We are now somewhere close to the halfway point of this (the 23rd!) season of MTV’s The Challenge. Last week’s unnecessary hiatus for Halloween programming (you are telling me that the prospect of a Frank meltdown is not ghoulish enough for viewers?) gave me some time for a reflection on a television show/fifth professional sport that’s first airing dates back to the middle of President Clinton’s second term. For any television show to last 23 seasons and 14 years is an accomplishment in itself, but this season’s influx of new blood and talent accentuates a main reason for the (and dare I say continuing) success of the franchise. The Challenge has always been in a malleable state that continues to strive for reinvention, reinvigoration, reformatting, and rethinking. Bunim-Murray producer land has always been driven to make each new show more interesting and more compelling than the one previous. This approach is not always successful and there have been some off seasons, but this sprint away from complacency is one of the primary root causes of its longevity.
Although Battle of the Seasons has some worthy game format tweaks and competition adaptations, the (frankly) “out on a limb” new personnel influx this season has been the most daring of moves. Since season 12’s Fresh Meat introduction of Kenny and Evan (and the JEK dynasty establishment), the last 11 seasons of The Challenge have featured at least (and at its best, all of them) one of the Johnny, Evan, Kenny trio. In these Challenge glory years, cast members like Derrick (ultimatechallengeradio.com and podcast guru), CT (a real softy in his later years), Laurel (the Amazonian dominator and perhaps the best female physical competitor we have seen), Ev (unquestioned heart and drive), Paula (a master class in personal perseverance), Diem (ditto), Brad (who met his wife Tori on The Challenge), and Jenn (with two “Ns”) have fostered a culture of continued viewing pleasure and Challenge excellence. They are all off this year (and even one of the few real Challenge vets from this era on BotS, Wes, was sent home in week 1). Whether we liked it or not (and I was going in as undecided as Devyn choosing a new pair of stilettos), Challenge rookies or relative newcomers were going to have a major effect on this season.
This week’s “I Do Not Like You Sam, I Am” episode did three major things: 1) It introduced a challenge that has final challenge elements (and gives players a preview of who you want to run up the metaphoric mountain with); 2) It showcased how important the concept and application of “team” is at the end of this game; and 3) It gave newcomers Frank and Zach the opportunity to make lasting Challenge memories (for all the wrong reasons). These weekly power rankings have (after accruing the formatting intel in the premiere episode) acknowledged that although individuals are essential to success, teams are only as strong as their unity, collaboration, and how well they manage the weaker player weaknesses.
This chronological breakdown of the Logged Out challenge tells the first part of the story:
THE LOGGED OUT CHALLENGE
Logged Out began with this warning from TJ: “If you can’t get through today’s challenge, you ain’t ever gonna make it through my final, I promise you that.” Beyond TJ completely “killing it” by calling it “my final” (a right he has earned at this point in his long, storied [and now – congratulations – married] Challenge tenure), producers finally realized that endurance tests (where teams have to stick together the whole time) that preview the actual final challenge are worthwhile. This was a worthy representation on paper and in actuality: competitors were asked to run (there was a great deal of walking, summer Turkey heat and humidity will do that) through three checkpoints up a 1.5 mile mountain trail. The first checkpoint was a nine part puzzle map featuring images with interesting numerical configurations of dots and lines, the second checkpoint asked teams to pickup heavy logs featuring these images (you could only carry one at time, so major disadvantage to the two person teams of New Orleans and St. Thomas who had to make 4-5 trips up and down), and a final leg to the top of the mountain ridge where you assemble the puzzle out of the correct nine logs (there were more extraneous ones at the second checkpoint, confusing multiple teams).
The pre-challenge interview of Team Brooklyn featured this exchange:
Sarah: “I guess I have a reputation for being good at puzzles. I don’t know how I got it…”
Chet (interrupting her): “Because you brag about it…
Sarah: ‘Well, whatever…so ah, yeah, I am hoping I can help my team out with this one and that memory is what wins it.”
Meanwhile, during this interplay, Devyn was doing her hair and JD was smiling with one of those “I can’t wait to get back to my dolphins” looks. For what it’s worth and for their arena-dwelling existence, Team Brooklyn is a fun team to watch.
TJ’s horn marks the start of the challenge. Each team sprints to the first checkpoint (unaware that saving endurance is going to be important). Puzzle image memory strategy takes on many different forms. Frank decides to learn his row and then all of Sam and Zach’s assignments as well in fear that they won’t be able to handle it intellectually. Dustin uses hand signals and gang signs (this actually happened).
