The Challenge USA season 2’s individual competition led to an elimination challenge that was, in the words of its showrunner, “gut-wrenching” and “suspenseful,” in part because it took hours to get a winner.
Why did it take that long? This afternoon, I interviewed Kevin Lee, who took over as showrunner and executive producer for The Challenge USA season 2. I’ll have more from our in-depth interview about the season next week, but wanted to include his insights about this absurd challenge.
First, though, the big question going into this episode for me was how The Challenge USA’s game structure would change now that the teams have been dissolved.
The answer, thankfully, was: not much.
Instead of the winning team choosing the two elimination challenge nominees, now the two winners of the main challenge select that pair. The rest of the players vote as usual, and the hopper still randomly selects a player, keeping that element of random chance.
At the start of the episode, Josh told us, “This is exactly what I wanted.” Alas, exactly what I wanted was less Josh.
Speaking of Josh, the editors made sure we knew that Fessy and Josh are not loyal to Big Brother players, but to the Challenge OGs; we heard that three, or maybe four thousand times.
The editing also telegraphed the elimination challenge between Tyler and Monte, as Monte—who was also a Big Brother runner-up—told us, “I studied his game to prepare for my season of Big Brother.”
A new kind of alliance formed: Survivor’s Chanelle, Desi, and Michaela with Challenge OGs. Tori said that by not nominating them, they’d owe her, and “they can throw me the bone right back” when they won power. Chanelle, Desi, and Michaela agreed to that, shaking on it with Bananas, too.
Earlier, Bananas and Michaela talked while Michaela casually did incredible stretches.
Don’t you just love that Michaela calls him “Mr. Banana”?!
Mr. Banana told us that he “hope[s] Michaela isn’t too pissed at me” because she is “a very dangerous person to have working against you.” He told her, “I might have a reputation for being an asshole, but I stab people in the chest, not in the back.”
Swimming for clues
The main challenge was called “Spell-Lunkers.” Players had to swim to buoys and swim down to look at a word search to determine a theme among its words; that word would open a lock box, where they’d find a flashlight to help them swim into a cave, where there was a huge word puzzle. Solving that would open a second lock.
For the first part, they had to swim deep down into freezing, murky water. In the first heat of four, Tyler decided, and Alyssa S. followed, to just give up and try random words. This was such a bad strategy that they just hung around for 20 minutes and TJ finally yelled at them, “go back at out there!”
Alyssa S. said “screw this challenge.” It’s hard outside the backyard, huh?
During this time, Cassidy was left behind, and went down, where she saw the word “PANTHER,” leading her to CATS as the lock box answer. “The individual portion of Survivor is where I shined.”
Alas, she did not shine in this challenge, because she couldn’t figure out the second puzzle. Alyssa S. gave Fessy and Tyler the CATS answer, and Fessy figured out the cave puzzle first: DANCE.
During his heat, Wes figured out the first puzzle quickly, but didn’t share the answer. “I want to win because I love power,” Wes told us. Meanwhile, Survivor’s Chris told us his strategy: “I’m just going to help Josh win.”
Tori refused to give the answer to anyone, including her showmance, Survivor Sebastian, who said it’s “really hot” that Tori withheld that information from him.
Tori told us, “This is not a dating show, this is The Challenge, so I’m still competing alone.” Now that’s hot.
At the end, T.J. Lavin said that “one player smoked everyone by almost six minutes,” and that player was Tori.
The top two men were Josh (22:29) and Bananas (20:35). Wes said this indicated “the Challengers are going to dominate.”
Together, Tori and Bananas had to nominate two players: a man and woman. Again, same format as before, which also gives the house the ability to nominate whoever they want.
While they floated Monte’s name, they went with Tyler and Alyssa S., who seem to be the least-controversial targets—and a showmance they could try to break up.
Tyler told us, “My only objective is to keep Alyssa safe in this game,” he said. Okay, bye then!
I thought the Dusty-Bananas showmance would be the end of showmances, but now we have two more. Sebastian and Tori even went on a date in the confessional room instead of going to party with the house.
Bananas and Tori dressed identically for the elimination, because all the other players—who were technically at risk—were all dressed alike in their black t-shirts.
Votes went to Sebastian 6, Cassidy 1, and Monte 7—that’s it. “You only need one vote,” T.J. said, but it wasn’t Cassidy: it was Monte’s ball that showed up.
Why producers feared making Challenge history
Tyler and Monte’s challenge was “Too Cool for Spool,” in which they had to move a pyramid of balls from one side of the arena to the top of a spool—to which they were connected, turning it as they moved away.
The spools were also on top of a platform with sloped sides, so if the balls rolled off the spool, they’d also roll away.
I think this was a brilliantly designed challenge, requiring precision, patience, control, and strength. And it produced some incredibly tense and dramatic moments.
The editing cut forward to both of them having a lot of balls after about 30 minutes, when Tyler lost a bunch of his. The clock kept jumping forward, all the way to 90 minutes, then two hours.
Monte had his whole pyramid finished and as he was creeping toward the buzzer, it fell. Tyler’s did the same thing at after two hours and 17 minutes. Monte lost his entire pyramid again at two and a half hours.
Yes, this challenge took three hours, after which Tyler finally won.
I asked showrunner and executive producer Kevin Lee if they expected it to go so long, or if it’d taken that long in their testing, and he said, “No. It was so hard. It was the most gut-wrenching one to actually be there in person and produce. The challenge producer that was in charge of it—I have some funny pictures of her doubled over, she’s like getting an ulcer it’s taking so long.”
Lee said that the production team was very anxious. “We’re siting there going: we’re not going to get a winner. We’ve completely boned this episode. We’re going to have to call it. TJ’s going to call it. It would be unprecedented in 30 years of The Challenge. We’re not going to get a winner. We’ve screwed up.”
What caused them to have that challenge go so much longer than they expected?
“The reality of producing The Challenge in this day and age—with schedules and budgets—is you don’t have as much time to test everything as you would want to have,” Lee told me.
While testing “Too Cool for Spool,” Lee said, “We were very concerned about the mechanism” of the spool and its tension, and in particular wondering “how can we make it fair” with players of different body sizes and weights. “We have to adjust that tension, which is very hard,” he said.
Complicating that is that the producers truly “don’t know who it is until their names come out of the hopper.”
The Challenge’s art department built different platforms to hold the balls atop the spool, each with a slightly taller border to hold the balls: 5mm, 10mm, and 15mm.
Lee told me, “I want it to be super-hard but not impossible. We thought we had gotten to the right spot in terms of how high the edge was, and we thought we had hit that sweet spot.”
Having figured out those two things, he said, “we’re out of time, we’ve got to bring the cast in—this is all happening the same day.”
After Tyler’s name was selected, the challenge team made adjustments to the spools to account for Monte and Tyler’s weights.
“What we didn’t anticipate,” Kevin Lee told me, “was when they’re spending a lot of time doing it, there’s a little bit of sand going inside that triangle. And over time, that sand raised up the level of the balls in relation to the height of the ledge, and it started to make it easier for the balls to fall out.”
In other words, the players made the challenge even more difficult, but did not realize they were doing that. Well, until one player did: Tyler.
“Tyler was so smart. At the very end,” Lee said, “when he had one of his catastrophes, he’s like, I’m going to take the time, and I’m going to sweep out all the sand with my hand.”
“It was a mental thing that made him win that. I’m not sure how much of that is reflected in the edit,” he added. “It was suspenseful.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Monte as a Big Brother winner. He was runner-up.