How MTV's The Challenge leveled up after 22 years
It's time The Challenge got some Emmys love.
MTV's long-running reality competition series predates all other shows in the genre, and yet it's somehow never been nominated. Launched in 1998 as Road Rules: All Stars, then renamed The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, and finally known simply as The Challenge, the franchise has constantly evolved, updating its production, editing, set design, game design, and more. And 35 seasons in, it continues to hit ratings highs.
So why hasn't The Challenge gotten awards recognition like fellow competition shows Survivor and The Amazing Race? That's exactly what executive producer and showrunner Emer Harkin wants to know. "I wish I could give you a straight answer, I don't know why we haven't gotten the recognition we deserve," she tells EW. "From our format development to our casting, our production design, the style of our show, that cinematic aspect, and then the post[production], I really believe all of it is of such a high standard. And we kind of have fallen between the cracks."
Harkin wonders if it's because The Challenge has been on the air longer than any other reality competition franchise, and maybe the timing was off. But she believes that season 35 could be the spark they need to finally break into the awards race. "I really think that this is our time," she says. "The Challenge is big and bad and bold, and the ratings show that this season. This is our moment to be recognized for the contributions that we've made both historically and in recent times, since we've been widely regarded as America's fifth sport."
She laughs about how "it was such ridiculous timing that we aired when we did when the country went into an awful lull" due to the coronavirus pandemic. "For us to be the competition sporting outlet that everybody so desperately needed, it also bolsters our case for the importance that our show plays and our massive audience in the states," Harkin adds. "Hopefully this is our time to shine."
Below, Harkin breaks down how The Challenge has continued to level up over the past 22 years, how she helped bring about the newest era of the franchise, how the show handled this season's controversy with cast member Dee Nguyen, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you been working on The Challenge?
EMER HARKIN: I actually started on the franchise back in 2008. I was backpacking on a one-year trip around the world, and I was in Queenstown, New Zealand. The show came to town, and I had a background in radio and TV, and so I got interviewed by [executive producer] Justin Booth. I didn't know what an executive producer was, I knew nothing. And he still hired me as an [associate producer] for that season, and it was incredible. It was Dual II, one of my favorite seasons. It was a very different beast back then and very different from what we do now. I obviously did something right because Justin trusted me and has taken me around the world with him and the show since. I progressed up to segment producer and senior segment producer to supervising producer, co-EP, and now have been handed the reins from Justin, who is like my mentor. To now executive-produce on my own is a dream come true. I'm so proud to be a part of it and to be pushing the envelope season after season.
After working your way up, what were some things you wanted to change about the show when you were handed control of the franchise?
It's a very, very well-produced beast. It's a machine that Justin has refined over the years, so the mechanics of the show are pretty perfect. In terms of putting my own spin on it, it really was the creative side of things more than anything. I came up through the challenges side of the world of the show, so I am very anal about how they look and the fairness. I like to see everything painted, I don't want to see anything out of place, figuring out the mechanics of games, and making sure that we're producing games that are befitting of the theme and our past and that excite our viewers. That's where my passions lay: trying to emulate a world that we create. [For season 35,] Justin and I plotted out this post-apocalyptic world that had aspects of Saving Private Ryan, Atomic Blonde, 28 Days Later, and a little bit of Chernobyl, the HBO series. We drew inspiration from all of these awesome projects, and we wanted to create a truly immersive world in a way that we had never done before on The Challenge.
How did you go about creating that immersive world?
I did things like I blacked out the windows on the cast bus so when they left the bunker and traveled to a challenge location they never saw the outside world, they didn't see vehicles passing by, cows or sheep in the field, they saw nothing. They went from their underground lair to this bomb site where they have to detonate bombs and do all sorts of crazy things, and I think that that really worked and kept our cast in that world. It elevated it creatively and it elevated their experience as cast members.
Coming into this season, what goals did you want to accomplish with the new format?
