After two episodes, season two is proving itself to be a remarkably better.
It’s visually dynamic, with challenges that are creative and fair, and don’t seem designed to maim! Camera work actually shows the action! Production design seems to have some thought behind it! And the new game format combines strategy and random chance in an interesting way.
This is The Challenge: USA I wanted to watch last summer. Alas, it’s cast with a group of people I avoid watching.
Instead of Survivor, Big Brother, and Amazing Race players who face off in a format none of them are familiar with, we now have six Challenge vets—and a bunch of people who’ve done both CBS reality TV and the MTV show, and even some who were on last season.
That undoes the whole point of The Challenge: USA (an “all-star group of players who will take on the new challenge”), and gives us even more of people so overexposed they’ve now flattened into cartoon versions of themselves.
Because this is a cast of mostly players who’ve done MTV’s The Challenge, they’ve brought their alliances, enemies, and drama with them. I really don’t have a desire to see people fight over Fessy, or watch Josh attempt to say words.
I can also see why this casting may have been necessary. I know I sure as hell would not have signed up for this after that shitshow of a finale.
The CBS reality TV cast members who did sign up are a lot of Wait, who? From what season? The most-famous among them are people who’ve already been on The Challenge repeatedly, such as Michele and Josh.
These first two episodes were effectively a two-hour premiere, but split over two days. Like Tough As Nails season 5, CBS is airing two episodes of The Challenge: USA season 2 every week, though only until Aug. 31, after which it will air weekly.
Episode 1: “The Riskiest Season Yet”
“This season is about risk-taking” TJ Lavin said at the start of The Challenge: USA’s premiere. Actually, it’s more about random chance, and I’m here for that.
The players gathered with a Croatian city behind them, and the six vets showed up on jet skis, a reveal that would have been more dramatic had they not already competed on The Challenge with people standing on the dock.
TJ drew names from a giant lottery-style hopper, with bright yellow balls on which the players names were written so small I imagine production had to stop down to pull out an electron microscope to read them.
The hopper chose three team captains, Josh, Cassidy, and Desi, who then chose three teams, named after primary colors to not confuse our players.
After some brief time in their beautiful mansion, which has natural light and windows and looks like it was selected by someone who knew they were producing a TV show, the players went to their first challenge: “Storm the Castle.”
Each team had to carry two statues, each representing one of the six Challenge vets—clever production design, even if that distinction is pointless. This was not just a physical task, though. On their way to ruins, they had to stop to complete two puzzles, memorizing symbols to identify which ones they hadn’t seen. Doing so earned them advantages: a wagon to carry the statues, and the ability to take the base off their statue.
This was filmed in such a way that we could actually see which teams were ahead! And some shots were even artful, like the drones diving across the field as teams ran with their statues.
There was some drama and chaos as the red team tried to pass and instead nearly lost their statue and were passed by green.
The green team was ahead, but Amanda could not solve the puzzle, which both blue team and then red completed and then raced ahead, leaving green in last place.
At the top of a hill, where the teams brought their statutes, TJ Lavin was wandering around looking like a lost tourist, and announced the win by mumbling, “all right, blue’s done.”
What they won was the right to pick two people at risk of elimination. Michaela from Survivor said “at risk” and made finger air quotes, and I love her for that.
The players also learned that the two losing teams would select the elimination challenge’s opponent, but in secret. This terrified Bananas, who said that would allow people to “hide behind a shroud of secrecy,” which is the only use of a shroud of secrecy I can think of.
We learned about some pre-gaming, with Joanna sharing that Wes told her not to trust Michele because she’s too emotional. When I think of people who’ve never once shown an emotion on The Challenge, I think of Wes Bergmann.
Tori told us she wants to protect the “only six Challenge vets in this game,” which is some hilarious math since it’s actually about half the cast. Those six players did seem to have the cast under their spell, though. As Alyssa L. said about Cory and Tori: “everyone is just feeding their egos.”
The blue team chose Luis and Ameerah.
The losing two teams voted by selecting a ball with a player’s name and sending it up a vacuum tube. Special thanks to the Tardigrade who lent its label maker to the production so they could add names to the balls.
