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Why is The Challenge USA so bad at challenges?

Why is The Challenge USA so bad at challenges?
The Challenge's real-life logo, as seen on the season finale of The Challenge: USA. (Photo by Jonne Roriz/Paramount)

Bringing MTV’s flagship reality competition series—and, well, only reality competition—to CBS was a terrific idea. CBS’s core reality shows are similarly focused on a combination of strategy and competition, so it’s a natural fit.

Populating it with players from Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race allowed CBS viewers an entry point and gave MTV fans a fresh cast, rather than bringing back the same characters who’ve turned MTV’s The Challenge into their careers.

The Challenge: USA started strong, but quickly slipped into predictability. Its format allowed a large alliance of mostly Survivor players to dominate the game, protecting each other, and preventing any kind of dramatic outcomes.

CBS’s reality stars were given a weak game to play, and even worse, presented with challenges that are the most inferior competitions CBS has to offer.

Yes, they’re even worse than the games on Big Brother, which previously had the weakest, most poorly designed challenges on the network—although it absolutely has upped its game in recent seasons, with higher-quality production design and an even more creative use of its limited back-yard competition space.

For a show that is literally called The Challenge, and has been (non-ironically) called the United State’s “fifth sport” and “America’s finest sport,” it has proven to be incredibly bad at the actual competitions.

Reasons why the Challenge’s challenges stink

Domenick Abbate during The Challenge USA episode 8's main challenge, which took place on a river
Domenick Abbate during The Challenge USA episode 8’s main challenge, which took place on a river. (Photo by Jonne Roriz/Paramount)

In the early days of MTV’s The Challenge, back when it was The Real World versus Road Rules, and before it became a drunken, assault-driven soap opera, the challenges were comically bad.

In 2006, I called them “something a drunk P.E. teacher would come up with,” although they could also be ridiculous, like the one a player called a “big, giant Andy Warhol wet dream.”

In his attempt to host them, T.J. Lavin fumbled around as referee, and they often seemed poorly designed and/or constructed. During The Gauntlet 2, a challenge prop literally fell apart.

Have they gotten better since? Are the MTV challenges better than The Challenge: USA’s? “Surprisingly, they are worse,” one viewer responded to me when I asked that question on Twitter.

You’d think that moving the show to a broadcast network might have come with a bigger budget, though I suppose it would make even more financial sense to make a network TV show on a cable budget.

I don’t think budget is the issue, though. Tough As Nails, Phil Keoghan’s other CBS competition, has absolutely terrific challenges that all take place in the Los Angeles area, in pre-existing locations, like a field of cilantro or an empty office building. It turns real-life tasks into thrilling competitions between teams and individuals.

The Challenge has challenges that often seem much bigger in scale and considerably more, uh, challenging, requiring strength, nerve, strategy, and precision. But that’s on paper. While they may sound like good ideas as T.J. describes them, the reality is worse.

Even with The Challenge’s grungy, industrial aesthetic, the production design feels like an afterthought, like the barge puzzle that was just some barely painted plywood pieces. The huge CHALLENGE letters and the surrounding environment are the most visually striking part of most competitions, with the rest just kind of sitting there.

But that’s aesthetics. One of the major issues for me is how poorly The Challenge’s competitions are filmed and edited.

Derek Xiao and Justine Ndiba attempt a puzzle while T.J.Lavin looks on
Derek Xiao and Justine Ndiba attempt a puzzle while T.J.Lavin looks on. (Photo by Laura Barisonz/Paramount)

The Challenge rarely offers a clear, visual overview of who’s ahead or who isn’t. When everyone is competing together, the field of play is often so big that we don’t see everything, or the challenge has been designed so that they go back and forth, thus making it difficult to keep track of who’s ahead.

(Survivor’s production team meticulously recreates key moments from each challenge using stand-ins, and then films those from a helicopter, just to give us a few quick aerial shots, and those really are helpful.)

When players are completing the task separately or in pairs, that has a tendency to become repetitive. So much of what we’ve seen this season has effectively become a montage, with no sense of the stakes present in that moment.

The trivia challenge dropped players on a bungee cord off the side of a building if they got an answer wrong ended up being about as thrilling as if they’d done somersaults on grass. There was just nothing dramatic about it.

At times, the competitions arrive with questionable rules. The elimination challenge that locked one team member in a water tank ended suspiciously, which may have just been poor filming or editing, or may have been a rule that wasn’t fully explained and/or thought out.

On top of all that, The Challenge USA’s challenges, after all these years, still come across as poorly conceived and/or executed. Take the episode eight challenge “Having a Blast.”

It returned the players to the Río de la Plata, which has brown, cloudy water. That’s sediment, according to NASA, but according to La Nacion, the water also has runoff from “urban garbage, sewage, industrial chemical remains, treated and untreated” and potentially “traces of oil spills from vessels that sail the Atlantic Sea.” Oh, just traces?

The players had to jump from a speeding boat to a long, thin runway being towed by another boat. Enzo’s jump onto that platform left him cut so badly he needed stitches. Injuries happen—I sometimes injure myself just walking around my house, because I am very klutzy—but why would the thing they were jumping onto at high speeds be capable of causing such a major wound?

