reality shows

Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio from MTV’s The Challenge

I’ve been watching reality TV shows for so long that I’ve reached a complete state of shamelessness. I remember the exact night that the first episode of Survivor aired. It was a Wednesday—the evening of my weekly ballet lesson—and when I got home wearing my pink leotard and clutching a bag of McNuggets from the drive-thru, there was an unfamiliar show on TV. I was only six, but I had already come to respect our family’s weekly TV schedule, so I questioned my father about this glitch in the routine. He replied, prostrate from the couch, “It’s a new show where people have to survive on an island together without any food.” Fast forward about 20 years: I’m listening to a podcast featuring Jonathan Murray (of Bunim/Murray) and have somehow convinced a guy I’m dating to download the first four seasons of Survivor to watch together in lieu of, you know, normal dates.

In 2017, international franchises represent the tip of the iceberg for widespread series expansion. Frankly, it’s a lot of work to watch as much TV as I do and still be relatively respected among my peers. So slapping “Canada” on the end of a series title and throwing in some contestants from Bobcaygeon, Ontario is not exactly going to cut it. Producers have realized that good casting matters just as much, if not more, than the competitions they manufacture. They milk good casting by creating self-contained “universes” of certain productions, featuring spin-offs that allow for some casting crossover. The Bachelor universe does this with The Bachelorette, Bachelor Pad (RIP), Bachelor in Paradise, televised weddings, and impromptu live breakups. My personal favourite and, I’d argue, the most intricate and well-rounded example of this trend is MTV’s “The Challenge Universe” (TCU).

The core of TCU is a long-running reality series called The Challenge. MTV produces a ton of reality shows which can be streamed for free on their website. A handful are feeder shows for The Challenge, which has been on TV since 1998, longer than The Bachelor, Survivor and even American Idol. The premise is as basic as its name: competitors go head-to-head in challenges and the losers are eliminated each week until one woman and one man remain, taking home a cash prize, and of course, the prestigious title of Challenge Champion. Each season’s cast of The Challenge is comprised of about 30 competitors, selected from a pool of alumni from other MTV series.

I can’t pin down one specific moment that first got me hooked on the show—I think it was the general attitude of the competitors. They talk about winning with a quiet reverence that you don’t expect from a pool of people who have been known to freeze each other’s underwear into “panty cakes” or who’ve been caught using the living room fountain as a personal bidet. Their die-hard commitment to the show is infectious. Being someone who watches and re-watches old seasons, discusses the show at length, and follows the lives of cast members, I’ve become the last person to fault them for their religious dedication.

It’s no secret that people present a persona on reality TV, but when you watch the same person appear over the course of a decade, you find layers of credibility that can be both disturbing and relatable.

Cast members who are able to travel through TCU, from series to series, are usually fan favourites, villains, and the triple-question-mark misfits. These people bring with them a history of drama and baggage with other cast members. More than once, I’ve had to pause an episode and embark on an hour-long wiki journey to find the original source of a bitter feud between two competitors—does she hate him because of the time he poured a 2L bottle of Coke on her head or because he insulted her horse four seasons ago? It’s no secret that people present a persona on reality TV, but when you watch the same person appear over the course of a decade, you find layers of credibility that can be both disturbing and relatable.

The traditional competition-based show typically presents a new cast of fresh faces every season. This is ostensibly for the sake of fairness, but it also means viewers have to form opinions about competitors as the season progresses. But on The Challenge, fairness is thrown to the wind: the most decorated champion, Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio, has won six seasons, amassed enough prize money to silence the haters forever and is set to return for his 18th season in 2018. In fact, in every season, more than half of the cast are returning competitors, “veterans” of the series. This means that fans of TCU already have opinions about most of the competitors. Though lots of reality shows feed on gimmicks, The Challenge takes this a step further, using the theme of every season as a tool to incite drama. For example, the theme “Rivals” paired competitors with people they hated from previous seasons, and “Exes” paired them with former on-screen love interests. In 2018, “Vendettas” will bring together a cast who have all screwed each other over in past seasons.

Adding to the show’s spread of attention-seekers is the fact that this is the age of online streaming, Instagram stories and Twitter feuds. Gone are the days when the action began and ended in discreet episodes or seasons. Instead, onscreen dynamics spill over onto online platforms, providing an endless feed of entertainment. Prior to social media, updates on televised romances and conflicts post-season finale were broadcast on the reunion episode. I typically didn’t even bother to tune-in for the reunion, which really speaks to what a charade it was. I couldn’t watch my favourite cast dynamics reanimated for about five stunted minutes, forced back to life like some miserable corpse bride. But now, social media provides a place for former cast members to air their dirty laundry in unique ways. They can be as explicit or as vague as they like, because both strategies are effective. (Tori can say she’s not pursuing a relationship with Jordan after the show, but as long as Reddit users keep peeping him in the background of her Insta stories, I’m not buying what she’s selling.)

It’s a self-fulfilling structure. Each season of the show draws on feuds from previous seasons as a point of departure—so, drama created on every platform will inevitably serve as fodder for future seasons and spin-offs. You don’t need to have seen previous seasons of all the series in TCU to understand what’s going on—but when you hear someone say, “I’m gonna smash his head and eat it,” you can’t help but want to learn everything there is to know about that person.

Alma Talbot is a freelance writer from Toronto. She graduated from Concordia University with a BA in Honours English and Creative Writing in 2015 and has since been living and working in Montreal. With a background in short fiction and poetry, Alma continues to grow her body of published creative non-fiction across print and online platforms. 

Leave a Reply