CBS’s The Challenge: USA finale was, I think it’s fair to say, a complete wreck. Every single player except the two winners quit, a first in the 500+ episodes and 37+ seasons of MTV’s The Challenge. Is that the players’ fault, or was there more going on?
Behind the scenes, things seemed to be even more of a mess, from the players clothes and money being stolen during filming to changing rules during the final challenge.
Not even the actual prize for winning was clear: Was it $500,000 to the winner? The prize was advertised as “the $500,000 grand prize and title of Challenge Champion on the line,” singular, but it turned out to be $500,000 to two people, and then minus all the finalists’ prizes. Luckily for them, the winners ended up splitting a full $500,000, since everyone else quit.
Update: Danny McCray confirmed that they were misled about the prize in an interview with Variety:
“We had all assumed that the prize is going to be one winner, $500K, because it’s the ‘Challenge champion’ moving on to another part of a tournament — singular. We get to the top and I’m like, okay me and Sarah, we’re splitting the $500,000, meaning we get $250,000. Then we hear that if everybody had crossed the finish line, all of their money would have came out of that $500,000 and then me and Sarah would have split what was left of it. So it was very strange,” McCray said. “We come from ‘Survivor,’ where you get $1 million dollars. Xavier [Prather] came from ‘Big Brother,’ where you get $750K. ‘Amazing Race’ is $1 million dollars. I’m like, ‘We did all this for how much?’”
I was thrilled to see Danny McCray win half of that money, in part because I loved him as a Survivor player, in part because he called out Jeff Probst’s moronic Survivor twist, saying “the integrity of the game is at risk.”
I’m not sure how much integrity The Challenge has, with its track record of being a “hostile work environment” famous for drunkenness and on-camera assault, never mind its actual challenges.
The new CBS version was produced, like the MTV version, by Bunim-Murray, the company that created modern reality TV with The Real World.
I think MTV Challenge fans seem to be a whole lot more forgiving of their producing—if not downright annoyed at how annoyed some of us are—perhaps because all this sketchiness is something they’re used to, or perhaps because they’re used to seeing career Challenge players do better.
CBS viewers, on the other hand, are used to higher-quality reality competitions.
The deficiencies in The Challenge: USA’s final were evident to many of us who watched—and also to those who played. In their exit interviews and on social media, they’ve shared details that expose some pretty shocking things behind the scenes.
Theft of players’ money and clothes
What follows are, of course, what the players have said publicly, so I wonder how much more happened that they’re not talking about. If you’re inclined to dismiss some of these thoughts as sour grapes or reputation management, consider two things:
- Executive producer and showrunner Justin Booth used a pre-finale promotional interview to shit all over the players, saying “they have to prove to me that I can categorize them in the same space as the kids who oftentimes finish our finals.” Why be so hostile toward your own cast? Is that defensiveness masked as judgment?
- These players are under contract with CBS, and only do press with permission. CBS is notoriously heavy-handed and controlling about behind-the-scenes information. It has limited how much information it lets players discuss; Survivor publicists sometimes don’t let players answer questions about things we didn’t see on TV. If the network is letting its stars call out specific and detailed aspects of the production, well, that tells me something.
The winners, Danny and Sarah, have not offered any pointed criticism of the show or its producers in the interviews I’ve read (Parade, TV Insider, EW). But they’re also going on to the Paramount+ show, so they’re not done with The Challenge or its producers, while many of the other interviewed players say they are.
Someone asked Domenick Abbate, “What went wrong here?”, and he replied “Everything”.
Let’s start with theft. The Amazing Race winner James Wallington, who was eliminated in episode three, tweeted that he “had $140 stolen from my bag on set when I was in elimination.” On a presumably closed set, with only cast and crew members around, a cast member was robbed?!
Meanwhile, Tyson said in an interview with EW that “somebody from production was stealing our clothes. If you had something expensive or unique, it went missing when we submitted it for laundry.” He said producers “were just going to write down all the things we were missing and that was somehow going to get them back to us. Never got them back. Nobody did.”
How does players’ property get stolen on a closed set? How has Bunim-Murray and/or CBS still not compensated players for what their employee(s) stole?