The gameplay next takes us to the second checkpoint where most teams have gathered some logs (some teams without consideration that there are some that are not going to be used) and head up to the top. Meanwhile, Team Brooklyn puts Sarah’s aforementioned puzzle mastery to work. Sarah: “I look around. I don’t think the other teams have figured out you kind of safe yourself a step if you assemble the puzzle right where the logs are. I am not gonna tell them. Go ahead. Run up the hill. Try and figure it out a mile up there, but you’re not gonna win that way.” YES, SHE CAN! Unfortunately, nor are you going to win if Devyn gasses out. Sarah’s on point encouragement: “Prove to everybody that you are more than high heels.” Devyn’s response: “I’m not.” You have to love Devyn. I mentioned last week that she and Chet give the best sound bites. Her personal best may be here: “I am not made for this. This was not made for black people. When was the last time you saw a black lumber jack? Go ahead, I’ll wait.”
Focus shifts (as it will for most of the rest of the episode) to Team San Diego, where Sam’s cardiovascular struggles cause a team upheaval. Frank begins by asking Sam, “You’re going home if you don’t finish this, you know that right?” Then Zach, flexing his unique ability to raise his voice in less than a quarter of a second, speaks then yells back, “Sam, quit throwing a temper tantrum, and (100 decibels louder) WALK UP THE DAMN HILL!” Frank (“Stop being so fucking selfish”) and Zach (“SAM!!!! – you are ruining it for all three of us. We are your family. Let’s go!”) take turns berating their San Diego housemate. Poor Sam takes the “no, you’re not going to degrade me just because we’re in a fucking challenge” approach without knowing that Frank degrades her both in or out of the challenge. As is becoming a growing trend, Devyn has the best take: “Frank and Zach – I don’t know what motivational speaking classes they went to, but they need to get their money back.” Preach, Devyn. Preach.
We all take a much needed break from some uncomfortable stuff (I haven’t squirmed like this since Camila went off on Easy) to show how actual teams operate. Images flood the screen of the other teams working together to overcome adversity. Jonna takes Jasmine’s hand, willing her to continue. Sarah heroically (and putting money where her mouth is) takes a final log up her final leg (“No thanks, JD. I got this.”). Both pairs of Robb and Marie and Jemmye and Knight support one another through their doubly difficult challenge assignment; Jemmye at one point tells Knight to “look at the view” wanting “anything to inspire [him].” This sharply contrasts images of a desperate Sam asking Zach, “please don’t raise your voice,” and Zach replying with “can you just like, step up?”
Sarah’s initial strategy is a success and leads Team Brooklyn (despite some real adversity – Devyn is not much of a runner in Turkish heat, but, really, who is?) to their first victory and power team experience. (Of note: JD looks like he is going to completely fall apart, he is so happy to win). Chet declares, “Brooklyn finally wins a challenge, and arguably this was the toughest challenge, so I am really impressed with my team” and “Chock one up for the misfits.” This ragtag bunch has been through it all so far in this game and continues to prove why working as a unified group (led instrumentally by Sarah’s leadership and excellence, Chet’s inner strength and humor, Devyn’s awesome attitude, and JD’s amiable, but malleable existence) can overcome other deficiencies.
Other teams dig deep to finish the challenge. Jasmine is completely wasted to the point where she is worried about staying alive. Derek (in his best challenge moment so far, a deserved power rankings bump will follow below) decides to pick up Jasmine on his back to get to the top of the mountain to have his team complete the puzzle and finish in second. He reasons correctly, “We started this as a team, and we are going to finish this challenge as a team.” Team Las Vegas, who despite some early stumbles, were consistent throughout this event and came through with a strong third place finish. According to Trishelle, fighting back an uncomfortable laugh observing the embarrassment that is Team San Diego, “[Team Vegas] didn’t just win, but, this is just sweet, sweet revenge.” It is more of the same for San Diego, including a Frank and Sam physical and verbal escalation that was just not a good look. Ashley states the obvious, “We can’t communicate at all. There is just a bunch of yelling.” San Diego does finally finish in fourth (the four person teams had a huge advantage over St. Thomas and New Orleans), but the damage has been done.
Producers seem to convey that St. Thomas and New Orleans are neck and neck for bottom-arena feeder. There is then this great moment where Robb (with 2 “Bs”), proving himself worthy after helping Marie through this one, alerts TJ he thinks he has finished. TJ, in only the way the beloved host (and so much more than that) can, says, “I am sorry man,” followed by a pause the length of an NFL replay challenge, and then finally, “but you guys are good.” First Robb has a gut (and well-intentioned) response of “you bitch” and then settles down to consider Logged Out “one of the proudest accomplishments of [his] life.”