Then there was the actual task. Two other players were supposed to fire water cannons at their opponents, who were running back and forth down the platform, but perhaps because the two cannon-firing players switched places with the two runners, nearly everyone ended up helping each other. They either used the cannon to rinse soap off the runway, or just aimed the stream of water far away from the players—which, considering what might have been in that water, was very kind.

With everyone going two at a time, there was no sense of tension or drama, especially as it got more repetitive. To recap: in possibly polluted water, the players made a dangerous leap, all for a boring challenge that had no real consequence in the game.

Sarah Lacina and Leo Temory in the Challenge: USA episode 4 elimination challenge
Sarah Lacina and Leo Temory in the Challenge: USA episode 4 elimination challenge. (Photo by Jonne Roriz/Paramount)

To give The Challenge: USA some credit, its elimination challenges have been considerably better all season.

In an improvement over MTV’s version of The Challenge, they haven’t all been just brutal, physical brawls between members of the same sex. For most of the season, players competed in pairs, and they were required to summon a mix of intellect, strategy, strength, and teamwork. My favorite was probably the reel-stacking challenge.

Using the arena for those makes it easier to have an overview of what’s going on, though the editing can still be clumsy, and the most-recent wrestling challenge just got dull, fast.

Much of this seems like it could have been improved with time, practice, and/or money, which may not have been resources the production has.

Survivor tests its challenges with the Dream Team, of course, but before that it spends months planning. As the mid-Challenge USA promo revealed, even the camera team carefully plans every shot. Perhaps The Challenge does the same thing. If so, it’s not translating to the screen.

Even Tyson Apostol, one of this season’s most dominant challenge competitors, said, after filming The Challenge: USA, that Survivor just does better work: “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.”

Sure, Survivor’s challenges can get stale and repetitive—balance/endurance challenge after balance/endurance challenge, obstacle course/puzzle after obstacle course/puzzle—and no longer have the same range as they did in earlier seasons. But taken as individual artifacts, they produce much more compelling television, and are operating at such a higher level. I will watch them with new appreciation after this summer of pale imitations.

During a commercial break in The Challenge: USA episode four, a promo for Survivor 43 took us, as Jeff Probst said, “behind the scenes to show you just part of the prep that goes into laying out a challenge like this.” I don’t think CBS intended that as shade, but it immediately and clearly pointed out what I was missing from the show I was watching. It may have gotten a little stale, but in that staleness I’ve failed to appreciate just how above and beyond superior they are.

This season of The Challenge: USA has certainly had some compelling moments, but it’s mostly given me a far greater appreciation for challenges on other CBS shows.

MTV will start airing a documentary series next week about The Challenge’s long history, and a few weeks later will release a book about its players.

In its announcement of those two things, MTV called The Challenge “the greatest competition series on television.” That’s a bold statement, even for marketing, and if MTV and Paramount Global want it to be true, maybe they should invest more in making The Challenge’s challenges better than the far superior product CBS already delivers on Survivor and Tough As Nails.

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Wednesday 14th of September 2022

I've been watching The Challenge regularly for ... a decade? Maybe more. And seen a lot of challenges on The Challenge, both good and bad.

One of my fundamental complaints about the Challenge is the frequent decision to run everything in heats, which requires a timed element which results in TJ announcing the winner. Having TJ announce a winner based on time instead of us being able to see the actual winner is a terrible example of why good media should "show, not tell." This is particularly true when it's a final. I can't recall Survivor ever doing this, and I know Big Brother has occasionally done this, but not nearly as often. Not only is this anticlimactic, it reduces transparency and increases the perception (if not reality) of production being able to rig the challenge. That's not a good look. I would like to see more events run simultaneously so there is a clear winner. Alternatively, if the budget doesn't allow (i.e. last week's otherwise excellent truck peg challenge) having a repeatable event so it's a tournament, of sorts, where the winners advance and repeat the challenge until the one winner is obvious. The trivia competition did use a form of that this year, at least.

The 'skiff down the river while getting water cannoned' sounded great in principle, but they didn't think it through that nobody would actually shoot at each other. They could have made it better by 1) using a much cleaner body of water, 2) eliminating the water cannons, and 3) making it a tournament so winner moves on until one is left.

I also feel like sometimes The Challenge designers have a visual in their head of something fun, and don't realize that it won't actually make a good challenge. And they get stuck on that image and can't move away from it. "I know, we'll have players kick flaming soccer balls at each other!" Sounds great in practice, but actually a terrible visual that they should have realized in about 30 seconds of play testing wasn't going to work at all. Speaking of, play-testing is something Survivor does very well that The Challenge doesn't do at all. Sometimes it works out for The Challenge; often, it does not. Potential for competitiveness, practicality, safety are all considerations you could figure out during test runs that they simply don't (or can't, due to budget) choose to do.

I love the Challenge, but I feel like it could benefit tremendously from their own version of John Kirhoffer and the Dream Team.