“It’s a bitter pill I swallow here…” – The Edge, from U2’s Van Diemen’s Land, a summation of how I feel after having watched this week’s episode of The Challenge: Rivals 2
As most The Challenge episodes go, this week’s poorly titled The Dark Knight Rises (at this point, any loose comparison made by the crack episode title creation staff over at MTV between Batman and Knight, even if only through a pun, shall be considered offensive) had a familiar dramatically structured rhythm: it begins with the rising action of a fight or a romantic fling (Knight and Marlon, Trishelle and Aneesa, Derek and Marlon), then it moves to the climax of the challenge (an enjoyable timed event involving unstable rope) and the Jungle vote (Aneesa broke her word!), before hitting the falling action of the Jungle elimination (blindfolded dizzy sword play is always appreciated), and then ends with the denouement of a budding romance or two (this week: Marlon and Nany). These plotted points give The Challenge a flow and a pace that is surprisingly comforting – the who and the what in each phase may differ from week to week, but we ostensibly know what we are going to get.
Although imbedded within this characteristic dramatic rhythm, all the key plot points this week were almost (almost, I will touch on those important moments in the power rankings column later in the week) irrelevant juxtaposed with the most unjust (and all too familiar) of decisions made by the powers of Bunim/Murray. This week’s episode and the structure we have come to understand were blindsided by an unexpected, terribly unfair, and exceedingly unreasonable production reaction to a player’s decision to quit. For the second time and for absolutely no fault of her own (I will especially ignore Johnny Moseley’s embarrassing question on the After Show), Sarah was sent home.
The context of this horrific decision made it all the worse: On a night of seemingly many fights, Trishelle was concerned that Aneesa had a monopoly over oppressed minorities as a Jew and as a lover of women (Jemmye was a helpful relayer of this intel). Aneesa’s rebuttal was both physical and witty (“You are the same Trashelle you were!). Trishelle reacted with some words that, when put together, seemed to make less than sense (Rivals 2 was a tough go for the professional poker player). The next morning, Trishelle packed her bags faster than the duration of her film career and had suddenly quit the show (Some After Show clips provided further fodder for the quandary: why did she agree to participate this season to begin with?). Sarah, who faced a similar destructive partnership on Exes (the worst hookup ever) when Vinny decided it was a good idea to be an awful human being (as Mandi and her top found out at the club), was now faced with the possibility that no more partner meant no more The Challenge. But wait, just last week Naomi departed because of some home priorities and Cara Maria (thirty hours of travel later) was brought on as her replacement, so Sarah must get a replacement partner as well. It is still early enough in the game (only one female elimination has taken place) and a male elimination is next, so it is reasonable to bring in another replacement player, right?
When TJ gathered the troops to share the production decision, I actually thought that after clearly making the WRONG call on Exes (you are telling me Mr. Beautiful wouldn’t have flown in last minute?), they would make the right call this time around. Unfortunately, for Sarah, for the people that would have been able to spend time with her in Thailand (especially Jordan who let his best qualities out when around her), for the weekly viewer, for the sanctity of gameplay, for any semblance of justice in this fifth major professional sport, the MTV powers that be (not) DROPPED THE BALL and eliminated her from the competition. Sarah’s reaction, the last time (it is inconceivable that this has now happened to her twice) this quaked an outpouring of emotion, was almost hauntingly (and nobly) stoic and proud. Even in this moment of objective irrational tomfoolery, Sarah remained the bigger (and biggest of them all) person.
I have spent the few hours since this catastrophic reveal trying to rationalize a decision that on face value appears just so irrational. I still can’t make any sense of it. Sure, it is not easy to get someone to pick up their stuff and travel to Thailand for six weeks on a moment’s notice, but how does this explain the Cara Maria add-on just last week? I am sure MTV in their (free falling in credibility) minds had a reason. Without knowing it, I just don’t buy it. The focus should have been committed to finding a way to keep Sarah in the game. Here are the top 5 solutions that would have kept Sarah in Thailand that should have been at least tried before sending such an important and vital force of the past seven seasons of this beloved more than-a-television show home at no fault or responsibility of her own:
1. Bring back Jess – If Jess was still in Thailand, this seems like a no-brainer and the easiest solution. The “rivals” construct is already a serious reach, so the budding friendship between Sarah and Jess is of little consequence to the premise of the game (Mike Mike was Leroy’s partner in Rivals, so there is already a precedent for blowing up the season format). Ana’s body (and likely healthy decision-making) let Jess down, so why not give her another shot with a more seasoned partner. Princess Hulk was just beginning to pave her destructive path of the competition and as Jess tweeted, “We’d be a ball of sunshine and badassness!” That’s what I’m talking about!