Team New Orleans is arena bound (they admirably gave it their all) and TJ has this, one more awesome set of words of wisdom: “You know, when you are under pressure, how you treat each other. It matters. San Diego? You need to work a little bit on that.”
Team San Diego Blows Up – Part II, setting up the Frank versus Zach battle reawakening
There is so much that took place after the Logged Out challenge with Team San Diego that keeping up is like spending a day in Tonya Cooley or Anne Heche’s brain: a little confusing and a little scary. Here is what happens as far as I can tell:
- First, Frank and Ashley are going in to the arena because they had pre-agreed to do the mental game (Team Brooklyn’s smart call).
- Zach intimates that he thinks that Frank wants Zach and Sam gone after blaming Zach for not motivating Sam better during Logged Out. What? In Zach’s mind, Frank and Zach made a deal but knows that, “when you are dealing with a kniving psychopath, you never know what they are going to do.”
- Frank is overwhelmed and goes and cries.
- The next day, Sam volunteers herself for the arena because she did so poorly in Logged Out. Frank, thinking that an arena with Sam is a death knell, doesn’t want to go in now. Zach wants Frank to “be a man” and keep his word and will not volunteer himself to work with Sam. “As a man you shook my hand…you’re pathetic.”
- An in-your-face, close to punch-throwing, physical bro-off ensues. Ashley can only cover her head and note that “if our team can’t come together, then we will be defeated.”
- After Sam goes off in an emotional stupor, Frank (this was so perplexing) “tries to be here” for Sam by first offering to help her pack. Sam: “I already knew you guys really didn’t believe in me, but to have you guys break out into that big of a fight and then go scream at each other. It’s kind of like, there goes whatever pride I had left.” Frank’s response: “Both of us are very insecure in this game…Zach and I are in the wrong, and I’m sorry.” Sam (rightfully) does not take Frank’s new assertion seriously.
- In the arena, Sam volunteers to go in. Zach and Frank abstain, forcing Team Brooklyn to choose Zach.
- During the Water Torture arena battle, something even more unexpected happens. Zach: “For the first time in our relationship, Sam is leading me through this whole thing. I can’t quit for myself, but more importantly, I can’t quit for Sam. She deserves to be in this house more than anyone on my team.” Sam is directive and on point, leading Zach’s underwater, inverted, and blood rushed self to victory and hereby eliminating Knight and Jemmye (valiant in defeat). Zach says to Sam, “You are the smartest dumb person I know.” Healthy, guys.
- Zach is immediately ready to take revenge on Frank, foreshadowing future entanglements: “The wound in my back that Frank left from the Real World had just healed and he just opened it right back up.”
What does this all mean? The Frank/Team San Diego implosion that I predicted early on seems to have finally arrived. Logged Out and the rest of the episode featured teams working together (even Alton seems to have found a way again) and one team completely blowing up from within, exposing all of its weaknesses all at once. This is a major Challenge development since it appeared that Frank, as recently as last week, was running the show for his no longer majority alliance. Sam is weak in endurance (and up and down mentally), Ashley is lost in the shuffle, Zach has a weird volume escalation in his voice and a rage for Frank, and Frank is again volatile and unpredictable. They may have reached the point, as much as Frank knows strategically the benefit of a four person team, that they can no longer function with Frank, Zach, and Sam in the mix. The Challenge power structure has officially shifted and it seems like it is every team for themselves going forward.
Before we hit the rankings, here are some “must be mentioned” tidbits:
- The Insane Games: House Edition, hosted and conceived by Team Brooklyn, was a work of genius. Chet says he was “trying to ease the tension in the house, but at the end of the day, what we are really trying to do is to get the house to like Brooklyn, which has yet to happen.” Brilliant. Sarah gets it too: “This is what being in a challenge house is all about. Let’s put aside all the fighting. Let’s have fun and share a few laughs in this house for once.” These moments have been far and few between in the recent, super-athletic challenge seasons, and this was a refreshing (and too short) respite. Thank you to Team Brooklyn for giving us all a much needed break.
- The CJ and Ashley relationship was an enjoyable distraction as well. Although Ashley looks “at him more as a friend and that’s probably about it,” CJ writes her a note to accompany a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Marie and Jemmye (playing the LaToya role) get a hold of the note before Ashley does and cohort (this was not hard to do) Knight into helping them write her faux response. Knight knows how wonderful it is “t0 see someone in an awkward position besides [him] for once.” It playfully backfires on poor Christian: “The problem with writing letters is that you put some stuff on paper for other people to see.” He may have the purpose and the problem of writing letters a bit mixed up.
