Watching "The Challenge" in the Presence of Gods

The whole day had been hot and sticky, in the high 70s and low 80s, one of the first truly gross New York summer days of the year, and yet Laurel and Devyn, two finalists on this season of The Challenge (formerly Real World/Road Rules Challenge) smelled fantastic. My friend wouldn’t stop talking about it. I couldn’t think of more than two questions to ask them, so eventually we asked Devyn what perfume she’s wearing. “Marc Jacobs Daisy!” she said, briefly looking up from her phone, where she was live-tweeting the finale.

This was the 25th season of The Challenge, which has been pitting former cast members of The Real World and Road Rules, along with a few native additions, against each other since 1998. Road Rules, the neglected step-sister of The Real World, aired its final season in 2007, and though its former cast members kept appearing on The Challenge for a few years after that, eventually they grew up and moved on, and The Challenge couldn’t very well be called Real World/Road Rules Challenge anymore with no members of Road Rules involved. So now it’s just The Challenge.

Each season features a different array of cast members from the long and storied history of The Real World, all living in a giant house together in some exotic locale (Thailand! Prague! Colorado!). There are several different types of seasons: team seasons, partner seasons, and individual seasons. Sometimes the teams are decided based on personality (the “good guys” versus the “bad asses”); sometimes they’re split up by which season they originally appeared on; sometimes they’re decided by history (these are some of the best seasons: Rivals featured same-sex pairs that have had an ugly history with each other, while Battle of the Exes featured male/female pairs that have hooked up on camera); and sometimes they’re done schoolyard style, with captains picking teams. Sometimes there are sequels that use the same rules, as in the three installments of The Gauntlet and The Inferno. Sometimes they are one-offs (as in the Survivor-ripoff season The Island, which was…not good). This season, Free Agents, is a hybrid: an individual season, but most of the missions require a randomly chosen group or pairing.

A typical modern episode has one challenge in which everyone competes. These range from puzzles to “extreme” sports (bungee jumping, say) to creative riffs on races to wrestling matches. Somehow, people are picked to go into an elimination round, which has a scary name like “the Gulag” or “the Arena.” Sometimes the losers of the challenge go in, other times people vote them in. The people in the elimination round battle to stay in the game; loser goes home. Eventually only a few people are left in the house for the grueling final challenge. The winner gets a lot of money, of course. In between the challenges, the cast members fight and party and play pranks and work out sexily and hook up with each other, also sexily.

It is, as Price Peterson noted in an excellent essay for Gawker, one of the truly great reality shows in the history of the genre, but it has changed over the years, and not just in name. The early seasons were much less cutthroat: In the fifth season, Battle of the Seasons, the finalists created a contract stipulating that the winners of the final challenge would kick back some money to the losers so that nobody went home empty-handed, which would never happen in a modern season. The missions tended to be goofier and funnier. But as The Real World changed from an episodic documentary about interesting people to a let’s-put-hot-people-in-a-house-and-watch-them-fight-and-fuck series only a half-step removed from unrepentant garbage like Bad Girls Club (which I also love), The Challenge changed too. These days they are more like a CrossFit tournament than anything else — raw strength tends to win the day.

The final challenges, in which the remaining six or so competitors compete to find out the ultimate winner of the season, are designed to break the cast members physically and mentally. This season’s was a two-day trek up to the peak of Villarrica, an active volcano in the Chilean Andes. The first day, the six finalists, three of each gender, had to kayak down a very hazardous white-water river, then hike for miles through the thin air, then climb up the sheer cliff of a mountain using climbing equipment until dark, at which point they had to complete a 25-mile stationary bike ride in below-freezing temperatures before they could sleep. The next morning, equipped with ice axes and those spiky ice climbing boots, they were tasked with summitting the volcano, more than 9,300 feet above sea level. Most of them cried.

I watched the finale in a private room in the back of a sports bar in Union Square called Sidebar; I’d seen on Devyn’s Instagram account that she and Laurel would be appearing there for the finale. My friend and I got there an hour early and plopped down in front of two giant projector screens that were playing, for some reason, a rerun of the US v. Germany World Cup match from earlier that day. It’s a typical Manhattan sports bar: giant TVs, dudes in either untucked button-downs or v-necks, stacked pitchers of Bud Light, $10 mixed well drinks. Bartenders in Daisy Dukes and tank tops. Thumping club music boomed out of speakers. Within ten seconds, a very short man in a striped shirt asked my friend, “So, where are you from?” After my second drink, I went to the bathroom, where a fat, Australian twentysomething told another Australian twentysomething that he needed to “get the sand out of his vagina” and “close the deal” with a girl at the bar. The word “vagina” sounds very funny in an Australian accent.

At 10:05, five minutes after the show began, and with no sign that anything Challenge-related was happening in this bar, I started asking around. Nobody was there for The Challenge; several college-aged girls and slightly older men were helpful but confused by the question. Eventually the bartender, with a Budweiser-branded tin bucket full of Budweiser bottles perched on her shoulder, pointed me toward the back room. “Behind the American flag,” she directed.

I have probably never been in an environment less conducive to watching TV. The small, square back room was paneled in wood, with a row of beer growlers and mason jars (empty) lining a narrow shelf just below the ceiling. There were four TVs, one in each corner, but the room was so crowded and noisy that at best you could detect that the cast members were indeed emitting human speech noises from their heads. The final challenge, which involves switching male-female partners and at least six different mini-challenges, is complex, and I could not figure out what was happening or who was winning until TJ Lavin, a pro BMX biker, host of the show, and owner of many wardrobes of teen clothes in adult sizes, announced the winner.

