s there with three of the Cookout members.

Shan said something that seemed to respond to the criticism she’s gotten from Survivor: “When I play Uno, when I play Monopoly, I’m not playing as a pastor, I’m playing as Shan, a person who’s competitive.”

Was that mingling and sharing exciting to watch? Eh. But it got better.

The Challenge: USA contestants—from Survivor, Big Brother, Amazing Race, and Love Island—wait to compete in the first challenge, Down to Do the Math
The Challenge: USA contestants—from Survivor, Big Brother, Amazing Race, and Love Island—wait to compete in the first challenge, Down to Do the Math. (Photo by Laura Barisonzi/Paramount)

The format for the season is simple: Each player starts with $1,000 and has to earn $5,000 to even compete in the final challenge. They can earn money by winning challenges or elimination face-offs.

The ultimate prize is $500,000 and a spot on the Paramount+ global Challenge series. I’m assuming there will be multiple winners and/or people who win their way onto that show.

The first challenge took place on the side of a building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is hosting this season.

It was called “Down to Do the Math,” and if you’ve seen The Mole 2, then you’ve seen a version of this challenge. As is true with nearly everything else, The Mole did it better.

The players paired up, which started getting interesting, as people with preexisting relationships (Danny and Shan, Cashel and Kyra) and people from different shows (Angela and Tyson) created mini-alliances.

Together, each pair had to rappel down the side of a building, past numbers and mathematical symbols, and do the math as they descended. They had three chances to identify the answer; if they got it wrong, they had to run 22 flights of stairs back up and rappel again.

Each player in the fastest team won $5,000 for winning, meaning they’re already in the final after episode one, which is like getting to the final Tribal Council after finding an idol, oh shit I just gave Jeff Probst another bad idea.

They also won the ability to be HOH and pick who’d go into elimination with the slowest team.

While I’m sure this was a tough challenge, between the heights and the math and climbing stairs, there was nothing visually interesting about it. The editors just showed us the equations, and while the players had to turn large gears to indicate the correct answer, they could have just as easily said the number and it would have not been any different.

Alyssa noted “how intense these challenges are” which I translated as roughly: how bad the producers are at their jobs.

After the very first challenge, Azah became dehydrated and passed out, and Kyland had to carry her to a shady area. Water, anyone? Medic? Concern from anyone on the production staff? Or is that not in the budget?

Kyland and Azah from Big Brother prepare to lose the first challenge on The Challenge: USA
Kyland and Azah from Big Brother prepare to lose the first challenge on The Challenge: USA. (Photo by Laura Barisonzi/Paramount)

Angela and Tyson won; Azah and Kyland were in the elimination against whoever Angela and Tyson chose. (For losing, they got $1,000, which seems generous, because lose four more times and they’re in the final, too.)

Now it was time for strategy. My favorite!

Would Tyson and Angela give immunity to people from their own shows, Survivor and Big Brother? If so, that left just three teams for them to send into elimination, meaning that kind of alliance cannot last long.

Tyson and Angela did go that way, settling on Shannon (“there’s people that want to be here more than her,” Angela said) and James (who’d represent the “least blood on our hands” because there are fewer Amazing Race players).

With no Challenge history to fall back on, it makes sense that the players would align—and pre-game, I’m sure—with people from their show.

It’s not super-interesting strategy, though; it’s safe. It only lasted a few minutes, and then we cut to scenes of partying, though very watered down for this TV-PG rated CBS show.

I was ready to write off James and Shannon the second the editors included a childhood photo of James and he said:

“Growing up, because I was an effeminate gay man, I was very underestimated. But when I started to step into my power and really accept who I was, I found a new competitive streak in me. Because my knowledge of reality TV, I know how all these people operate, and that’s going to help me do what I came here to do: divide and infiltrate.”

I was rooting for him—yes! make something happen!—but the show cut immediately to players walking to the elimination challenge arena, meaning no strategy talk, and I assumed no traction.

After lots of footage of walking—The Challenge: USA really stretched to fill 90 minutes—Tyson and Angela announced their picks:

Cely and Javonny from Love Island. What?!

In flashback, we saw James working people, planting ideas and shoring up support. “I want to be here, I want to play the game,” he told Tyson, and then told us Tyson is “always going to think what is going to help me get to the end.”

