Hold on. Let me just catch my breath. My heart is still pounding.
Final episode nights of competition based reality television programs (and I realize that The Challenge is so much more than that, but for purposes of my argument, let us buy in) are often a bit anticlimactic. First, the trials, tribulations, and extracurricular nighttime activities that stretch the heart of the season frequently seem to have more pickles in the fish soup jar than the season’s culminating act. The journey to get there is more engaging than the there. Once the winner is no longer in doubt (I cannot remember a final challenge that was a real nail-biter), the momentum is drained from the proceedings faster than a Tyrie elimination. Second, if there is a “reunion special,” it is usually a perfect excuse to practice DVR fast-forwarding skills. Either the host is out his league (more on this in a bit, think Donald Trump on The Apprentice whose live finales are an exercise in why) or the over abundance of segments and network micromanaging (I am looking at you every Survivor reunion – can we please just let the great Jeff Probst do his thing?) yields a clunky, poorly constructed, commercial interruption-fest.
Last night was the final night of this season of The Challenge: Rivals 2, the universally accepted fifth American professional sport. The Final itself, an at times cruel and unusual punishment of a checkpoint completion based Thailand run around “Nightmare Island” (it had to have been named for the third idol station that Wes deemed “the worst restaurant” ever) had its memorable moments (a play by play to come), but the real mouth burning came in the live reunion special, hosted unintentionally comedically by Jonny Moseley who did his best impression of a human train wreck throughout the epic proceedings. Also, as a point of clarification, the reunion special was LIVE (from New York!), often a clichéd forum for “anything to happen” that most commonly means dull and boring (risk aversion persists when the edit is only on a five-second delay), but this live reunion special was different. Shocking interactions, disturbing acts of violence, beautiful shows of emotional support, and the Moseley factor made this live reunion the story of the night and one that could have lasting implications for this series.
Before we delve into the lessons learned from the reunion special, we have a Final to deconstruct (SPOILER ALERTS TO COME) in which our final four teams, CT and Wes, Johnny and Frank (Jordan and Marlon were in fact the capsizing culprits and did not make it to the super yacht in time – your Rivals 2 brilliant rookie season will be better encapsulated in my forthcoming postseason awards column), Paula and Emily, and Cooke and Cara Maria, after a brief swim from the super yacht, battle through five idol acquisition stations on “Nightmare Island.” The first men team and the first women team to collect all idols and then complete a final canoe trip to the super yacht would win the first place prize (the second place teams are comically forced to wait on “Nightmare Island” and watch as the winners sail off into the sunset).
CHECKPOINT #1: It’s a Skull Puzzle. There are fourteen spikes on a board and one open peg. You have to jump one skull over another, eliminating spikes as you go. The point is to end up with one spike left.
QUOTE: “This puzzle is the same puzzle I play when I am hungover at a country breakfast restaurant that I like to go to.” – CT
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Although it may depend on how much time you spend at a country breakfast restaurant (what does this even mean?) hungover, I think it is relatively straightforward.
BEST PERFORMANCE: CT (“The Puzzle Master”) and Wes dominate and build a substantial lead over Johnny and Frank.
WORST PERFORMANCE: Paula and Emily lose their lead on Cooke and Cara after the initial swim and seem to be doing what Paula declares they do best: “freak out.”
KEY MOMENT: Cara’s “sees something in her head” and figures out a successful puzzle strategy.
ORDER OF FINISH: 1. CT/Wes 2. Cooke/Cara Maria 3. Johnny/Frank 4. Paula/Emily
CHECKPOINT #2: “What’s Mine is Yours” features a math problem using the Pythagorean theorem that asks you to solve for the hypotenuse and then cut the corresponding rope that has the correct value attached to it. If you read the fine print, only one player is allowed to do the math. If you cut the wrong rope, you have to cut all five ropes.
QUOTE: “We have to solve a pythagoree theorem which is…I don’t know because I haven’t been to school since the ‘80s.” – Paula
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Math is really hard for the competitors.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Tie. CT and Wes (apologies to his sixth grade geometry teacher) bypass the math and successfully gamble on the correct rope cut. Cooke and Cara bypass the math and realize that the color of the rope is important and mirror the CT and Wes cut. Astute work, ladies.
WORST PERFORMANCE: Frank’s ninth grade calculator over dependence comes back to haunt him.
KEY MOMENT: CT realizes that his “fat fingers” make for lousy pens.
ORDER OF FINISH: 1. CT/Wes 2. Cooke/Cara Maria 3. Johnny/Frank 4. Paula/Emily
CHECKPOINT #3: “Food Test” features the consumption of, in order, a plate full of chili peppers, pickled fish soup (as disgusting as it sounds), a plate of worms, crickets and maggots, this fruit called durian that is known for smelling awful, and fried squid. “Food Test” features vomiting (and lots of it!).
