A guide for new viewers who want to jump in on Total Madness, the 35th season of America’s Fifth Major Sport.

I never thought I’d see this day, but here we are. I’ve been watching MTV’s The Challenge for 15 years and, outside of Bill Simmons and eventually his crew at Grantland (RIP) constantly championing it as America’s Fifth Major Sport, it has never been covered like a legit sports league…until now. All it took was the literal shutdown of nearly every major sports league across the world.

With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing sports (and much of the world in general) to a standstill, websites that normally churn out sports and entertainment content have finally begun to cover The Challenge like the major league competition that it is. Even FanDuel has got in on the mix with daily fantasy leagues for The Challenge (I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work with a competition where the final results are already floating around out there on the internet, but still).

The 35th season of The Challenge, subtitled Total Madness, premiered last week to a competition-starved nation. And the ratings followed suit, becoming the show’s highest-rated premiere in seven years and rising to the second-highest rated show on cable that night.

With the interest in the show spiking to glory-days level heights, and with all of the things I usually write about on pause, I wanted to finally take a stab at writing about a show I love by providing people with a guide on what they need to know for the new season, which seasons they should binge, and most importantly why they should watch.

What is The Challenge?

What originally started as a spinoff of MTV’s Road Rules 22 years ago first morphed into a competition show pitting alumni from Road Rules and The Real World against each other. After the first handful of seasons, the show started to attach a theme to each season, such as Rivals (where competitors are paired with their biggest Rival), Exes (where competitors are paired with their “exes” which could mean anything from an ex-fiance to a one-night stand), The Duel (every man or woman for themselves, no strings attached), and on and on.

Entering a season, competitors never know if they will be competing solo, with a partner, or on a team. And in the twist-heavy recent years, those designations can change throughout a season. Players compete in a series of daily challenges or missions in the hopes of avoiding eliminations and making it to a final, where they can be crowned a Challenge champion. Depending on the format, political and social strategies are greatly involved.

What Separates The Challenge from Similar Shows?

You know how everyone is freaking out about the new season of Survivor because it is pitting a bunch of former winners and fan favorites against each other? The Challenge does that every season. The majority of the cast, even on seasons like Fresh Meat where a field of new players is introduced, is made up of returning players. Every season involves a number of fan favorites. It sounds corny, but you truly watch some of these people evolve over years or even decades in some cases.

Recently, The Challenge has started recruiting players from across the reality TV landscape. They stayed inside the MTV family at first by incorporating the dating show Are You The One? before expanding to Big Brother, The Bachelor, Ex on the Beach, and even the mighty Survivor, among a host of other shows.

Which Seasons Do I Need to Watch Prior to Total Madness?

Honestly, the editors usually do a fairly good job highlighting the essential storylines and character beats you need from previous seasons, but The Challenge is best watched with past knowledge.

At the very least, I would suggest watching the first two entries in the current trilogy (a VERY loose term the show has started throwing around to connect seasons) that Total Madness is capping — War of the Worlds and War of the Worlds 2. The first installment is among the most beloved recent seasons, sans a couple of late twists, and really highlights the extreme physical aspects of The Challenge with a grueling final. It also introduced shows from across the world into the casting pool. It’s sequel, War of the Worlds 2, was the first true large team season in a decade, and the messiness and Machiavellian political machinations that come with team seasons showed up in bucketfuls, even if the competition part was second rate compared to WOTW 1. Those two seasons give you a good spectrum on how the game is played.

I would also say, since we have the time currently, to start watching at season 29, Invasion of the Champions (a personal favorite), and work your way forward from there. Invasion had a killer idea, although poorly executed in its formatting, a great cast, and really sets up a lot of still-relevant storylines and characters. It is viewed as the beginning of the current era of the show by fans. Dirty 30, Vendettas, and Final Reckoning, referred to as The Trilogy, lead up to the current trilogy. Dirty 30 is solid and best watched through bingeing, Vendettas is a mixed bag, and Final Reckoning is reviled among most fans, but all three are fairly important to this season.

Outside of those seasons, for those who want to really binge, there are four common starting points:

The Gauntlet: The introduction of eliminations

The Inferno 2: The emphasis of physical competition takes a leap forward

Fresh Meat: From this point forward includes almost every relevant storyline

Fresh Meat II: The Modern Era

But What If I Only Want To Watch A few of the Older Seasons?

I’m glad you asked. Here are your best bets:

The Duel: The first individual season

Rivals: The peak of storytelling in the show’s history, straight Shakespearean

Rivals II: My personal favorite season. Has a little bit of everything

Free Agents: A very physical season

Exes II: The politics on this season make Littlefinger look like Donald Trump

Who Are This Season’s Competitors?

Let’s break them down into four categories.

Longtime Vets

Wes Bergman: 2-time champion, all-time leader in elimination wins
Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio: 6-time champion, most ever. Also has been on the most seasons ever
Chris “CT” Tamburello: 3-time champion, including last season, most feared contestant in his prime
Aneesa Ferreira: 2-time finalist

Mid-Level Vets

Jordan Wiseley: 3-time champion, including the most recent season
Ashley Mitchell: 2-time champion, first to win a million dollars on the show
Cory Wharton: 2-time finalist
Nany Gonzalez: 1-time finalist
Nelson Thomas: 1-time finalist
Tori Deal: 2-time finalist
Jenna Compono: 3-time finalist
Kailah Casillas: 1-time finalist

Newer Vets

Dee Nguyen: Won the most recent season
Rogan O’Connor: Won the most recent season
Kyle Christie: 1-time finalist
Mattie Lynn Breaux: Finalist in her only season
Jenny West: 2nd season
Stephen Bear: 3rd season
Melissa Reeves: 3rd season
Tula “Big T” Fazakerley: 2nd season
Josh Martinez: 3rd season

Rookies (or Prospects, as they’re being called this season?)

Jay Starrett: Won the first elimination. Survivor fan favorite
Kaycee Clark: Won her season of Big Brother
Bayleigh Dayton: From Big Brother
Faysal “Fessy” Shafaat: From Big Brother
Chris “Swaggy C” Williams: From Big Brother
Jenn Lee: First boot on her season of The Amazing Race
Asaf Goren: Already eliminated. From like seven different shows

There’s obviously a whole lot more to know about all of these people, especially the vets, but this thing is already approaching 1500 words so I’m leaving you with their basic stats.

Any Challenge Lingo I should Know?

Lay-up = Someone who is kept around deep into the game to help stronger players win

Burn Vote = Throwing away your vote on someone random so as not to affect the main vote or put a target on your own back

Polidicking = Using sex as a form of earning someone else’s vote

Sarah’s Curse = Johnny Bananas was given the option to steal his partner, Sarah Rice’s money after winning Rivals III. Spoiler alert, he did, and he hasn’t won a season since, despite being the show’s all-time wins leader.

Bananas Backpack = As seen above in the CT highlight video, CT once hoisted Johnny on his back like a backpack to win a heavy hitter elimination

Heavy Hitter/Mercenary = A feared surprise guest who is brought out to compete in an elimination as a twist

There are other things I could take a deep dive into (the past events that built the relationships among the players on this season or a breakdown of which players excel in what skillsets, for instance), but this is enough for a beginner’s guide. Maybe I’ll write a “So You’re An Intermediate Challenge Fan Now” guide sometime near midseason.

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