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First, a disclaimer: I don’t watch reality television. Sure, I used to watch The Real World, like most people my age, and I’ll still check in on Project Runway every once in a while, for the love of Tim Gunn, but I don’t do Real Housewives, or The Bachelor, or any variety of Kardashian, or Teen Mom, or even Top Chef. I never saw Survivor. I didn’t do the Snooki hair bump. I may or may not have seen a few early seasons of America’s Next Top Model, but that more or less blurs into a morass of Tyra Banks’s extravagant entrances. This is all to say that I am not an expert in reality television. I am not even interested in reality television. Except for The Challenge.
For those of you who don’t know what The Challenge is and are somehow reading this essay anyway, an explanation. You may have actually heard of this show under its much less wieldy original title The Real World/Road Rules Challenge (I’m not counting Road Rules: All Stars). Ringing a bell? An old, rusty tin bell you found at the bottom of a bottle of vodka, maybe? No? Well, essentially, the Challenge is a reality game show featuring the alumni of other MTV reality shows—first just the Real World and Road Rules, though later, to much fan disapproval, Are You the One?—and once in a while infused with “fresh meat” from the casting couch. These cast members are all put in a house to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start competing in physical and mental challenges for cash, pride, and prizes. It’s sort of like the Real World, if every week all the housemates had to run an obstacle course and the last two people to finish had to wrestle to see who got sent home.
Anyway, the show is ludicrous in the way of game shows and in the way of reality television, but/so it is also lots of fun: the cast members compete in crazy—and sometimes downright terrifying—challenges, people get drunk and fight and flirt and throw things, rivalries both physical and emotional are established, demolished, or dragged out forever and ever. It is, at times, very stupid. But in the way it narrativizes competition it’s a lot like watching regular sports—the original reality television—except that you get to go home with the players, and also the players are co-ed and all more or less sleeping in the same room and are supplied with zero entertainment except one another and a cabinet full of alcohol.
I fear I’m not explaining this right. Let me cut to the chase: for me the thing that is so compelling about this show is that it’s essentially a televised form of fan fiction. In fan fiction, a traditionally derided but truly strange and transgressive form, writers take someone else’s characters and repurpose them, rewrite their stories for their own amusement and/or the amusement of others. Often they take these pre-established characters and make them fall in love and/or have sex in new, untoward combinations (I’ve heard that if you make them have sex kinkily enough, you can become a millionaire), and often they make them fight. Definitely they give them new quests. Definitely they mix them up, queer their original narratives, displace them and shine new light on them. It’s collage work. It’s experimentation.
What else is the Challenge, then, but a particular kind of fan fiction, one that supposes that real people are characters—and this is exactly what shows like the Real World do suppose—that can be remixed and set up to fight and fuck and win and lose? What else is the Challenge than an elaborate experimental text that takes characters from the Real World and Road Rules—including, over the years, Puck (San Francisco), Coral and the Miz (Back to New York), Mark Long (Road Rules Season 1), Aneesa (Chicago), and yes, Jamie Chung (San Diego), who won The Inferno II—and turns them into something new?
And just like literary fan fiction, no one takes the Challenge seriously. Not one person I know even watches it (except my partner—more on that later).
But I think the thing that feels so transgressive about this show has to do with, as I recently heard John Darnielle put it, the excitement of breaking the contract with the reader (or viewer). You know and expect these “characters” or “people” to exist in a certain sphere, with its own set of limitations, temporal and generic and otherwise; seeing them on the Challenge is like seeing a character from a favorite childhood novel turn up in the year’s hottest debut, wearing a bikini. The decontextualization and repurposing of this particular kind of known character, who straddles the boundaries between celebrity and fiction and actual person, creates a kind of ecstatic response—you’re seeing something familiar in an unfamiliar place. You’re watching a known object misbehave, transform, transgress. The blurry boundaries are only getting blurrier. For me, that’s exciting.
It’s likely that the feeling is at least in part generational. If you didn’t grow up watching these characters live their complicated lives in the “real” world (read: the Real World), you might not have the same experience watching the Challenge as I do. They’re just random drunk people, for you. But for those of us who grew up on the Real World and who are now grown, watching the Challenge is a bit like making your stuffed animals fight and make up before your eyes. It’s like making Harry Potter wrestle Holden Caulfield. Drunk. In the rain—or at least in a sprinkler set up by the producers to look like rain. (NB: I think Holden Caulfield would win this fight—assuming wands were not allowed—but only narrowly.) No doubt this is the same reason why people watch—what, Celebrity Dance Club? No, I Googled it—Dancing With the Stars, Celebrity Rehab, etc. Any reality show that starts with someone the viewer already knows wields more power from the jump. Remix culture is alive and well, after all.
In a 2014 Salon piece, Challenge and Road Rules veteran Susie Meister wrote,
We are taken out of our natural habitats, put on display in a confined space, and expected to entertain the paying customers. Despite the premise of the show being what happens when people “stop being polite, and start getting real,” there is very little of the experience that could be counted as “real.” The circumstances are contrived to make the experience as extreme as possible and to provoke exaggerated behavior.
She is comparing the cast members to zoo animals here, but this also strikes me as a good explanation of fan fiction—or what fan fiction might feel like to the characters involved if those characters were actually sentient. If fictional characters could be aware that their circumstances were contrived, and that someone was watching them, how would they act? And about that sentience: this is all complicated by the “reality” in reality television, of course, and the idea of the Challenge as fan fiction works except that the new “fiction” these people are in is “real,” like they are. People, after all, are much more fragile than characters. And also much harder to keep from punching one another.