- Finally, after the debacle that The Dark Knight episode was, I am sorry to see Knight and Jemmye go. They held their own on this challenge as competitors and came out of it with a renewed friendship with each other. Both grew on me throughout the season, and, as I now am more able to recall, the same thing happened in New Orleans. They are genuine and fun people who bring a light and warm energy to a space (at least as presented through the TV lens). As TJ often says, I know we will see you again.
On to the rankings, with some serious movement (San Diego free falls) and some new game check-in analysis about which teams left have a chance to win.
WEEKLY CHALLENGE INDIVIDUAL POWER RANKINGS
NOTE: the rankings will be based on an un-Hollinger/sabermetrics method known as “My experience and observations” (See: Marc Stein’s great NBA weekly power rankings). Weight will be given to how well teams and individuals do on competitions, in the social game, and whether he or she is a “good competitor.”
1 (1) Dustin (Team Las Vegas) – A strong challenge showing (with gang sign utilization) and a week off of the hot seat was only good news for Mr. Zito.
2 (4) Chet (Team Brooklyn) – His Insane Games: Home Edition work goes without saying, but it his Logged Out dominance that moves him up two spots.
3 (2) CJ (Team Cancun) – His few tough challenge moments (Jonna tweeted her slight frustration) and his flower/note prank recipiency dropped him down slightly.
4 (7) Derek (Team Cancun) – As mentioned before, Derek had his best moment on this challenge when he literally put Jasmine on his back. Lost in this showcase of gallantry was his ability, in the heat, to even carry Jasmine (albeit, a small woman), up the mountain.
5 (10) Alton (Team Las Vegas) – A week on the sidelines was only a good thing for Alton and hopefully a physical challenge was a good thing for his psyche going forward.
6 (8) Robb (Team St. Thomas) – Robb was a star of Team St. Thomas (and an underrated player throughout the episode), giving Marie a will and way to beat out Team New Orleans.
7 (9) JD (Team Brooklyn) – At this point, JD is so happy to be in this game. On the plus side, he did everything to help his team and nothing to hurt it. Also, why didn’t he participate in Insane Games: Home Edition hosting? What a loss for us all it was.
8 (5) Zach (Team San Diego) – Despite a willful arena showing, Zach has to be low on this list for succumbing to Frank’s tactics and being wholly unhelpful to a teammate during Logged Out.
9 (3) Frank (Team San Diego) – Crazy Frank (and not even drunk this time) finally reared its unfortunate head again. This is a mental game as much as physical, and unless he can keep the mental in check, it won’t matter what he brings physically (very much a force in endurance).
ELIMINATED: Knight (Team New Orleans) – Last week: 6 of 10 – We will miss you Knight. Thank you for providing so many moments of levity and for showing us all a new method of cleaning clothes.
Biggest Rise: Alton (Team Las Vegas)
Biggest Fall: Frank (Team San Diego,)
1 (1) Sarah (Team Brooklyn) – Sarah’s spot at number one is the surest thing in The Challenge. She dominated Logged Out and showed how wonderful a teammate she can be.
2 (2) Nany (Team Las Vegas) – Her team Vegas performance was strong and still is riding some post arena win momentum.
3 (3) Jonna (Team Cancun) – Jonna was her normal, reliable self in the challenge. It will be interesting to see how she is affected by her beau Zach’s battles with Sam and Frank.
4 (6) Trishelle (Team Las Vegas) – Trishelle is showing her own athletically and must provide Alton with warmth and stability going forward.
5 (7) Marie (Team St. Thomas) – Marie may have struggled through this difficult challenge, but after seven eliminations, she has yet to see an arena and this stands for something.
6 (4) Jasmine (Team Cancun) – Poor Jasmine struggled a wee bit in Logged Out (thus her fall from the top 4). Was this a one-timer or will endurance be an issue in a final challenge?
7 (9) Devyn (Team Brooklyn) – Although blessed to be with supportive teammates like Chet and Sarah, I have a feeling that Devyn’s apparent personal blossoming that the viewer has been privileged to watch is for real. Her attitude continues to be a highlight.
8 (8) Ashley (Team San Diego) – Ashley may continue to be this low in the rankings because she has yet to differentiate herself from the field. She appeared helpless (I really can’t blame her) to help Sam when Frank and Zach were drawing blood.
9 (10) Sam (Team San Diego) – Sam : “I am not gym rats like my teammates. I am not runners and sprinters like my teammates are.” She was incredible in the arena, but cannot overcome her challenge performance.
