Season two has turned things around, however, becoming a far better version of the show, though one that is also—by design—different from the MTV version.
I interviewed The Challenge USA season two’s new showrunner, Kevin Lee, and we discussed everything from casting to the format changes. (Last week, I published his behind-the-scenes insight about episode 8’s elimination.)
Lee once worked as a supervising producer on MTV’s Road Rules, and also was a segment producer on early seasons of The Challenge, starting with season four, Extreme Challenge.
He returned later to the franchise as showrunner for season 32, Final Reckoning, which ended with a dramatic finale, in addition to creating other shows, including the currently-airing competition Fight to Survive. (Read my interview with Kevin Lee about that show.)
Why did Lee want to return to the franchise? “I wanted to do the season two of Challenge USA because it was on CBS,” he told me. “While the underlying mechanism is similar to the MTV version of The Challenge, The Challenge USA is different.”
Lee said he “did go back and look at all of the episodes of season one,” and “learned lessons” from that, though he said “it’s a pretty common thing. If I do season three, then we’ll look back at season two and be like, What can we do better?“
The answer: “the two things we really tried to do with season two is elevate the character-driven storytelling and simplify the games to make them less complex,” Lee said.
“The most obvious example is the casting is different, as you know, but also just tonally and storytelling, we tried very hard to elevate it up to CBS broadcast level,” he added.
Why The Challenge USA 2 added MTV vets
So let’s talk about the casting. The most immediately noticeable change for season two was bringing in people who’ve been on The Challenge before, some of whom have been on CBS shows and some of whom have not.
Season one’s cast consisted entirely of players from CBS shows.
“On a real, simple, superficial level, we thought it was just kind of a fun twist that might be unexpected to the audience,” Lee told me. “On a less-superficial level, bringing in The Challenge vets allowed us to shake up the Survivor alliance, Big Brother alliance, The Amazing Race alliance that played out to some extent in the first season.”
“To be completely honest, some of the MTV Challenge cast members have, you know, really large, big personalities—for better or worse. Not that the CBS cast members don’t, but they brought those big personalities and I think it shows, and I think it helped the show. Whether people love them or hate them, they notice them.”
Once they were cast, Lee and his team, including in post-production, wanted to “elevate some of the character driven storytelling of the series,” he said. “I really wanted to give more of the characters background and more of their biography and make them more three-dimensional people.”
The challenges of The Challenge’s challenges
“The Challenge is a difficult show to produce because there are so many cast members, and the unintended consequence of having a lot of cast members is that the challenges themselves become convoluted because there are so many different heats,” showrunner Kevin Lee told me.
That creates “difficulties” in trying to create “a simple, clean challenge. It is really the hardest part about producing the show.”
Because the production cannot create an “edit [with] a two-hour version of the game, [that] necessitates a lot of creative decisions that can make challenges more convoluted or complex.”
So going into The Challenge USA season 2, Lee and his team aimed for challenges that were “easier to follow. We were trying to make them less convoluted,” he said.
That involves not just how they’re played, but how they’ll play on television.
“We’re always like thinking: How’s this gonna look in the edit?” he told me. “Are we going to have all these chyrons on the screen that say: this is Tori, even though you can’t tell it’s her? It’s such a difficult thing.”
“It keeps me up at night: Can we follow these games, and can we understand who’s winning and losing without having words on the screen? We’re always trying to achieve that, but sometimes we don’t succeed because of the large number of people and the mixed genders create different layers, in order to make them safe.”
I asked about making the challenges not just about raw physical strength, but including elements that required strategy or, you know, thinking.
“Luckily, I’m riding on the tradition of 30-some seasons,” Lee said. “But it really is brains and brawn and stamina and balance and social game and all that stuff. We try to do our best to incorporate some complexity, some brains into these challenges.”
“It’s funny, my wife’s dad is a physicist from Los Alamos, and the only reality show he’ll watch of all the shows I’ve done is The Challenge. He’s like: The games, they’re not just about who’s stronger, but also about who’s smarter and quicker on their feet.”
Incorporating those elements “adds to the complexity or convolutedness,” Lee said, “but it’s worth it because it’s important to test all of their skills, not just their strength.”
The cast’s season-one complaints
As I pointed out in our conversation, season one’s cast was vocal, on social media and elsewhere, about how the show was produced, from wrong answers to theft of their property.
Cast member Leo Temory, from The Amazing Race, even tagged an Instagram post with #FireJustinBooth, the name of season one’s showrunner.