I’ve reached out to CBS, asking them about that:
- Does CBS and/or Bunim-Murray have plans to compensate players for what was stolen?
- Was a CBS standards and practices representative on set with producers during the final? If so, were they comfortable with all decisions made by producers?
- Should players have been provided written rules before or during the final?
Elsewhere, Alyssa gently called out editing that used footage from across the season, pointing out to Parade’s Mike Bloom that players “have interviews every week in a different outfit. And the first few episodes, I was in so many different outfits! Everyone else has the same exact outfit on. But I’ve got four outfits and different wardrobe changes.”
Tyson Apostol, who was dominant in challenges and central to this season’s narrative. He went a lot further in his criticism, told EW that The Challenge is basically junk compared to Survivor:
Survivor is like the finest oiled machine. If one thing is incorrect or fails, [host] Jeff [Probst] is immediately there, making sure it’s fixed. This doesn’t have any of that. This is like the machine that’s never been oiled. I thought this was like an institution. And it could be, and it should be. But I think what it’s lacking is a guy like Jeff Probst, not as a host, but a guy who is willing and cares about this product to make sure that everybody has a similar experience and that there’s consistency throughout so people know what to expect. If Jeff were working on this show, every single day he would have been screaming, somebody was getting fired. And I’ve only seen him do that two or three times on Survivor in four seasons.
As I tweeted, I may frequently and vehemently disagree with Jeff Probst’s decisions and choices as showrunner and host of Survivor, but I do not doubt his commitment and passion for making what he thinks is the best, most high-quality show possible. I do not feel that way about The Challenge.
Rules that were in producers’ heads
Were the rules of The Challenge: USA’s final checkpoint tasks made clear to the players? Not according to Tyson.
In the eating challenge, Tyson told EW that “I tried to pull the trigger and throw up on purpose and they told me that was against the rules! I asked them if I can see that rule and they said it was in their head.”
There were written rules at the start of each challenge, and if the producers didn’t think ahead to prevent intentional vomiting, then that should be allowed. (I can’t believe I’m writing about allowable vomiting!)
Tyson said that wasn’t the only unwritten rule:
There were some times where I was like, “Can I do this?” And they were like, “No, it’s in the rules.” I was like, “Where’s the rules?” And the guy was like, “In my head.” I was like ” [laughs] … okay.”
Meanwhile, what was in producers’ heads was also wrong at least once, also according to Tyson. On the leg of the final challenge that required the players to memorize 10 numbers and then decode them, Tyson said that he and Angela gave their answer to a producer:
“…and the showrunner was like, “No that’s wrong.” I was like, “Angela, what are your numbers?” And I did it again. I got the same number again, and they’re like, “No, that’s wrong.”
I do it one more time and I was like, “Angela, are you sure your numbers are right?” She’s like, “Yeah.” I’m like, “I’m sure mine are right, too.” And they’re like, “No, you have to go to the start and get your numbers because you got it wrong.” And I was like, “Here’s the 10 numbers that we have memorized.” And they’re like, “Those numbers are right.” I was like, “Then my math is right! You guys are wrong. This is insane!” The showrunner is telling me to calm down, but I could see everybody gaining on us as I’m having this argument over basic mathematics and I’m correct and they’re not and they should have that answer like written on the palm of their hand or something for when we come in, or have double-checked it, or something!
So I’m arguing with them and finally they’re like, “Oh, yeah, you are right.” And I was like, “Yeah!” So now I’m like, can I trust these guys to either not make mistakes or are they doing this on purpose? And in thinking back on it, if a weaker person than me who wasn’t as confident in being right as I was, they would have just ran back and nobody would have ever known that that had ever happened.
If that is an accurate accounting of events, that’s either blatant incompetence or blatant manipulation. How could they not have the correct numbers ready to check at the checkpoint?
When I went behind the scenes of the Big Brother house, a challenge was being filmed in the back yard, and there were three producers standing behind the mirrors recording scores on score sheets to ensure accuracy and fairness. Three! And that’s Big Brother!
Sarah’s puzzle mystery
Eventual winner Sarah was in last place, yet was the only woman to finish. The editing just skipped ahead from her struggling with a puzzle to hiking to the summit.