The challenge arena has a dramatic angled, mirrored wall of vertical beams of light, and the hopper has replaced The Challenge: USA season one’s stupid and probably fixed light board.
It was there to choose the competitor. I love this change: Instead of the players voting people into elimination, their votes are put into the hopper, with one person selected at random.
“The more balls in the hopper, the better chance you have of coming in here,” TJ explained.
We first saw the votes: Wes 2, Dusty 2, Desi 1, Michele 3, Monte 4, Bananas 4.
The episode ended there, with the reveal waiting for the second episode.
Episode 2: ‘Blurred Battle Lines’
TJ revealed that the ball belonged to a female player, meaning Luis was safe, and Ameerah would compete. The hopper had one Desi ball and three Michele balls, and chose Michele.
To decide who’d be eliminated, Michele and Ameerah were each dunked into a tank with 1,500 balls, 15 times. Whoever got more balls out of the tank in that time won.
Monte called this “water torture, something you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy,” but it actually looked kind of fun!
While the initial dunk submerged them in the water, they were not just immediately pulled back up, and had time to stand in the tank and throw balls out.
Ultimately, Michele knocked out 1,319 balls, and Ameerah got 1,301, sending her home.
There was another twist: As winner, Michele had a chance to defect to another team, swapping with another woman. She did not. “Headed right back to hell,” she said.
Back in the house, there was a brief argument between Amanda and Michele over Fessy. I prefer this argument over two roided out morons punching each other, but also just do not care. I did laugh at Dusty’s reaction: “Finally, it’s live. I’m seeing it in person after all the years of watching.”
Wes said the “vets” are “grossly outnumbered,” which, please. There are so many non-Challenge vets!
The challenge, “Working the Poles,” was suspended over water, and required teams to get from one platform to another, swinging on flexible tubes with a large rubber ball at the end to stand on.
Before it began, we got several OTF (on-the-fly) interviews with the teams, which isn’t something I’ve seen much on other shows. I also appreciated Tiffany telling us that she was prepared for this challenge: “I ain’t never been a stripper, but I mean, you know, we might like a nice pole here and there.”
It was a little harder to follow because people crossed in the middle, and there were lots of poles in the way. Each player was wearing a camera on their helmet, giving us some angles the camera operators on the rig couldn’t catch.
My favorite moment was Bananas watching Josh clinging to a pole and sliding down. “It’s almost like watching a candle melt, watching the Josh on this friggin’ thing,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before it drips off and falls into the water.”
The green team won. The other players were dead set on getting out one of the six jet ski Challenge vets. “It cannot be a fucking rookie,” says Michele, who’s been on The Challenge three times. So you’re volunteering, then?
Wes tried to talk his team out of Tori. “The math doesn’t add,” Michaela told him. “We can’t have six people who are the most experienced at the game choosing who they want to go home.”
This is where I first got interested in the game. Despite the ridiculousness of half the cast being actual Challenge vets, it’s interesting to watch those used to dominating the game get boxed out. Wes told us that his team was like, “That was cute, Wes,” after he made his case for waiting to go after the vets.
The green team chose Tori and Bananas. The rest of the players’ votes went to Paulie 2, Alyssa L. 1, Dusty 3, Alyssa S. 2, Sebastian 1, Cory 2, Jonna 5.
The hopper chose Jonna. With the choice between a male or female match-up is left to chance, we’ve now had two female eliminations, so I wonder if the producers will, at some point, force a male match-up.
Jonna faced off against Tori in “Drop the Ball,” which began as Plinko, with black and silver balls dropping down, and the players had to grab balls and put them into a basket to score. Because this is The Challenge, they could also wrestle each other in the dirt for control of a ball.
The editing quickly became a montage, and used some soundbites to try to convince us Jonna could win, but no.
“Tori just beat Jonna’s ass,” Tiffany said, adding that Tori “just won’t die. Anybody got any Raid?”
I may be just intrigued enough to watch the alleged vets get steamrolled, though what I’d really love is for this format to return just with actual CBS reality TV alum who’ve never done The Challenge before.