Our big thing was the red skull. It's a twist that we have never engaged in before and it completely blew the game open. Looking at prior seasons, what we tend to do is look at what works and what doesn't work and what we want to elevate, and we have seen in the last couple of seasons where people skate by, they manage to avoid elimination, they just politic their way to the final, and at The Challenge we really believe that winners should be rewarded. We want to see the best, the highest-level competitors, and so we felt like the red skull twist was kind of ingenious. The cast, it took them a beat to be like, "Oh God, what game are we playing here?" But ultimately it rewards performance and it rewards excellence, and that's what we're all about.
Now that we're at the end of the season, what did you think about how the red skull twist played out?
We think it largely worked. There's always things that we could do to take it to the next level and things that I don't want to get into too much because I don't want to give away too many spoilers for season 36. We got a lot of input from fans and [host] T.J. Lavin himself about how we can reimagine the red skull and how we can escalate it and just even kick it up another notch. That's certainly that we're looking at for this coming season, so stay tuned.
In the past, successful twists have continued in later seasons, and other twists have been retired after just one season. Is the red skull twist something you envision changing the franchise moving forward, where we're always going to see some version of it in play?
Not necessarily. Part of the success of our franchise after all these years and seasons is that we continue to push the boundaries. We try to reimagine formats across the board. So I wouldn't want to stay bound to one twist per se, but it's certainly something that gained a lot of traction with both our cast and viewers, so I think it's something that we would like to try to continue to integrate into creative in the short term. And I'm sure it's something that will definitely reappear in the years to come. Whether it's something we do season after season, it remains to be seen.
This franchise has always reinvented itself, but there was a clear shift starting with War of the Worlds I where the look and feel of the overall production, challenges, themes, music, and even casting felt bigger, with more of a focus on athletic ability rather than the hard-partying personalities of the past. How did you go about creating this new era of The Challenge?
I believe we have one of the best crews on the planet. We have really creative masterminds who come up with wonderful concepts. Justin and I sat down and said, "What world do we want to create?" What we started with War the Worlds, we create this cinematic experience. So whether it's the Mad Max of War of the Worlds I or the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider of War of the Worlds II or this post-apocalyptic world of Total Madness, it's really just about our minds wreaking havoc and seeing what we can do to create an alternative universe. It's almost like drawing inspiration from something like Game of Thrones, where we are creating these different lands or worlds that we then bring our cast into and have them compete in games that are befitting of that environment. Our production designer, James McGowan, is massively important in imagining our vision in that respect. Director Jason "Ninja" Williams is also a massive component in stylistically imagining our vision. We always look to increase our technology. What can we do a little bit better? What kind of cool tricks or new gadgets and technology can we integrate to make things feel edgier? Our post department on the back end of things is such an incredible force back at Bunim/Murray [Productions], from the graphics to any of the overlay of any text on screen, anything at all down to our music, we've just elevated in every single facet. And ultimately it comes down to this cohesive, unified vision that we imagined at the very beginning where we're inspired by something like post-apocalyptic and we just build and build with every department to achieve that vision. Some departments worked maybe a little bit more autonomously prior to recent seasons where you didn't feel like everything was very much on the nose. But like with last season, even every music cue was perfect for the world we created. It takes a lot of time and planning, but the payoff is massive when you see season 35. It's so bonkers and for a show like ours to still be around and to be doing as well as we are with some of the highest ratings in 14 years. It's really exciting.
What can you tell us about the decision to also increase the physical nature of the games? Because the challenges and finals now are some of the most physically grueling marathon relays TV has seen.
We regard our cast largely as being pseudo-professional athletes. We hold them in the highest regard, they train very hard, this is largely their bread and butter, and we want to provide them with an outlet that is reflective of the work that they have put in to make it on the show in the first place. If it's being on a glacier or volcano or throwing people off the side of buildings, it's vitally important that we provide that setting for our cast. That is a massive part in what sets The Challenge apart from other shows. It's not just about coming and partying in a house, it's not seeing another part of the world and having a good time. It's about really having to show up and perform. And you can see how seriously our cast takes it. Every challenge, every elimination, it's no joke. Everybody steps up to the plate because there's such a genuine rivalry within the cast. No one wants to be the worst, everybody wants to be the best, and they hold their ranking in such high regard that every minute of performance counts. We absolutely pride ourselves on being a serious sport.