Desi told me about some of that, and summarized the experience by saying, “not everything in The Challenge is fair”—not exactly the kind of endorsement for a show that prides itself on being called America’s fifth sport.
I asked Kevin Lee if those complaints or conversations with the cast led to production changes.
“Yeah, I was aware of those complaints, but they didn’t influence or change how I approached it,” he said. “My philosophy is: I’m more a players’ coach, you know? And if you know what that means, it’s basically like I’m working closely with the cast and I have a close relationship with them. But I do that on all shows, not just on The Challenge USA.”
“And I definitely did hear those concerns from some of the cast that were in season one and then came to season two,” he added. “I’m not sure if you’ve been able to talk to any of them, but I do think that they had a good experience on season two.”
Why elimination challenges use a randomizer
Another ways alliances are disrupted on The Challenge USA season 2 is with an element of randomness: winners nominate two possible players, the rest of the house votes for possible opponents, but it’s a random selection that creates the final match-up.
Kevin Lee credited The Challenge consulting producer Joey Ortega with that idea.
“One of the unsung heroes of The Challenge universe is a guy named Joey Ortega, who’s a creative development producer who works in the beginning, coming up with the games and helping with the format,” Lee said.
“I remember he came in, and we’re talking, and he’s like, You know, think about those lotto ball machines and that sort of randomization. We started talking about it, and we all fell in love with it, the hopper, because it does what you said, which it undermines some alliances.”
Lee also added that having a lotto machine choose “undermines something that drives me crazy—the safe, me-too voting: Oh, well, so-and-so is already getting some votes, so I’ll just join the bandwagon. It undermines that dynamic a little bit, which I think is helpful for the show.”
MTV’s Challenge typically alternates between elimination challenges for men and women. This season, the use of the hopper meant that was out of people’s control. Lee said the randomization “makes it harder to produce because you have to design the elimination games in a different manner.”
But it also increases drama.
“A lot of the tension is removed from half of the house for half of the episode, and you can tell. So the randomization of the hopper really put people on edge and made everybody vulnerable,” he told me. “If you came and visited while we were filming, you’d walk through the house before an elimination on this season, and everybody is scared, everybody is nervous. On previous seasons, people, you know, half the house would be like, Oh, great, it’s our night off.“
What would have happened had the random selection kept choosing all men, or all women, leading to an imbalance in the house, and potentially a finale with just one person of one sex?
The producers had a simple plan: Had that happened, to even out the eliminations, T.J. Lavin would have announced that the day’s elimination would be a men’s or women’s challenge.
Kevin Lee told me that never happened, as it was not necessary. “The unexpected thing that happened is the cast, on their own, started to make adjustments themselves,” he said. “I’m not sure which episode, but you’ll see that some of the women in the cast start to complain: Why are you men trying to make it a women’s night? and stuff like that. There was self-policing on the gender balance of the eliminations within the cast.”
Ultimately, the randomizer “really did a lot of good things for us,” Lee said. “That kid Joey Ortega is a real smart producer.”
Why The Challenge USA 2 had a merge
In the “Independence Day” episode, the three teams selected on day one were dissolved, making the rest of the game an individual one.
“We started with the idea we wanted one male and one female winner at the end, which by definition means individual winners,” Lee told me. “We didn’t want somebody to ride their team to the end and then win as an individual. That wouldn’t feel earned, I think.”
They decided on when to do this based on both the structure of the show (“the obvious thing: a little bit more than halfway through”) and the challenges they had planned (“certain challenges lend themselves more to an individual thing, as opposed to a team thing”).
So, during pre-production, producers decided which challenges “feel better as individual challenges,” and then “made that the line of demarcation.”
Why The Challenge is ‘the hardest show that I produce’
“It’s the hardest show that I produce because basically you’re coming up with 14 or 16 times two, so like 28 different games—stress-testing them, getting them approved, all that stuff. It’s such a hard show, but it’s so rewarding,” Kevin Lee told me. “I love it, but it’s the hardest show, and, but in many ways, one of the best shows, and I love it.
Lee referred to how The Challenge is called “America’s fifth sport,” and told me, “I don’t really know what that means, but I do feel it’s because it’s been on TV for so long. It’s almost a sports league with the recurring cast members.”
With the new The Challenge USA, and “what CBS did to bring in Survivor people, and Amazing Race, people and Big Brother” people, just makes it more interesting, and I hope it keeps going,” he added.
I do, too, and hope Kevin Lee returns to produce future seasons, because he and his team really brought the format to life.