ELIMINATED: Jemmye (Team New Orleans) – Last week 5 of 10 – Jemmye, it has been a pleasure. I truly believe you could have competed with the best of them in the finals and the notion of this when the season began could not have been further from my view.
Biggest Rise: Trishelle (Team Las Vegas), Marie (Team St. Thomas), Devyn (Team Brooklyn)
Biggest Fall: Jasmine (Team Cancun)
FULL TEAM RANKINGS
Note: Team rankings are compiled by adding up the individual rankings and dividing by number of players remaining. Teams with the lowest total average ranking are ranked better than the highest (i.e. you want as few points as possible)
1 (2) TEAM LAS VEGAS Average: 3, last week: 4.75 (2)
Alton (5), Dustin (1), Trishelle (4), Nany (2)
Can they win as a foursome? Yes, as displayed in Logged Out, this is the strongest, top to bottom foursome in The Challenge. If the trend in last week’s episode has any afterlife, Alton could be a liability, but for now, he is back in the fold. Both Nany and Trishelle have fight in them and are here to win money. There are no two stronger female pairs in this game. It is to their advantage to remain as four.
What pairings can win? I think Dustin can win with either Nany (more likely) or Trishelle. I think Alton remains questionable, but certainly has the physical pedigree to win with either partner.
2 (1) TEAM CANCUN Average: 4, last week: 4 (1)
CJ (3), Jonna (3), Jasmine (6), Derek (4)
Can they win as a foursome? Their unwavering unity is endearing and has been an asset, but if Jasmine’s physical endurance issues creep up in the finals (too many cigarettes?), she is a major liability against Vegas or a Sarah/Chet pairing from Team Brooklyn. CJ and Jonna may need to start to consider the benefit of going into a final alone. Derek definitely proved himself worthy of the finals in Logged Out.
What pairings can win? Jonna and CJ is a top 3 pairing. Jonna and Derek is top 7 pairing.
3 (4) TEAM BROOKLYN Average: 5.25, last week: 5.75 (4)
Sarah (1), Chet (2), JD (7), Devyn (7)
Can they win as foursome? Unlikely. Devyn is so much fun (even more so minus Big Easy), but her lack of athletic anything in the past is not going to work in a long, endurance event. If winning The Challenge was all about teamwork, they are your strongest team, but I am not sure that Chet and Sarah could carry Devyn’s weaknesses over a Vegas or a Cancun. You root for them to stay together because thus far they do it the right way, but at some point, Sarah and Chet may benefit from breaking free. JD continues to be an enigma.
What pairings can win? Sarah and Chet can win The Challenge. Sarah could probably get JD to the finish line as well. I am not sure Devyn would be able to finish with either Chet or Sarah.
4 (6) TEAM ST. THOMAS Average: 5.5, last week: 7.5 (6)
Robb (6), Marie (5), Eliminated: Laura, Trey
Can they win as a pair? Maybe. They may both have the Jasmine “too many cigarettes problem” (CT’s addiction was his downfall in Iceland last year), but I was very impressed with their drive and fight this week. Bare in mind, this is still when Robb and Marie were romantically involved and Robb seems to do everything in his power to make Marie happy. Winning $250,000 could be under this auspice.
5 (5) TEAM SAN DIEGO Average: 8.5, last week: 6.5 (5)
Zach (8), Sam (9), Ashley (8), Frank (9)
Can they win as a foursome? No. I do not believe they can win anything with Zach, Frank, and Sam all in the mix. Sam’s amazing arena performance notwithstanding, she struggled with endurance in Logged Out and Frank and Zach struggled with kindness. The two fallacies will not go together. In order for San Diego to be back in the mix, Sam may need to go home (along with either guy).
What pairings can win? Both guys can compete with Ashley against the other strong teams (Vegas, Sarah/Chet, CJ/Jonna). The question remains, will their implosion this episode allow them to even get there?
And finally, during the “NEXT WEEK ON THE CHALLENGE” preview, this is what I saw:
- TJ presents the competitors with cow intestines to eat. Trishelle is not pleased.
- Frank tells Zach that they are not meant to be friends.
- Frank (in a crazy rant) tells Zach that he “is not going to be made to look like a fucking crazy person.”
Until we all meet again, watch the next episode of The Challenge: Battle of the Seasons at 10 PM on Wednesday night on MTV.
David Bloom can be reached on twitter at @davidbloom7. His weekly CHALLENGE POWER RANKINGS come out weekly on Derek Kosinski’s UltimateChallengeRadio.com. The Week 9 power rankings will be available sometime on or after November 15.