I am so thrilled to have Phil Keoghan’s Tough As Nails back, with its collection of team challenges, individual challenges, and heartfelt camaraderie, and not at all thrilled about CBS’s new schedule for season five.
That will give us two episodes each weekend. But pairing the first and second episodes—”Tough Times Don’t Last but Tough People Do” and “First Dance”—together last night was the right call.
The first episode of Tough As Nails is more set-up than competition, even with two challenges. Besides introducing the contestants, it has to get through an individual challenge and then team selection.
Before that first challenge, the contestants arrived on a tugboat on Lake Ontario, and Phil screamed to them that it contained “12 bad-asses.”
Then Martin Short greeted the Tough As Nails season five contestants via video. Why Martin Short? It wasn’t some kind of corporate synergy, but he said he was actually “born and raised” in Hamilton, Ontario. Even better, he said, “my father worked just a mile away from where you’re standing at one of Canada’s leading steel factories.”
This was surprisingly earnest for Martin Short, who didn’t crack any jokes. And no offense to Martin Short, who usually makes me laugh, but Phil Keoghan’s dad was much funnier when he appeared via video on Tough As Nails last season.
Speaking of Canadians: This season has a mix of Canadian and American contestants, and producers had the Canadians identify themselves by putting a patch on their shirt. I’m glad those disappeared after the first day, because it got increasingly weird to have them be labeled. After all, this season is not U.S. versus Canada.
The very first task was only about picking teams—and, I suppose, showing your worth to the person picking teams.
The challenge: cut 500 pounds of scrap metal. They had to put their pieces into a hole, and were limited to 20 inches, and there’s a joke there that I can’t quite get.
They had three piles of varying weight to choose from, including I-beams. They had varied strategies: Akeela went to the light metal first, so she’d be able to take a breather by the time she got to the I-beams. Meanwhile, Cheryl went for the I-beams first because she thought it’d give the “most bang for the buck.”
Ben and Paul won: two Canadian dudes.
Ben chose Dirty Hands:
Paul chose Savage Crew:
First team challenge: cleaning the tugboat that brought them to the dock. Power wash the algae, dry it, paint it, and replace five tires.
Oops, no, I got the challenge wrong. Before pulling the work whistle, Phil said, “This is about honor!” Sorry! I thought it was about power washing and painting.
Kenji volunteered to lead Dirty Hands, while Savage Crew nominated Jessica as their crew boss. Each team had similar plans to work on tires and power washing simultaneously while some of them worked on the tires.
Savage Crew failed the dry check, but then got a go ahead. Dirty Hands was behind, though not by much. Savage Crew was able to proceed, painted, asked for a paint check, and got the win.
The kind of thing I will never get used to or tired of is the way Tough As Nails contestants respond to defeats and wins. Kenji, the losing team’s crew boss, told the camera, “Maybe I was a little too critical on the quality” and said “I think we got slowed down a little bit because of that.” Taking responsibility for having high standards: that’s the kind of reality show contestant I love.
The loss lit a fire under Dirty Hands. Cheryl, who is 55 and has been a union carpenter for 32 years, told us being on Tough As Nails is “a great send-off,” as she’s eligible for retirement next year. This made me worry Cheryl was going to be out in episode one.
In the van on the drive to the job site, Cheryl told her team, “There is no way we are losing today. We’re gonna pull this shit together—we’re gonna get this fucking win!” Those words were bleeped, and her teammates joked about the impending bleeps.
The first team challenge of the second episode was filling bags with soil and mulch. The key: bags had to be overfilled but not so much that they couldn’t be closed.
This was a great challenge. They were doing a real task, not just something set up just for their sake. It was deceptively simple: fill and tie bags. But the soil had to be filled from a large machine, and the mulch had to be filled with shovels, so they had to coordinate with each other, never mind carry heavy bags around.
After 30 minutes, Dirty Hands had 8 big bags of soil and Savage Crew had 27 little bags of mulch. Then, they switched tasks for the second 30 minutes.
After a lot of dirt comedy, including showering teammates with soil from a hopper, the end came down to Dirty Hands’ Ben running with a bag of mulch to put it on the trailer. He didn’t make it—but that wasn’t necessary: Dirty Hands won, evening up the competition.
“I’ll be honest, I was worried,” Cheryl said. “I know we got some competition.” It is good to see the two teams so evenly matched.
For the first individual challenge, Tough As Nails had the contestants, uh, work in teams of two. Each pair had 20 minutes to gather sod, stack it on pallets, and load those onto trucks.
One team member drove an amazing machine that scraped up sod, cut it, and rolled it. The other team member stood on the back of the machine and gathered the rolls, stacking them on pallets.
The task obviously needed teams of two, so this wasn’t really an individual challenge. I like that Tough As Nails gives each contestant two chances to save themselves each episode—the individual competition and then, if they fail there, the overtime challenge—so I’m not the biggest fan of pairing them up for their first individual competition.
That aside, it was a great challenge. Despite the incredible machine they operated, a drone shot of the field of sod looked like the contestants hacked it up. “Their work area looks like a disaster zone,” Phil said about one team.
Here’s how the three heats went down:
- Todd and Paul vs. Carly and Yesi, with Carly and Yesi winning and Todd accusing Paul of sabotaging them, which was kind of a wild accusation.
- Marcus and Cheryl vs. Jessica and Carolina, with Marcus and Cheryl winning even though Cheryl had “rage against the machine”
- Dustin and Ben vs. Akeela and Kenji, with Dustin and Ben easily winning.
By five rolls of sod, Dustin and Ben had the most, and won a $2,000 bonus.
Dustin told us, “I think it was a Canadian thing, Ben and I were able to communicate.” Of course it helps when both teammates speak the same language, though I’m surprised CBS didn’t give us subtitles for all the Canadian.
Carolina and Jessica had the fewest sod rolls, so they ended up going from teammates to competitors in overtime.
They had to install an aerator into a pond. This, too, was a terrific challenge. At first, I thought they’d have to swim across the pond, but the producers gave them each a canoe to get across the pond. Except: the canoe had holes in it! Phil said this was motivation; I say this is great challenge design, even if it’s made the task far less realistic.
What it did was create an incredible moment of reality television.
Carolina was behind, but Jessica got stuck with her electrical cable and started to sink.
Carolina’s boat, though, was also basically underwater—and at one point, she almost flipped it, but it righted the boat. It still sunk, so she swam.
Incredibly, Carolina almost caught up, even after swimming half the pond, but Jessica plugged in first.
Jessica apologized to Carolina, another one of those wild shows of decency amid competition, and while Carolina was sad to punch out, she’s still in it, thanks to Tough As Nails’ everyone-stays format.
I’m glad it’s back, and look forward to covering it this season. Since episodes air on Fridays and Sundays—meaning the season will be finished in a month—I’ll be recapping episodes in pairs, unless something absolutely nuts happens on one of the Friday episodes. So look for those Monday mornings.