I’ve missed Tough As Nails. It’s been more than a year since CBS aired the finale of season three of Phil Keoghan’s other reality competition, which is frustrating because not one but two seasons have been filmed in the meantime, so they’re just sitting, waiting for me to devour.
At long last, Tough Is Nails is back, and I’m so thrilled I decided to recap this season.
One of the many reasons why I love Tough As Nails is that it delivers three strong reality TV challenges in one hour: team, individual, elimination.
The premieres, though, don’t follow that structure. Wednesday’s two-hour finale wasn’t just one episode expanded, but also not two typical episodes.
In the first hour, “Welcome to Catalina Island,” we got an individual challenge and team challenge, followed in the second hour by a full episode, “Perfect Symphony”: another team challenge, another individual challenge, and an elimination challenge.
After brief introductions to the cast, we were already into the first challenge.
The first individual challenge
Instead of keeping people out of elimination, the first individual challenge was about finding team leaders.
Each had to replace a mooring system, hauling it into a boat and swapping out line and chains. They had plans to follow—but also had to inflate their own dinghy and attach a motor to it, and doing all the work inside the dinghy, meaning if they dropped something over the edge, they were out.
And that was just to choose team leaders!
It started with some physicality, like having to carry the motor to the beach. While I don’t love Tough As Nails challenges when they’re primarily about physical strength, that was not what this was. From starting the motor to following directions, there were a lot of steps, and really it was about attention to detail.
Just getting the boats out to the moorings was tough. Firefighter Ellery couldn’t start his motor, so he just swam his boat out. Jake wrecked his prop by starting the motor in the sand, and paddled his way out using one of the supplies. But then he lost a chain in the water, so he was out. Instead of moping around, he started helping Ely, which is wild, and another one of the many things I love about Tough As Nails: it’s intense competition but such a supportive environment.
While Ilima made it out first, it was 50-year-old foreman Sergio who ultimately finished first, choosing to lead Dirty Hands, while 36-year-old welder Mister became team leader of Savage Crew, finishing just ahead of 41-year-old Beth.
I include their ages because it’s remarkable that cast members and challenge winners on a CBS show are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s; only three are in their 20s, and they were not contenders in that first challenge. Their ages contribute to the cast’s diversity in background and life experience, and makes for a much more dynamic cast of characters.
“I cannot stress enough how important it is to make good picks,” Phil Keoghan told the team leaders. I love a schoolyard pick, and wish Survivor would return to that for tribe selection, but also it’s so incredibly hard to make that judgment.
The cast members have certainly seem each other before the challenge, whether during finals casting or pre-filming sequester, but their full personalities and strengths as team members are next-to-impossible to decipher from one individual challenge.
The first team challenge
Instead of driving L.A. interstate highways back to a hotel, the 12 players stayed on Catalina Island, camping, though this wasn’t Survivor: they sat in chairs around a fire pit and ate food on plates, and we did not see where they slept, so maybe it was a hotel.
But the time around the fire gave them a chance to bond, and reveal their backstory, as one does on a CBS reality competition.
Synethia, for example, revealed she went to prison for bank fraud, and if she wins, would use the money to help train formerly incarcerated people learn trades.
Their night of “camping” informed their first team challenge: demoing an old shelter and building a new one.
Foreman Sergio became the crew boss for Dirty Hands, since this project was his wheelhouse, while Laura became crew boss for Savage Crew.
This, like both team challenges in the premiere, was well-designed: many different pieces and six different people means that communication is key, and so is organization. In many ways, those are more important than actual skill.
For example, Savage Crew left in their truck first to drive to get their supplies, but when they got back, realized they’d left something behind, and then drove away with the other supplies still in the truck.
Still, after two hours of work, Dirty Hands almost caught up, but misplaced the number for the shelter and lost because of that detail.
“I cost my team the win,” Ellery said, while over on Savage Crew, Larron took responsibility for leaving things behind at the job site. People taking responsibility for their actions on a reality TV show? What is this nonsense?!
The second team challenge
The second team challenge asked the teams to create a 16′ x 20′ concrete pad, which seems simple but amounted to a lot of little details—like actually making it 16′ x 20′.
Savage Crew messed up their measurements. “You know what they say: measure twice, cut once. This was measure once, cut twice,” Phil Keoghan mocked them, if dad jokes can be mocking.
Dirty Hands started pouring concrete first, which was scored to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which was a wonderful choice and made me laugh. As perhaps a too fine a point on that, Sergio described their choreographed work as “a little perfect symphony.” But it was earned since they won.
Once again, there was responsibility: Crew boss Renèe said “I just dropped the ball” in an interview, and after the challenge, told everyone, “I take it all on me.” I guess there’s no disincentive for being honest, because there’s no strategic component to the game, but it’s still remarkable.
Her team was not willing to blame her, though in the van, the Savage Crew men argued as they tried to debrief the challenge. Curiously, that fight? conversation? just ended at a commercial, and was never picked up on.
The first individual challenge. Well, second.
The next morning, on the drive to the individual challenge, I noticed three of Dirty Hands were wearing orange t-shirts, which confused me because their team color is black.
I don’t love how Survivor producers costume the players, and I guess the shirts Tough As Nails contestants wear don’t matter on an individual challenge days. But I like color consistency, especially while I’m trying to learn who is on what team, because I am easily confused.
After the contestants punched in, they faced their first true individual task: building a 13,000-mile wall. Or at least, that was Phil’s joke, which no one laughed at because they are probably already exhausted from all the work they’ve been doing.
Instead, they had to finish small sections of a concrete retaining wall, making concrete and stacking 18 concrete blocks in the right way.
I learned that cement is just like merengue on The Great British Bake-Off or a Dairy Queen Blizzard: it should stick when held upside down.
Jake won, followed by Sergio. In the bottom were Larron, Synethia, and Ellery, and Larron saved himself from elimination.
The first overtime elimination
To keep themselves in the individual competition, Synethia and Ellery had to make a hook, “heating and beating it into shape,” as Phil Keoghan said.
If I had any gripe about this episode, it’s that I suspected Synethia was in trouble early on because the editors included her reminding us of her incarceration backstory several times, and it’s a memorable enough story that we don’t need to be reminded of it in one episode.
And then during the challenge, they kept cutting to her saying very inspirational things (“When somebody tells you that you can’t do it because of your past, you prove them wrong every time”) though so many it just felt like her finale.
Indeed, she lost to Ellery. Of course, this is Tough As Nails, and its excellent format means that Synethia isn’t going anywhere, and can still win money in each team challenge, even though she’s out of the individual competition.
“It’s safe to say my smile is not going nowhere, and neither is my spirit,” she said, which was lovely, but nowhere near as great as what she said before punching out. Synethia turned to the camera and/or producers and asked if she was “supposed to look sad.”