QUOTE: “Eating disgusting shit is my kryptonite. Walking into this mad scientist laboratory, I literally felt like I just walked into my absolute worst nightmare.” – Bananas
“It’s a chorus of people puking their guts out.” – Bananas
“Goodbye…worst restaurant…ever.” – Wes
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: It is a nightmare – the most impossible of missions and should have been worth so much more money than the final prize.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Paula (“What do you eat on a regular basis Paula?” asks Emily), fueled by Cooke and Cara’s desperation, eats (and vomits) at a record pace, overtaking the women team lead.
WORST PERFORMANCE: Team Cooke and Cara Maria admirably struggled to eat what appeared to be the worst meal ever conceived.
KEY MOMENT: When Wes and CT decide to swallow the chili peppers like pills. When Paula decides to dominate.
ORDER OF FINISH: 1. CT/Wes 2. Paula/Emily 3. Cooke/Cara Maria 4. Johnny/Frank
CHECKPOINT #4: “Body Issues” involves carrying twenty heavy body bags across a rice field on a stretcher with hot handles.
QUOTE: “Paula – focus, get your shit together, and help me.” – Emily
“I see Cooke and Cara struggling. I see them stopping all the time. I see them yelling, and this is just bringing me back to life!” – Paula
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Frustratingly annoying. The bags were heavy, the food ingestion was fresh, and the repetition was killer. Wes was almost a casualty.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Johnny and Frank who did a very nice job (“second wind”) closing the gap on Wes and CT.
WORST PERFORMANCE: Cooke and Cara, who were forced to work on teaching each other the “1-2-3 lift” process a few too many times.
KEY MOMENT: When Paula got her shit together (in this checkpoint and, in truth, for Challenge historical reasons, in general).
ORDER OF FINISH: 1. CT/Wes 2. Johnny/Frank 3. Paula/Emily 4. Cooke/Cara Maria
CHECKPOINT #5: “Tunnel Vision” asked competitors to dig a whole to a trap door tunnel that leads to the idol. Compared to the previous checkpoints, this was a cakewalk.
QUOTE: “This is it, brother. Everything we have worked for. This is it.” – CT
“This is happening. This is happening.” – Emily
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Too easy. Way to not finish with a bang, Bunim/Murray production.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Wes and CT remained a consummate team to the end.
WORST PERFORMANCE: Production for a lame final checkpoint.
KEY MOMENT: CT and Wes and Emily and Paula finished first and won Rivals 2.
ORDER OF FINISH: 1. CT/Wes 2. Paula/Emily 3. Johnny/Frank 4. Cooke/Cara Maria
CT after nine previous attempts and almost a decade of Challenge appearances, wins his first Challenge.
Wes, who hasn’t won in a “solid six years,” wins for a second time.
Paula wins her second Challenge and her second straight Rivals.
Emily, after several previous attempts and third place finishes, wins her first Challenge.
Shout out to all of you.
A few lingering thoughts and quotations from the final episode:
- Johnny and Frank both acknowledged that they walked away as good friends. Cooke and Cara are “grateful” for even making it to the finals and know how unlikely they were to have made it this far (do we even remember Naomi’s brief appearance on the show?). Both second place teams walked away with tremendous dignity and were so gracious in defeat.
- When I reflect on the season next week in my forthcoming postseason awards column, I will put CT’s win this season in some kind of historical context. For now, the great Johnny Bananas, in such an eloquent and generous manner, gives respect to his longtime rival (set to a wonderfully produced montage of CT’s career highlights): “You win some and you lose some, but I hate to say it, but I think that the team that deserved to win won today. Rivalry between me and CT aside, the guy’s put in his time. We’ve spilled the same blood in the same mud. It’s only appropriate for him to at some point get a win.”
- I gained so much respect for Wes this season for many reasons, but above all else, he was a phenomenal partner to CT. He created a perfect balance, performed when it mattered, and never strayed from the task at hand of winning money at the end. Congratulation to you. Count me as one of the impressed.
- You have to appreciate the simplicity of CT’s take: “I did it. I finally won The Challenge. It took me ten years, but me and Wes, we made it. It is fair to say that me and Wes are no longer rivals.”
- A tearful Paula: “I am always at, as I don’t know, not that good at shit. I’m not good at Challenges. I’m not good at elimination rounds, but I never wanted to let Emily down, so I did the best that I could, and I just hope that I made her proud to have me as a partner.” Hey Paula, mission accomplished. You rock.
- Emily, third place will not be your destiny.
- As TJ stated, these were the “two best teams all season” and they deserved to win. Sometimes it is comforting to have the resolution make so much sense. It was their time.
The Challenge: Rivals 2 Live Reunion Special was live TV at it’s absolute best (and I am not even referring to Preston’s Amish hat) and absolute worst (violence is really scary and the choice of Jonny Moseley as the host is almost equally scary). There were some clear lessons learned throughout. Here are the most important takeaways in chronological order:
The hot seat was a fail. Throughout the show, Jonny would have more intimate conversations on the “hot seat,” a faux-leather coach off to the side with a few competitors. The groupings rarely made sense (CT/Wes and Jemmye/Camila, Frank, Knight, Emily, and Cara), the topics almost immediately went back to the big group (so why even be there in the first place), and there was violence (more on this shortly).
