When presented with an overabundance of options the human brain demands those options be ranked. Highly subjective things like art are particularly subject to the tyranny of our instinct to bring order out of chaos. This thing is better than that thing. That thing is worse than this thing. This is the best. That is the worst. Two thumbs up, way up. Five stars. F+. What fool's errands all these rankings and gradings are; how anathema to the purpose of art; how reductive to the broad spectrum of human experience.
That being said, MTV's The Challenge is the #1 greatest reality show of all time. Hear me out... MTV's The Challenge is the #1 greatest reality show of all time.
It is prestige television.
The reasons for The Challenge's enduring status as reality television's Platonic Ideal are both legion and manifest. Shall we start with the parting words of this week's Challenge loser/evictee Isaac?
Everything was going really, really well... Until I had to start the game. On top of sand I'm a big, clumsy dumbass and I hate myself. I'm never going to a beach again. I'm never going to a child's playground again—well, technically, that's for legal reasons. But I fuckin' hate sand.
Or consider Johnny Bananas' words to fellow competitor/enemy Jordan upon ousting Isaac:
I hope I see you [in the arena next]. You won't just be missing a hand after you fuckin' come in here. I'm gonna rip your head off.
That Jordan is actually missing half a hand does not detract from the sheer poetry here. Bananas' boast was almost as eloquent as his later threat, "Hell hath no fury like a banana scorned." Indeed not, Mr. Bananas. Indeed not.
But these bon mots are mere synecdoche of The Challenge's larger greatness: Its cast. The reason these people are so genuinely (!) hilarious is that they've been doing this for years. Most of them started as fresh-faced roommates on long-forgotten seasons of The Real World and have since been making their living participating in these challenges, many of them for more than a decade. Not since Michael Apted's 7-Up series have we been afforded the opportunity to watch subjects grow and evolve the way the cast of The Challenge has. From its innumerable rivalries (C.T. has punched out almost everybody by this point) to romances to breakups to friendships, The Challenge rewards loyal viewers with something akin to long-form storytelling. It's a borderline saga.
To enjoy the current season you don't need to know that Zach and Jonna once fell in love a few challenges back and briefly moved in together before breaking up, but that kind of knowledge certainly enhances our enjoyment of their casual interactions now. In this week's episode when the impossibly gorgeous (yet SO '90s-looking) Cara Maria nominated Bananas to go into the arena they were both able to laugh about their long-time rivalry even though we know in years past their mutual hatred was as dark as anything this show has seen. And the grim reaper's cruel carousel of death applies even to The Challenge, as old players cycle out and fresh meat cycle in; that's why Bananas rivalry with relative newbie Jordan felt so fraught this week: Nobody wants to stare into the abyss of obsolescence, least of Johnny Bananas, who is this show's closest thing to a literal monster. You know, in the childhood nightmare sense of the word.
Far more diverse in race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, and even, increasingly, age, than any other reality show, The Challenge is positively stacked with people utterly comfortable on camera and expert in camera-friendly, dignity-free misbehavior. This week Cara Maria stuffed a hair extension into flesh-tone panties and streaked through the house for no reason. Last week Nany and Jasmine wrestled "for fun" and pulled out each others' hair extensions before high-fiving. The week before that Other Johnny beneficently gave Nany a striptease for her fake bachelorette party that the cast threw for her. (No other reality cast seems so intent on filling their idle hours with exercises in make-believe like The Challenge's casts do; this may have something to do with all the heavy drinking.) And most titillating of all, the sexual shenanigans on this show are so casual and commonplace they've long ago ceased to be particularly lurid. Yes, that house is probably a hotbed of STDs, but on the other hand, their general lack of sensationalism or shame when it comes to sex is downright refreshing.
Subtitled Free Agents, this Uruguay-set season of The Challenge has not disappointed when it comes to sheer weirdness and pathos. Though we haven't yet seen a full-on poolside brawl or nightclub throwdown (occasional sociopath Frank's premature self-elimination might have reduced the chances of all that), this week's episode was as entertaining as they come. After a suspended-over-water ropes course in which Bananas' cocky, advantaged team nonetheless fell short, the cast maneuvered wildly around the house to decide who was going into the arena. Theresa headed up the charge to throw in female front-runner Laurel only to then cast a vote for someone else as her allies all stuck with the original plan thus earning Laurel's very real wrath. The twist this season is that no matter who gets sent into the arena, the other players are still subject to drawing the "death card" forcing them into the arena as well. Jasmine, seemingly 18-inches shorter than Laurel, drew the death card of course, and the ladies' crestfallen expression said it all: Laurel was going to throw Jasmine around like a ragdoll during the trashcan-ball faceoff, and that's exactly what happened. Laurel wasn't going anywhere and now there was a fresh batch of ladies in her crosshairs.
Despite that amazing sign-off speech, Isaac hadn't been much of a presence all season. A relative newcomer, he still looked like a several decades older soccer hooligan who'd somehow wandered onto the set. Despite his huge frame he was consistently underwhelming at challenges (except in the challenge of doing sex to Jasmine on the beach). Like Laurel's victory, Bananas' victory came with the threat of retaliation against whomsoever had voted him in. That means the Jordan-Bananas rivalry has started to boil over and there was some unmistakable terror in Jordan's eyes when Bananas came out victorious. Well, you know, as much as emotion could be expressed in the eyes of any of these people. My friend Richard always jokes that dreamy behemoth Zach has "serial killer eyes", and it's something you can't unsee once you notice it.
This was a special week for The Challenge as its usual after show was replaced with a special entitled Best of the Worst. All the evicted players were subject to variety-show-meets-public-access trivia challenges that were hilariously demeaning—yet they were ALL shamelessly up for whatever. A wig-themed tug of war; strip trivia in which the men wore bikinis; bobbing for bananas out of the toilet (!); and most uncomfortable of all, Nia "won" the opportunity to go into a cash booth and snatch dollar bills out of the air. Nia's another new addition to this franchise, but she's an old pro when it comes to shamelessness; on her way into the booth she removed her bra pads on camera so she'd have more room to stuff cash. (Total haul: $113.) If it weren't for the cast's sheer nonplussery at being asked to do all these insane things, Best of the Worst could have been too awkward to watch. Thankfully the entire half hour played like an extended Tim & Eric sketch, and like the rest of The Challenge franchise it was unnecessarily inspired and, like I said, perfect.