Why we didn’t get that footage instead of party footage, I don’t know. A quick flashback montage wasn’t enough to really illustrate how James managed to get Tyson and Angela to change their minds.

But they did, and that meant Kyland and Azah faced off against Cely and Javonny.

I don’t like the elimination challenges that are simply about brute strength, so it was a good one.

First, they competed as teams, not in same-sex face-offs, as MTV’s The Challenge loves to do.

For the first elimination challenge., “Knot So Fast,” they were tied together and to a huge 250-foot rope. Together, they had to climb in and out of a metal pyramid that looked like a pointier version of that thing from 1980s playgrounds, creating knots that were difficult to unravel.

The team that unraveled the other team’s rope fastest would win, and get the losers’ bank account. A really decent challenge, and one that gave them a chance to be strategic and use physicality, though strength alone wouldn’t decide it.

Kyland and Azah easily won, not that the task was easy.

That’s when TJ Lavin walked away from the teleprompter to reveal this season’s big twist: “the algorithm,” which will “randomly select your new teammates every elimination.”

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t believe for a second that thing is random, and it is most certainly not powered by an “algorithm.”

However, I do like the idea of shuffling the teams, which will likely force more strategy in future episodes. Those who were comfortable in their partnerships were clearly shocked.

At the same time, the “this season on” segment focused almost exclusively on the challenges themselves, as did this episode, so I’m curious if The Challenge: USA is going to lean away from Big Brother and Survivor and toward Tough As Nails when it comes to the balance of time spent on challenges versus everything else.

But thanks mostly to James actually doing something interesting, I’ll keep watching to see how everything unfolds, and how these players navigate this particular game.

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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.

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Happy discussing!

JF

Saturday 9th of July 2022

I used to watch The Challenge on MTV religiously, but recent seasons have been toned down. The challenges on the flagship show have become boring (when they moved the challenge designers to All-Stars).

I did enjoy the USA show, but here's what they need to do overall to right the ship:

1. Either have interpersonal drama or better challenges, but neither = snooze fest. I couldn't even finish Spies, Lies, & Allies after the rookies were out. BORING! The only reason USA held my interest in the first episode was the amount of strategy AND familiar faces. When those dwindle, I'll probably check out again.

2. The challenges. Lord, watching people do the same thing over and over for a half hour is dull AF. I was hoping at least one pair would have a panic attack climbing that building in ep. 1 of USA, but no. Not even that. Find a way to shortcut it or design better challenges.

3. On the flagship show, do not let the vets get rid of the rookies. If we wanted to watch vets all the time, we could just watch reruns. There are so many boring vets like Nani, KC, Josh, etc. Limit it to like 5 vets at most. Bring in people who are from other shows or total noobs.

4. TJ! Please take a delivery training class. Your delivery sounds so written. There needs to be more emotion behind it. I like when you mess around with the contestants and you are great when someone gets out of line, but the delivery of the run of the mill stuff is sleep inspiring. You are on CBS now -- step it up!

Matt

Friday 8th of July 2022

I like the look and feel of MTV’s Challenge. This was clumsily produced and edited (where were the big challenge letters that the cast often stand in front of). More over it felt as if everything was playing back at 3/4 speed. It was so slow (is that how CBS sees it’s audience?). I’m ready for The (real) Challenge to return.

BadMitten

Thursday 7th of July 2022

So I have a lot to challenge (ha) you on in terms of your write-up here....

"While TJ Lavin has his charms and his air horn, he’s still such an awkward host compared to Jeff Probst or Phil Keoghan." - That is part of TJ's charm, he's not super buttoned up and he isn't going to try to turn everything into a daytime talk show

"Each player in the fastest team won $5,000 for winning, meaning they’re already in the final after episode one" - Not true... They are eligible for the final sure, but they could get thrown into an elimination round before the final and be eliminated (thus not automatically being in the final after episode one)

"Angela and Tyson won; Azah and Kyland were in the elimination against whoever Angela and Tyson chose. (For losing, they got $1,000, which seems generous, because lose four more times and they’re in the final, too.)" - I'm honestly not even sure what you are trying to say here... Azah and Kyland did not get $1k added to their bank account for losing. Every team got $1k in their bank account to start the show, additionally they got $1k each from winning the elimination round (winners of the elimination round steal the bank account of the losers of the elimination round

