The Challenge: USA premiere recap: Is it Survivor and Big Brother vs. Love Island and Amazing Race?
Welcome to an all-new era of The Challenge. For those of you who watch every season on MTV (and the All Stars spin-off seasons on Paramount+), you already know the drill. But if you're a newcomer tuning in to see one of your favorite Survivor, Big Brother, Amazing Race, or Love Island alums in a new setting, or you just want to see what all this Challenge stuff is about but don't have time to go back and watch 40 seasons, you picked the right time to start tuning in. And you've picked the perfect place to get all the details on this newest spin-off, The Challenge: USA.
First of all, allow me to introduce myself: I'm EW's resident Challenge expert (and reality TV obsessive). I recently wrote a book about The Challenge, I'm also obsessed with Survivor, and I still cannot believe that we're seeing all these CBS reality TV legends competing on The Challenge — even though I was literally on set while it was filming! It's all just so surreal and incredible, like my own personal fever dream come true, and I'm excited to help guide you along this season with my weekly recaps and exit interviews with the players who get eliminated in each episode. Plus, if you ever just want to chat about this season, catch me on Twitter @SydneyBucksbaum, where I'm always talking about something Challenge-related.
Now that all that is out of the way, let's get into the series premiere recap! Of course, the first interview we get is from one of Survivor's best villains, Tyson, and he immediately lets you know his whole vibe by talking about how he's never felt closer to God than when he was handed "a million dollar check from a large corporation for lying and cheating on national television." But he's not the only scheming mastermind legend on this cast. We've got the iconic Cookout alliance member Tiffany and stone-cold Angela from Big Brother; genuine sweetheart Danny from Survivor; Cayla from The Amazing Race; so many Love Islanders that I honestly can't even name them all... this is an all-star cast list, and it's wild seeing them all in a Challenge house, getting the lowdown on the rules of the game from TJ Lavin. It's a whole new version of The Challenge, but it's still the same Challenge we've known and loved for two and a half decades.
Here's the general format of the show if you're new here: Players live together in one giant house, compete in extreme physical and mental challenges, and vote players into eliminations where they have to battle it out for their chance to stay in the game. At the end of the season, the remaining group of players compete in one final, multi-day challenge and the top performing man and woman ultimately win $500,000. Throughout the season, social politics come into play, alliances are made and broken, sometimes showmances happen, and yes, injuries also factor into the game. These challenges and eliminations are no joke!
This season, there's an added twist. Everyone starts out with $1,000 in their individual bank accounts, and they can add to that total by winning challenges or eliminations (where they can steal all the money in their opponent's account). By the end of the season, players must have at least $5,000 in order to qualify for the final. If they don't have enough money when the final begins, they can't compete. Got it? Great, let's move on.
Now if you've never seen any of the other CBS reality shows these Challenge rookies are from, don't worry! The show is making it easy to follow along with who already knows each other and previous drama by having the players tell you who they're worried about/mad at/wanting to work with. That's the beauty of having this season air on CBS — we've got footage flashbacks and everything! On the Big Brother side, Xavier won his season after making the Cookout alliance with Tiffany, Azah, and Kyland, and Alyssa and Derek felt like they were just pawns in their game — Alyssa's looking for revenge while Xavier thinks she's his closest ally in this game (spicy!). Survivor's Ben basically gave up his game for Sarah when they played together on Winners at War, so now he's ready to be selfish. There are several former Love Island couples, like Cashel and Kyra and Cinco and Cashay. Then there are the three Amazing Race alums, who are planning on laying low and infiltrating all the other alliances. The super-sized episode doesn't even scratch the surface on everything happening.
The Challenge: Down to Do the Math
As the cast gathers in their black Under Armour uniforms for the first challenge, TJ explains another twist in this game. Everything is going to be played in co-ed pairs, and they can choose their partner... right now. Tyson immediately grabs Angela, Cayla ends up with David, and the rest of the pairs are: Xavier and Tasha; Ben and Alyssa; Kyland and Azah; Tiffany and Leo; Domenick and Justine; Cashel and Kyra (interesting that the exes chose to work together); Desi and Cinco; Sarah and Enzo; Javonny and Cely; Derek and Cashay; James and Shannon; and Danny and Shan (ooooh, there's some Survivor beef there!). There are some strong teams, and there are some that are... well, let's just say I can already tell who is going to rise to the top of the pile here.
For this week's challenge, competitors must rappel down a 22-story building, solving a series of math equations the entire way. On the ground, players have three chances to enter their answers to the equations in the giant answer key. If they can't get it right after three times, they have to run up 22 flights of stairs to do it all over again. The team to finish with the fastest time wins, is safe from elimination, and gets $10,000 split into their personal Challenge bank accounts (which means whoever wins is already qualified for the final and can rest easy). Meanwhile, the team with the slowest time is sent straight into elimination.
