Like any other reality show, every aspect of MTV’s The Challenge is designed to foster drama. Contestants are dropped in a remote location, they’re not allowed access to technology, they stay in shared rooms with bunk beds, money is on the line, alcohol is aplenty, and alliances and rivalries span seasons.
But the structure of the actual challenges on MTV’s The Challenge are also sneakily designed to add another level of strategy to the game, and of course to intensify interpersonal drama between team members and opponents. On The Challenge almost all challenges are conducted in heats or run one-at-a-time. Last season on Battle of the Exes II for example, of the 10 challenge games, only 3 had contestants competing simultaneously.
This means that contestants who go later are often at an advantage, meaning order is of utmost importance. Typically the winners from the past week get to make the order for the next one, which in turn highlights who’s friends with who. ‘Teaming up’ or throwing challenges is also much easier when there is a break in the action. And that happens much more often than you’d think, or at least more often than it happens on shows like Survivor.
When the game isn’t being played at the same time, it also gives the other contestants, friend or foe, a chance to watch – and judge. During the action, reaction shots and interviews are just as common as their beloved slow-mo effect and GoPro perspectives. What you get is part Ridiculousness and part Tosh.0; sometimes the observations are funny and sometimes they’re just cruel. Either can be like throwing gas on a fire depending on whether or not emotions are running high that day (and how much alcohol is consumed later that night).
In those interviews and post-challenge discussions there’s always a lot of talk about effort and performance. Perform well and you’ve got a target on your back. Perform poorly, make a fool of yourself, or give up, and it’s an equally big target, plus an open invitation for ridicule. Even teammates have been known to lay into a partner for a performance they deem less than stellar. It’s not even uncommon to see a contestant berate their partner mid-challenge, as if that would suddenly make them play better.
MTV’s not only created a game where drunken fights, screaming matches, and backstabbing are the norm, but also one where the spectacle isn’t just for audiences at home. Criticism and judgement from fellow contestants isn’t unique to The Challenge, but it is uniquely amplified.