"Why we didn’t get that footage instead of party footage, I don’t know. A quick flashback montage wasn’t enough to really illustrate how James managed to get Tyson and Angela to change their minds." - This is the same editing trick they use on Survivor when someone finds an idol/advantage, but they dont show that footage until they pull it out at tribal. They held this footage back because they wanted to keep everyone guessing who would go into elimination. I think they wanted it to have the effect of everyone thinking it would be James/Shannon, only for us to all be super impressed when we see James actually saved himself.

"I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t believe for a second that thing is random, and it is most certainly not powered by an “algorithm.”" - Did you not listen to TJ explain how the algorithm works? It's really just making sure that each contestant doesn't get paired up with another contestant twice before theyve been partnered with everyone else once each (so for example; if person A is with person B for challenge 1, the algorithm is going to make sure person A is with anyone but person B for challenge 2 - say they were then paired with person C for challenge 2, the algorithm is going to make sure that for challenge 3 that person A is not paired up with persons B or C again. So Tyson can't be partnered with Angela again until he's been partnered with every other female contestant at least once.

Andy Dehnart

Thursday 14th of July 2022

Aack, forgot to respond to this last week while traveling! I always appreciate the challenge(s)!

T.J.: I know that's supposed to be his thing, but it just doesn't work for me, especially compared to other CBS hosts, but even compared to cable or streaming hosts who are much more casual and informal, whether that's Nicole Byer on Making It or Rob Riggle on Holey Moley.

Winning $5K/$1K: You're right about that, of course; I didn't write that well, and meant they wouldn't have to win again to get into the finale. Of course, it's a long path from win ---> finale! As to the $1K, I misunderstood/misheard when TJ said they got $1K each, thinking that was for the challenge, and forgetting that everyone started with that. That's my error.

Editing: My major objection here was not the flashback—which can work, and sometimes can be annoying—but the brevity of it. I wanted to see James really working people, rather than a sentence here or there.

Algorithm: I do understand the general idea, but I still don't believe it's 1) random or 2) an actual algorithm, though I guess a spreadsheet with names that are paired together constitutes a kind of primitive algorithm.

Kurt

Thursday 7th of July 2022

@BadMitten, Agreed that giving Tyson and Angela $5,000 is nice for their bank account / final ticket, but it makes them a target. You get the entire bank account for someone you take out in elimination, so it makes sense that teams might be gunning for Tyson and Angela (particularly if they have a bad partner) in order to get YOUR ticket punched. It's potentially easier to win an elimination (50% chance) than it would be to win a challenge (1 team out of 16 or so, although that dwindles).

And I agree there is no 'algorithm' that's just a fancy name they gave it, like they have a different name for the elimination location on every season of the Challenge. I agree it probably won't be random but producer picked, but making it so you'll never have the same partner twice (until you run out) is a nice twist. Going to very much keep people on their feet and the season much less predictable.

The Challenge is my guilty pleasure, and I'm all in on this one. Kind of disappointed that we didn't see normal The Challenge contestants on here, but it would be fun to see some of them pop up in the The Challenge World Championship series after this one completes its run.

Melissa

Thursday 7th of July 2022

I haven't watched this yet. I was never into the MTV version, but this sounds interesting. Thanks for the review.

I am so, SO proud of you for quitting that other show!! :) Your life will be better for it.

Andy Dehnart

Thursday 7th of July 2022

Thanks! 😃 I will still follow it in case it needs to be held accountable, but definitely not worth 95 days.

Patrick

Thursday 7th of July 2022

Agree with everything you wrote, but can we talk about PEMDAS?! Did the order of operations not matter in that challenge?!

BadMitten

Thursday 7th of July 2022

@Patrick, The Challenge is notorious for not using PEMDAS for their math challenges, they do the same thing on MTV/Paramount versions

Andy Dehnart

Thursday 7th of July 2022

Great question, and I don't think so. Based on the equations on the screen—which I did not calculate!—it seemed like they were treating the end of the first pair as an equal sign, adding/multiplying/subtracting as they went.