The Challenge is so far outside of my usual sphere (that is, it is not a book) that I often don’t know when new seasons begin—I just don’t hear about it. So when Battle of the Exes II premiered in January of 2015, it took me a few weeks to notice. When I did, I downloaded the first three episodes immediately. I glanced at the comments on the premiere; RIP DIEM, one of them said. Oh no, was my first thought. Diem loses that early? My next thought was: No way. Not with CT as a partner. Diem and CT are two of my favorite competitors to have ever been on the show—CT is the rough Boston kid whom you may remember from The Real World: Paris, and Diem came to the Challenge as a “fresh meat” import. In her first season, we see Diem reveal her recent diagnosis of ovarian cancer, later we see her fall in love with CT, we watch her come back after chemotherapy wearing a series of wigs, we watch her take the wig off and embrace her (gorgeous) shorn head. We watch her get stronger. We watch her get more and more beloved by everyone around her.
At any rate, she didn’t lose in that first episode. She had died. That’s what the commenter had meant. It had happened two months before, in the no-quotes real world. I hadn’t known.
It’s stupid, how upset this made me. I cried in my kitchen in Charlottesville. I wrote a fucking poem about it. Again: I don’t watch reality TV. I also don’t cry, especially not for celebrities. I also don’t know Diem, except I do.
It was terrible to watch the next couple of episodes of Battle of the Exes II, because in those episodes, which were filmed in August 2014, Diem gets sick. She gets so sick that she is airlifted out of Panama to New York for emergency surgery. This is the beginning of her final decline; she will die in November.
Of course it is very scary to see this on television. In episode two, she looks amazing. In episode three, she’s dying. When you watch this with the knowledge that she does in fact die only a couple months later, it feels like only a degree or two away from a snuff film. (It also feels like she was plucked from her previous seasons and repurposed only to be killed, just to show that someone is serious—like Giles in Buffy Season 8.) Diem is turned away from the cameraman, doubled over in bed, and you know that what you’re watching is the beginning of the end. No one else knows it, though. Not at the time. CT is there; he does his best. Later he will propose to her in the hospital; I will search for every scrap of information. He and many other cast members will post tributes and remembrances; I will feel obscenely frustrated. I will want more details. I will want video. I will have to remind myself that she is a person, not a character, and I am not entitled to her death scene.
Some of what the producers do to these people in the name of entertainment is pretty horrible. If you’ve seen unREAL, you know what I’m talking about. Last season, during a live after show, you see Abram watching, for the first time, the episode that you, the viewer, have also just seen for the first time—the episode in which Cara Maria, his girlfriend of six years, cheats on him and admits to her cousin that she doesn’t want to be with him anymore. These events took place during the show’s filming, of course, in June or July 2015; the after show didn’t film until December of that year. They had been living together the whole time. That is cruelty, heartbreak; it makes great television.
But the only thing that makes it great television is that I know Abram; at least I know him in the same way I know Jane Eyre, or Ignatius J. Reilly, or Humbert Humbert. I’ve lived with him in the same way, over seasons and years. Same with his aforementioned girlfriend, Cara Maria, who has been on eight seasons. Same with Diem.
It’s not like this with other forms. With scripted television and film, there is an awareness of the separation between actor and character. I never feel that I know them, not in the same way. With the Challenge, as with literature, that separation does not exist. I take these characters—these people—at face value.
So yes, of course, part of why I love the Challenge—maybe a big part—is that it is pure, gossipy snack food. Who’s going to kiss whom? Who’s going to win the money? Look at the hot people run and climb over things. But as the premiere of season 29 (that’s not a typo, you have missed 28 seasons of this glorious mess) of the Challenge proved last week, without the element of fan fiction, it’s just not any good.
Season 29 is called The Challenge: Invasion, and it features a new format: all of the contestants are people who have never won, including a large percentage of complete newbies and inconsequential second- or third-timers. They think they’re the whole cast, but little do they know that the Champions, eight of the best players in Challenge history—including CT, Cara Maria and Johnny Bananas, a man who has never had a real job because he can support himself by winning challenges—are waiting to compete with them. Exactly how or when this will happen hasn’t yet been revealed. But so far, without them, the show isn’t worth watching.
“The clips of the Champions’ regular home life are more exciting than the actual arc of this show,” my partner said as we watched last week’s two-hour premiere. (So yes, I have inducted my very patient partner into the Challenge—at first he watched because he liked me quite a bit, and because he too was a teenager in the prime era of The Real World, and now he is equally obsessed. Like me, he loves CT.) It’s no secret why: the most mundane thing done by someone you care about (whether real or fictional) is inherently more interesting than even the most dramatic thing done by a stranger. I mean, admit it: you’ll spend a few moments thinking about a news story in which an unknown woman dies saving children from a bear, but you’ll spend hours talking to your friend about the phrasing of a text she received and what it might or might not mean. This is just how human beings function.
I have problems with the show. It’s often stupid. It’s often ugly. It’s often sexist in the way of all exploitative media (and it has had problems with sexual assault in the past, to varying degrees). It often glorifies violence and drunkenness (it also punishes those things, if unevenly). But I forgive it in the same way that I forgive my friends for screwing up. And it’s the sense of the show as a sort of real-life fan fiction that keeps me watching. Yes, of course I want to see someone take my favorite characters and make them fight. Yes, of course—as I once smashed my Barbies together—I want to see someone take my favorite characters and make them get naked in unholy combinations. I also want to see them succeed, and win, and—most importantly—change with the years. I want them transformed again and again. And so I’ll keep watching.
Plus, now I can follow them all on Twitter.