That was really shown in The Challenge spin-off Champs vs. Pros when Challengers consistently wiped the floor with their opponents who were actual professional athletes and Olympic gold medalists.
I know, it's so crazy! [Laughs] Our cast, they push themselves to the limit for us. They want to win. Everybody's desperate to be The Challenge champion. It's a really valuable mantle to hold.
But speaking of how the competitors push their limits, as a result of the challenges getting harder we've seen more injuries from players. What are your thoughts on the increased level of risk on the show in recent years?
Well, we take everything super-seriously, obviously. We have safety coordinators, safety consultants on set. We test every game, we make sure that every inch of our environment is very safe. We certainly can't guarantee that no one is ever going to get injured. Somebody might roll an ankle, etc., and often you might see injuries occurring when people are pushing their limits so massively within the parameters that we've set. That's when injuries can occur. But certainly we try to avoid any kind of hurt or injury to our cast at all and provide a very safe yet taxing environment for them to perform in. It's like when people play professional football or baseball or whatever, it's almost like rationale goes out the window. When you're a competitor, all you see is the finish line, and anything that is between you and that finish line is irrelevant. You will just burst through it in order to succeed. Our cast, they don't want anything to stop them. We've got safety and stunt teams who are among the best in the world, who have worked on Mad Max, Suicide Squad, enormous movies, who sign off on our games, we have [stuntman] Guy Norris, it's a real coup to have him involved in our franchise. And that instills a real sense of security for us.
This season faced a major controversy because of Dee. After she was fired, MTV released a statement that the season was still going to air as planned, but it's been clear she's been edited out of the remaining episodes even when there have been story lines directly involving her. How did you come to the decision to edit her out instead of airing the episodes as is, and what did that mean from a production standpoint so late in the season?
At Bunim/Murray we're entirely aligned with MTV's position. We don't condone any of Dee's comments at all. So we deemed that the appropriate course of action was that she's not going to be as visible on camera, but she would still feature obviously in respect to the other competitors. What that meant in the logistics scheme of things is that we had to reimagine a lot of our stories. And as you said, Dee was involved in a lot of story lines that maybe would have been played. But the beauty of The Challenge is that for a long time John Murray, who is the creator of the franchise, always deemed the show as having real elements of soap opera. And I totally agree with that because we have so many interesting, awesome cast members and we have so many story lines per week that we have a plethora to choose from. So if Dee maybe constituted five hours of those stories in one week, we probably had another 500 to pick from. It's really a jigsaw puzzle ultimately, and we've got an amazing post department headed up by Danny Wascou, and what they did was they went back and trawled through the other story options and plugging them in and making them relevant and threading them from the previous episode to the next episode and so on. Logistically it was extremely busy work, but that's how we work, under very tight deadlines and tight time restraints. We just wove the story a different way. We're very fortunate that we are not a show that relies on one cast member or two cast members. We've got a body of wonderful people telling all sorts of wonderful stories, so we're never at a loss for having something interesting and relevant to tell. It was just about going back and threading through all of that. It was more busy than difficult.
What do you have planned for season 36?
We're getting ready to head to location for season 36 imminently. We're very heavy in development in what our next world and our next season is going to embody. It's definitely something that's going to be forward-thinking, that's fresh and fun. Everybody's had a really difficult year, it's been a very dark, oppressive year for pretty much everybody, so I'm excited to provide a bit of levity and continue to provide an excellent standard of competition reality sports for all of our viewers. It's going to be an exciting next season.
What's something you think would surprise fans to know about what it takes to make a season of The Challenge?
I think that a common misconception is that anybody is guaranteed a place on The Challenge. People probably think that there are a handful of names who will be on every season no matter what, and that's absolutely not the case. Every single position on our cast is highly coveted and up for grabs. That's why T.J. takes quitters so seriously; he really hates quitters because for every person on that cast, there's 100 people who would be dying to be there. We end up dealing with this massive jigsaw puzzle that needs to be fitting of the theme, if it's a team game, if it's a pairs game, an individual game, we have to rationalize every single person's inclusion. And it's a very complicated puzzle and a very long, drawn-out process.
The season finale of The Challenge: Total Madness airs July 15 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MTV.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.