Sarah told Parade’s Mike Bloom that “I knew going into that I had enough points that as long as I didn’t get last place I was going to win,” and added, “I would have stayed out there until they were like, ‘Okay, you’re done.’ But I would not have quit.”
In her interview with EW, however, Sarah confirmed she did not actually finish the first puzzle: “I ended up timing out of it. And I have no clue how long I was there. It felt like between one to two hours.”
However, she did say she completed the sudoku puzzle, and quickly:
I did it on my first try. I would say I was able to get it done in 15 minutes. I know how to do sudoku, so I just hammered it out.
The fact that we, as viewers, did not see her complete either puzzle really adds to the sketchiness. Why not show her timing out, and also completing the puzzle? Replace a few seconds of puking footage with footage of her finishing the puzzle—easy!
Not showing both is, at the very least, unfair to Sarah, because the editing gave viewers and other players reason to be suspicious, rather than to celebrate her achievements.
Sudoku without the rules
Tyson tweeted during the episode that the producers did not tell the players how sudoku actually works. So they were just told to “finish the pattern.”
That is, in a word, ridiculous—especially for such a massive sudoku board, with just a stack of numbers that could go anywhere.
Tyson elaborated more to EW, saying the producers were of no help:
And there was really no communication from production as to like what the next steps were. We were just looking at it, and they were like, “You have to finish that.” We’re like, “We can’t! Tell us how, we don’t know.” And then at that point, I just was like, I know I’m not finishing this sudoku puzzle because I don’t fully know how to do it, I’ve never done one before. My only option is to just drop out.
On Twitter, he called it a “force quit,” which is interesting language.
Time-outs and Angela’s DQ
Ben’s medical exit—and the producers’ failure to adjust for that scenario—meant that one female player was competing alone on each leg, sometimes giving that person an advantage, and sometimes not.
Angela was alone on the leg that required her to move a pile of dirt all by herself. While she had less dirt, Tyson said she had “two-thirds of a regular pile.”
Sarah said the dirt-moving challenge involved several steps:
…you must move this pile of dirt over to the pit and then it will reveal a code at the bottom of the pole, and attached to the top is two bags that you have to use the code to unlock. Once you move all the dirt, you get the code, then you have to put all the dirt back. On the sign it says you must retrieve these bags to continue to the next leg. It was pretty clear what we had to do. There was no confusion of the work that had to be done.
It may have been clear, but according to Tyson, no one finished the dirt challenge! He said that, after the final was completed,
A lot of people on production came and apologized to me some of them through tears, and were like, “We’re sorry. We know that that was bad.” So I honestly don’t know what to say. It was insane and it was crazy. Angela’s was the same way. Nobody finished that digging. Production came to us and said, “We’ve been awake almost as long as you have and we want to get to bed so we’re just going to finish in the order of how much progress you’ve made.” If I would have just gone and woken Angela up in that moment and got her out standing in that field for three minutes, she probably would have been fine.
The fact that the producers modified that mid-challenge for everyone is an incredible claim, and it’s also nuts that they’d adjust that one challenge for the solo female player, while requiring the solo female player on other legs to do the full task by themselves.
The time-outs are very strange, too, because at the very least, they were applied inconsistently on-screen, never mind what happened off-camera.
Speaking for Angela, Tyson said that at the start of the dirt challenge,
…she’s thinking there’s no way I can beat any of the pairings here, so I may as well just take the time out because they gave Justine one. They let her skate through after when we came down and did the decoder stuff, she forgot to bring the decoder thing to the finish line, and rather than make her run back to the start to get it or wherever to the midpoint, they were just like, “You just timed out of this part. You’re last place on this leg.”
He also said that, post-final, producers told him, “Sarah timed out of the first puzzle faster, in a quicker amount of time than you spent at Sudoku.” Even if that second-hand information is not accurate, the players should have been given a specific and clear rule about time-outs and DQs.
If all of this unfolded in the way players say it did, that makes The Challenge: USA look even worse than it did on screen. Did it end up robbing some people of $500,000, like others were robbed of their clothes and cash?