When Knight refers to Preston as “Mr. Rodgers” in what appears to be a state of some kind of “under the influence,” he probably is and has no idea what he is saying.
When you appear on live TV, you want your makeup to be more subtle, Marlon.
Knight is unsafe, belligerent, dangerous, and an embarrassment. While discussing some steamy twitter conversations (another hot seat fail), Frank and Knight trade barbs. Frank is calm, cool, and articulate, but still backs some verbal bite. Knight returns the favor (not as articulately) a few times. He then stands up, mentions some unrest about some of the things that Frank said about Jemmye, and then, out of what felt like complete nowhere, punches Frank in the face. Here is the video:
It was a shocking and disturbing display of unprovoked violence. The air was completely taken out of the room. Thankfully, Wes and Emily, aided by the studio security staff, restrain Knight and remove him from the stage and the proceedings. All Jonny can say (and this really happened) is, “Anyone else have anything to say to Frank?” Tough moment, Jonny, but really, tough moment Knight. Admittedly, from the edit these past two seasons, I have not been Knight’s biggest supporter. I find his humor tasteless and his attitude leaves something to be desired, but I often enjoyed his presence on Real World: New Orleans and have been open to the possibility of a tough edit. This violent incident was on unedited live TV and, despite how you might feel about Frank, showed the act of a person who is really struggling with decision quality. I hope he finds help and fast. This was an embarrassment.
Frank IS the bigger man and from all accounts in real life, a great person. Frank is great at being a divisive, yet essential polarizing figure on The Challenge, but especially now having seen his reaction to Knight’s attack, he is a man of integrity. To answer your question Mr. Moseley, “Frank – Your handling of the situation was so impressive. I applaud you for your courage and fortitude.” His sincerity and general remorse in his apology to Jemmye was equally heartwarming.
In case it was at all fuzzy before, Emily’s reaction to Knight (“Get the fuck off the stage!”) says everything about her. She is a gem.
Johnny Bananas and CT are both really kind and sensitive human beings. After coming back from a commercial break following Knight’s violence, production carried on with their segment order (a big mistake) and decided to grill Diem about her recent episode “craziness.” Even though we know that Diem was on many post-chemo hormones and medications during the filming of Rivals 2, Diem was disrespectfully asked to defend her unevenness in Thailand. She understandably broke down talking about it. First, Bananas stepped to the plate to set the record straight: “What people don’t see when they watch this show and what the audience doesn’t understand is that we are subjected to an incredible amount of mental and emotional distress. So coming on and being at the top of your game – it’s difficult enough. Coming on in the position that she was in – I mean she just went through chemotherapy before she came on the show – she was being injected with all this stuff. I mean, I’m a guy, and my emotions are all over the place, and I can’t imagine what it was like, so, if anyone needs to be given a get out of jail free card or a free pass, it is Diem in this situation.” CT was next: “It is easy to take a highlight reel of someone’s worst moments and turn them into something they are not, and she didn’t deserve that.” Thank you, gentlemen.
On a similar note, Aneesa and Paula are wonderful friends and wonderful people. But we kind of already knew that.
Jonny Moseley should not be hosting a live event. Yes, Knight’s violent stage eruption is a worst-case scenario and would rattle even a seasoned interviewer veteran, but his inability to audible away from exhausted topics or to understand that what was on his cue card didn’t have to come next doomed Moseley’s performance (where was Maria Menunous?). When CT and Diem had a go on the hot seat to discuss their “relationship” things got very uncomfortable. CT kept telling Jonny to “mind ya business,” but Jonny kept probing further. At a certain point, CT had had enough and turned it back on Moseley:
CT: “I was playing a game. This ain’t real life. Make up your mind. Are we trying to play the game or are we trying to be real life. Are you trying to make me be a bad person?
CT: “No, then where are you going with it, bro? Who’s in the hot seat now? What’s up?
Then Moseley, instead of moving away from the topic, continued to harp on it. CT was not done, referring to Jonny Moseley as “son.”
CT: “Nah, that’s why we don’t let you know anything about us. You twist and turn it into something that it’s not. What’s up now? We’re live. There’s nothing you can do about it…no, I know what you are trying to do, bro and I don’t even care. Read and let us talk.”
It was excruciating to watch CT trample over Jonny Moseley’s inexperience. Was TJ Lavin available?
The live reunion is a win. Although some of the worst-case live reunion tropes clouded this event (violence, unintentionally comedic discomfort), it felt much more informative than the strangely edited reunion shows of yesteryear that always gave too little of what you wanted and too much of what you didn’t.
After all that happened last night, let us all catch our breath. Stay tuned for my final column of the season next week featuring post-season awards and the final power rankings. Until…
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.