I'm Still Not Over: MTV screwing up what should've been the best season of The Challenge
Not all seasons of The Challenge are created equal. Quality varies by theme, by the difficulty of the challenges themselves, by the twists, and most importantly, by the cast. But there was one season of The Challenge that had all the necessary components to be the greatest ... until it wasn't.
Allow me to set the scene for you: It's the 29th season of The Challenge. We're coming off three back-to-back partner seasons with Battle of the Exes II, Battle of the Bloodlines, and Rivals III. And most recently, with Rivals III, Sarah Rice has won her second final, and Johnny "Bananas" Devenanzio has won his sixth. So it's time to shake things up ... or so we think.
When the season begins, host TJ Lavin has gathered together 18 players, all of whom have one thing in common: They've never won a season of The Challenge. And it appears to be their lucky day. For once, there's no Johnny Bananas or Cara Maria Sorbello standing in their way. Maybe, just maybe, someone like Cory Wharton or Nelson Thomas can finally win a title. But where's the fun in that? As TJ loves to say, to be a champion, you gotta beat the champions, and that's where this season's big twist comes into play.
Four episodes in, with 12 Challengers remaining after having fought their way into the Oasis, they learn the theme of the season: It's Invasion of the Champions. And in one of the most epic slow-mo moments in Challenge history, eight champions walk out from seemingly underground and suddenly, the game has been flipped upside down.
Now, this wasn't the first time the show had brought in some surprise heavy hitters — just ask Bananas about his famous backpack moment — but it's usually for one challenge or one elimination. This was for the season. And for that matter, aside from Ashley Kelsey, who never should've been there, the Challenge producers had managed to pull together one of the most impressive teams the show had ever seen.
For the men, we had six-time champ Johnny Bananas, four-time champ Darrell Taylor, who hadn't been on the last nine seasons (!), enormous man Zach Nichols, who was obviously a champ and also just an all-around physical threat, and last but certainly not least, Chris "CT" Tamburello. Again, if I may, some background: Although CT only had one final win under his belt by that point in his career, there was no denying, based on his performance in challenges and eliminations, that he was one of the strongest competitors to have ever played the game. Because he was (and still is). He also probably would've had a few more wins under his belt if he hadn't spent his early Challenge years getting kicked off for getting in fights. (Although that admittedly added to his intimidation factor as well.) But, after leaving Battle of the Exes II early after his partner (and on-again off-again girlfriend) Diem Brown collapsed and months later died, he'd said he was done with the show. Since then, he'd shown up for a couple small appearances but many fans never expected to see him back on a full season. And then, two years later, the legend returned to the game.
For the women, you had Camila Nakagawa, a formidable opponent with a temper worse than CT's, Cara Maria, who had won Battle of the Bloodlines and walked in with an 11-4 record in eliminations, Laurel Stucky, who was currently 9-0 in eliminations, and then Ashley K. who, again, didn't belong there. Sure, she'd won the one season she was on, but she was not on the level of that team. I can only assume the producers wanted two-time champ Sarah Rice but couldn't get her because, well, Johnny had stolen all of her money the season before. (Sarah hasn't returned to this day and says she never will, which let's be clear, is a loss for The Challenge, because she's one of the greats.)
It's hard to describe the impact of that entrance, knowing that all of these people were finally on the same team and going to be working together. CT and Bananas! Together! And watching the faces of the other competitors who'd previously thought they finally had a chance to win? Now that was great television.
So the stage was set, and the premise was incredible. I could not have been more excited to watch this ridiculously stacked team of Champs pick off the Underdogs one by one. But this is where things take a turn. For some reason, the Challenge gods decided that the Champs would go against the Underdogs in daily challenges but one another in elimination. Translation: Eliminations would be Underdog vs. Underdog and Champ vs. Champ. In what world does THAT make sense?! I'm not sure if they thought fans wouldn't want to watch a season of the Champs repeatedly sending the Underdogs home, or if they figured this was their way to ensure some epic elimination match-ups, but it just felt unfair for the Underdogs not to have to take the Champs out themselves. Unfair and boring.
Sure, that twist did give us some good eliminations — CT vs. Darrell, I'm looking at you — but we probably would've gotten to the Champ vs. Champ stuff later in the season anyway, once they'd taken everybody else out. The fact that they had that team of Champs and yet Nelson and Cory made the final should tell you everything you need to know about that season. I mean, imagine if all of the Champs had made it to the final! THAT would've been a freakin' showdown! But no. Instead we got to watch Cory and Nicole Zanatta fail at solving a puzzle to the point that the producers themselves gave up and just told them to move on.
In the end, MTV took a beautiful set-up for what could've gone down as the greatest season of the Challenge ever and they squandered it. (And yet CT still won because he's just that good.)
Here's the message I'd like to send to the Challenge gods: Don't ever worry that we're sick of watching the same people win. We're not. We want to watch the best people win, and if that means watching some of the same individuals win, then so be it. So, when you decide to give us that old school vs. new school season we're all dying for, don't screw it up by making the old school players eliminate their own teammates. Because if you do, well, let's just say my temper is worse than Camila's.