2. Fly in another vet – Laurel? Ev? Jenn with two Ns? KellyAnne? Ashley? Someone with a little Challenge credibility had to have been available. Cara Maria is a random ringer. There is no reason not to bring in another one for Sarah at this still incredibly early stage of the game.
3. Add her to another women team – Of course this may require a little challenge reworking, but so what? The chance to have Sarah remain in the game is well worth any behind the scenes audibles (Survivor lays out a model for in-game rule flexibility every season, so it can definitely be done).
4. Sarah becomes the inaugural Confessioner – Yes! Sarah would have an easy transition to house therapist, strategic advisor, and creative consultant. Production, having made a sound decision by keeping Sarah involved with the competition, would handle the conflict resolution, but Sarah could do everything else.
5. Sarah becomes TJ’s co-host – At first she would still be disappointed to not be able to compete, but you’re telling me that Sarah wouldn’t be incredibly excited to work with TJ behind the scenes of the show?
That’s just it. For some competitors, The Challenge is a paid vacation, a chance to win money, or a way to stay on television for a period of time beyond what was originally thought possible. There is nothing wrong with these reasons and I don’t fault anyone who has them, but Sarah is refreshingly different. You can tell that she has looked at every moment of these past seven seasons as a most incredible opportunity. She strives to live each of these moments with a competing passion and compassion, a fervent commitment, and an unabashed joy. House fights that devolve into the lowest common denominator affect her (as her last night in Phuket displayed) in a way that others may not feel. Sarah is genuinely kind and considerate, someone who puts the needs of others before those of her own. She wants everyone to get along and to treat each other with respect because she understands that this is a better way.
The After Show this week showed a clip of Sarah’s final speech to the group after TJ’s (I will refrain from killing the messenger, Master Lavin) decree of elimination. She left her fellow competitors, fighting through tears, with the following words: “First and foremost, we are people. Everyone knows exactly the behavior that they’ve done that has been despicable. Just think – is what I’m doing right now going to help someone or is it going to hurt them? Everybody has the ability to change and change starts as soon as you say it’s going to happen.” The edit showed faces in the background (the disrespectful Knight, to use Sarah’s words, first and foremost) smirking, laughing, and cynically condescending to this earnest and real attempt to make this at too many times insane asylum of a Challenge world a better place.
Johnny takes a realistic (and bitingly clever, Mr. Bananas) take in his interview: “Sarah, do you have any idea the group of animals that you are talking to? It’s like telling prison inmates to be more considerate of each other. It’s just not gonna happen.” It might not, but Sarah’s conviction and determination, commendably and admirably, will not be assuaged because she thinks better and believes more of others. After this clip is shown, Sarah is visibly upset, and Aneesa (a great episode for this savvy vet) reassures her that she is “a good person among some bad people,” acknowledging how hard it can be.
Sarah reacts, “And really, is it that fucking terrible for me to expect human beings to be nice to each other or for me to want to deliver that message. Maybe they can just, I don’t know, for a second choose to be nice in a moment where they could be mean, and, if really that makes me a big fucking joke, then I am joke. I don’t care. I really, I don’t.” Sarah, know that we care and don’t let anything stop you from being you. This is unfair and you, of all people, deserve so much better. Keep up your fight and don’t lose your spark. You are a beacon of positivity and goodness and the heart and soul of this Challenge world, and we are all the better for it. You will be missed.
MTV, you dropped the ball.
David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about MTV’s “The Challenge,” pop culture, and the NBA for Bishop and Company. His “The Challenge: Rivals 2″ power rankings will post weekly starting on July 10.