There were probably 30 or 40 people in the room. Among them were four cast members, three of whom competed on the current season, and two of whom just showed up unannounced. Devyn, from Real World Brooklyn, she of the Marc Jacobs perfume and determined live-tweeting, was a finalist this season, to the surprise of some. Not to me, though: She plays the game shrewdly and smartly, winning missions that reward her strengths (like the annual trivia challenge, always one of the best episodes of the season — this year, one competitor answered that the official language of Australia is Dutch, and another, given the question “which continent is the United States in,” said “it’s the word ‘continent’ that’s confusing me” before answering, “the North continent?”) and using her friendships with other cast members to avoid being voted into the elimination round on the more physical missions. She’s funny and self-aware and also not very athletic compared to her muscle-bound competitors, which has prevented her from ever winning, but not from getting very close. Devyn has made it to the finale twice; she’s lost both times, but she was also the only non-athlete to make it to the finale in each season.

During the brutal 25-mile stationary bike section of the final challenge, Devyn was the last person cycling, struggling for hours alone in the middle of the night. At one point, crying, she stopped cycling and put her head down on her arms. The room erupted, chanting her name. (It’s probably worth noting that on the show, Devyn is frequently referred to as athletically useless, an anchor on whatever team she happens to be on. In the real world, as opposed to the Real World, wearing a black dress, Devyn looked to be in better shape than almost anyone else at the bar.)

Laurel was the first cast member I met. She’s tall and beautiful and physically imposing, and stuck out very clearly in the crowd. She also never appeared on any Real World season. At some point, having realized that without Road Rules around, The Real World alone couldn’t supply enough cast members to sustain the much more successful The Challenge, the producers at MTV ran two seasons of The Challenge called Fresh Meat. Fresh Meat paired a veteran competitor ( “alumni”) with a brand-new cast member who’d never appeared on The Real World (although usually these Fresh Meats had tried out for The Real World and not been chosen). In heels, Laurel stands a good few inches over six feet tall, and is one of the most physical competitors in Challenge history. She is kind of awful on the show — petulant and childish, lashing out in the manner of a middle-school bully — but very nice in person. She was happy to tell me about the exorbitant non-disclosure contract MTV has with the cast members to prevent them from spoiling the results (“I think it’s about a million dollars,” she said), and delightedly pointed up at the TV when her partner for that stretch of mission began flagging. “I was so mad at him!” she exclaimed.

Though only Devyn and Laurel were advertised on the flyer for the event, two other cast members showed up. I chatted for a little while with Preston, a soft-spoken, willowy guy from the second New Orleans season (not the one with Julie the Mormon and Melissa), who had competed on this season of The Challenge and done pretty well, considering that he is a normal human and not a giant, man-shaped pile of rocks. Preston’s major storyline on TV was an ongoing battle with an aggressive and borderline homophobic cast member named Knight. (Preston is a twofer in the hyper-acute identity structure of The Real World: black AND gay!) Wearing big eighties wire-rimmed glasses and a backwards baseball cap, he obliged requests for pictures but didn’t seem thrilled with the attention. When I asked him if he enjoyed doing things like this, he immediately answered, “No!”

I didn’t speak to Marie, a brash Staten Islander from the St. Thomas season of The Real World, but she was there too. St. Thomas was a bizarre little late-period season. Usually the The Real World is set in a city, to provide stimulation to the cast and also to provide some culture shock to the couple of cast members who inevitably are plucked from small towns. But the St. Thomas season took place not even in the Virgin Islands’s tiny capital city of Charlotte Amelie but on a tinier, nearly uninhabited island only accessible by boat. The cast members of that season mostly just hooked up with each other, for want of something else to do. Marie works in sales at the medical startup ZocDoc, as does Devyn. There was a substantial ZocDoc contingency at the bar, in fact. I spoke briefly to Devyn and Marie’s boss, who told me that Devyn is “just great.”

The crowd only halfheartedly watched the episode, perhaps because most of the room was affiliated with the cast members in some way — friends, co-workers — so they already knew what’s going to happen. Instead people mostly gathered around the cast members, taking photos and chattering excitedly. Laurel was handed an entire pitcher of a dark liquid that may or may not have been a truly massive rum and coke lined with lime wedges, which her assistant, or friend, or something, held for her when she wasn’t sipping at it through an equally enormous straw. Every so often, somebody came in with a tiny saucer holding shots of tequila and slices of lime for the cast members. Laurel and Devyn worked the room expertly. They aren’t pampered and prepared like non-reality celebrities, and don’t speak in press-release riddles. They are our representatives, the people we could be: Just a bit famous but still “real” — in better shape and better-looking, but still approachable, the kind of people other people want to meet.

Two 23-year-olds, Melani from Suffern, New York and Michelle from Hoboken, came out to the city just for this. “We’re huge fans,” Melani told me. They posed with each of the cast members for a picture, clutching beers. “Have you watched the show for awhile?” I asked in between photos. “I guess so,” she said. I decided not to ask her for her thoughts on the Miz or Timmy or Veronica or Coral, cast members from a decade or longer ago. I felt like maybe she is not as big a fan as I am. I have purchased bootleg DVDs of old, unreleased seasons from a grey-market version of eBay, from a seller in Missouri named “lilturtlebug,” because MTV refuses to release them, since the music rights are too expensive to make releasing the seasons on DVD worth it. I felt like Melani would think this is weird.

My friend and I left as soon as the episode was over because the back room was too hot. We agreed that we would have to watch the episode again because we’d missed all the finer points of the finale of what had been a very good season. We made a date to watch it together, but I knew I would download and watch it as soon as it was available. I will pretend not to have seen it.

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer/editor who lives in Brooklyn.