When the biggest dramatic moment in a strategic competition reality show comes from a phone call about credit card machines, there may be a structural problem.
I think that’s the case with CBS’s The Challenge USA, which started strong and now is just drifting.
Don’t get me wrong: I do not miss nor want a return to The Challenge’s drunken assault era. I’m not asking for partying footage.
But also: What is everyone doing all the time? We see some side conversations, but for the most part the living area has tumbleweeds rolling through it.
Even when mortal enemies are paired, as happened this week, nothing came of it, just as nothing happened when they were on opposite teams last week. Survivor winners Tyson and Sarah were paired together, which Tyson said is “an advantage right now, because she wants to get rid of me.” In other words, a week of no drama.
Sarah, however, decided to make Tyson’s life hell—by complimenting him, promising she wasn’t coming after him, and giving him a hug. “I want to Tyson to think I trust Tyson, but I will never trust Tyson,” Sarah said, apparently talking about Tyson.
The biggest dramatic arc came from Leo and Alyssa’s pairing. In an interview, Alyssa told us, “Leo’s great, Leo is the best competitor here, and I’m so excited to compete with him.” Then she took a beat and said, “Was it believable?”
Yet even after she’d driven him into a literal wall in the challenge and ended up in the elimination, she grew fond of the partner no one wanted.
The Challenge’s algorithm was bullshit
A quick aside about the “algorithm,” since this was its last week. (“I’m tired of the algorithm,” TJ said at the end of the episode.)
It turns out it was bullshit. The Twitter account @challengestats discovered last week that there were 1,816 possible combinations that would have led to no repeat pairings, even though we got a repeat pairing last week.
Specifically, they noted that “If the algorithm was truly random (doubt it is) it should have most probably Angela with David or Enzo, and Domenick should’ve been with Alyssa (the most probable matchup.”
Basically, either the producers didn’t actually use a random algorithm, or did such a poor job of constructing their “random” selection that it didn’t end up functioning like it should have.
With little drama coming from the team pairings, the biggest Challenge: USA episode seven drama came from Leo’s phone call to his girlfriend.
When he told her, “I just sleep all day like a cat,” she was extremely irritated, saying she was trying to hold together his businesses—something about the credit card machine is not working, so the business lost $43,000 in one weekend.
That was very weird. She legitimately couldn’t find another human being to fix that? He legitimately left his business in the hands of people incapable of doing anything themselves, or finding people who could help them?
On the call, Leo abruptly said: “I’m gonna leave today; I’m gonna fucking walk out the door right now”—and then actually packed up his suitcase and rolled it outside. “There’s an emergency at home, so I gotta go,” he said.
Leo’s partner, Alyssa, who couldn’t wait to compete with him, made a compelling, logical plea: “If you leave, that could fuck me up.” So Leo stayed.
Leo stuck around for “Wreck-Reactional Driving,” this episode’s main challenge, in which person in each pair was blindfolded and driving; the other had to give them directions.
It’s like a driving version of Survivor’s famous blindfolded obstacle course challenge, except instead of people smashing their crotches on crotch-height sticks that Survivor’s challenge team places around the course, the Challenge: USA teams were trying to pop other teams’ balls.
Most challenges look difficult; this just looked fun. Like, I want to attach some yoga balls to my car and smash into some people that annoy me.
Alas, many of the teams were eliminated simply because their car got stuck or became disabled, which is far less fun than watching them smash into each other.
For example, Alyssa had Leo drive right into a sand wall, and they were the first team eliminated, and automatically in the elimination challenge.
There were some fun moments: Cashay and David kept steering into barrels; Desi and Ben drove on top of a barrel. (I wish the art department had painted their names on all surfaces of the cars, not just the driver’s door, so it would have been easier to keep track of who was who.)
Sarah told us “it’s like I’m at work right now,” because police regularly drive blindfolded and smash into other cars for fun, apparently.
It was during the challenge that Danny’s wife made her weekly appearance: “I drive my wife Kiki around everywhere, because she is the opposite: she is a horrible driver,” he said.
Cayla and Domenick won, getting them into the final (assuming they aren’t eliminated).
To her credit, Cayla said, “I want to take this shot no matter what,” and told Dom “I want as many people unsure and on edge as possible.”
Amazing that The Amazing Race players are the most strategic on The Challenge: USA, when their show is the most different from The Challenge, as it’s not a social experiment/social game.
Kyland knew that he, Angela, and Tyson were likely picks. “I feel good about our strength, but I also know we’re probably the biggest targets in the house,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sarah tried to make herself (and Tyson) a target by angling to go into the challenge; she needs money to make the final.
Cayla and Domenick ultimately chose Kyland and Kyra. Cayla explained that Kyland basically ignored her: “maybe I would finally get my one-on-one conversation. That has not happened, making my decision very easy.”
The elimination challenge was my least-favorite so far, mostly because it was not fairly constructed. Each pair had to answer trivia questions, placing a heavy medicine ball with the answer on top of a platform. It was so high that it required one person to be on the others’ shoulders.
Why didn’t the teams have the same questions? Why wasn’t the platform adjusted for height? Why am I asking these questions of a show that clearly doesn’t give too many shits about these kinds of things?
In perhaps the most self-aware thing he’s ever said, Kyland told us, “literally, I am a kick-ass step stool.”
Despite dropping a ball on a camera, Leo and Alyssa won, sending Leo into a stream of cringy declarations about his awesomeness, ugh.
Dom said their “mission accomplished” with the “three-headed monster” of Kyland-Angela-Tyson now having just two heads. One of the stronger challenge competitors is now gone, but what does that mean for the season itself?