Kyland and Azah are among the first two teams to go, and while they make it down first, they don't get the correct answer in three guesses, so they have to try again. They end up getting sent to elimination because they were the only pair who had to go twice. The top three teams, separated by only 17 seconds, were Danny and Shan; Tyson and Angela; and Desi and Cinco. The fastest team? Tyson and Angela, of course. And as the winners, not only do they now have $6,000 each in their accounts, they also get to pick Kyland and Azah's elimination opponents.
Back at the house, a few Big Brother alums gather to lay out a strategy: since the winning team has a Big Brother player and Survivor player, they likely won't target any Big Brother or Survivor people. They think Tyson and Angela will call out a Love Island/Amazing Race team. Their suspicions are confirmed when Tyson and Angela meet with Kyland and Azah to find out their preferences, and it comes out that Shannon supposedly doesn't want to be here, so Shannon and James are likely getting called out. After Kyland and Azah leave, Tyson and Angela make a ride-or-die pact that they're with each other to the end, and man, this is absolutely a team to keep your eye on.
But first, it's a time-honored Challenge tradition... a night out at the bar! Everyone gets dressed to the nines and lets loose while the drinks are flowing, but that doesn't mean game talk isn't happening. All good Challenge competitors know the game never stops. The Love Islanders don't realize that, though, as they twerk in the center of the bar like they don't have a care in the world.
James realizes that he and Shannon are likely getting targeted, and his wheels start turning. He knows in order to save his own game, he has to figure out a better option for Tyson and Angela to target instead of him that works for their game. The next morning, James tells Shannon they're in trouble and she acts like she had no idea (to be fair, she probably didn't, but being that un-self-aware is not a good sign in this game). James says he's going to put in work, but we don't get to see any of it because we smash cut to...
Everyone, except for Tyson and Angela, puts on their uniforms and heads to the elimination arena. As of now, it seems like James and Shannon should be worried... but then Angela and Tyson vote Javonny and Cely into the elimination. Turns out, James really did put in the work. We see snippets of conversations he had with Survivor and Big Brother people, including Tyson, where he manipulated the social politics like he was born to do it. It's masterful and totally worked to save himself. James is impressing me right out of the gate here. There's a reason why he won The Amazing Race! He may not seem like a Challenge threat, but he's clearly got the social politics and strategy on lock.
Elimination challenge: Knot So Fast. This is a Challenge staple where teams weave 250 ft. of a giant rope through a pyramid structure for 20 minutes. Then teams swap pyramids and whoever untangles their rope first, wins. This is a combination of strength (that rope is heavy), endurance (they have to constantly climb up and through a metal structure), and intellect (figuring out the best way to stump the other team). Going off of what we've seen from both teams so far, I'd give the advantage to Kyland and Azah, but you never know what could happen in an elimination.
The elimination starts, and Kyland and Azah immediately start communicating with each other well while Cely looks like she's already exhausted. But then she gets the idea to just start knotting the rope that's in a pile on the ground rather than trying to keep pulling it in and out of the structure. From the sidelines, it looks like they're making a complicated knot. But the real test comes next.
The teams swap structures and they're sweaty, covered in sand, and totally tired. Azah's eyelashes are falling off, but she doesn't even care; she knows it's time to perform. The horn blows, and both teams start attempting to unravel the ropes. Cely yells orders at Javonny while Kyland begs Azah to keep pulling the rope. It looks like Javonny and Cely might take this, but Kyland and Azah pull ahead. With one final push, they get their rope untangled and back into the starting circle, officially winning the first elimination and sending Javonny and Cely home.
All the Big Brother people are happy at how this elimination turned out, but Love Islander Justine is feeling vengeful against Tyson and Angela for orchestrating her best friend Cely's exit. The drama is already beginning!
Before everyone goes back to the house, TJ has one more surprise... and as all Survivor fans know, Danny hates new twists. And this one is big (there's no hourglass to smash, though). Instead of sticking with their current teammates for the whole season, or picking new teammates each week, a computer-generated algorithm will randomly pick the teams each week. That's great news for some of these weaker teams and bad news for a team like Tyson and Angela, who thought they had this whole season in the bag. I'm worried this is going to screw over strong players and help weaker players get to the end... but we'll just have to wait and see how it all unfolds.
After just one episode, I'm officially a fan of this new CBS Challenge. Some of the players are really impressing me on the physical, mental, social, and political fronts, while others are just plain entertaining to watch. We're in for a great ride, and it's only just begun.
The Challenge: USA airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBS.
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