The Challenge has been an institution on MTV for over 20 years. While the series has remained a consistent source of reality show gold over the years, 2018 saw the long-running competition deliver its best work since Y2K.
The Challenge has always been unique in the fact that cast members return each season to become repeat competitors. It allows beefs created on one season to carry into later iterations, building years-long rivalries that fuel a lot of the franchise's drama. In mid-2017, MTV decided to capitalize on this by kicking off a trilogy of seasons that were built around exacerbating these long-simmering feuds while creating new ones which would play out throughout the three installments. Although Dirty 30 started things off in 2017, it was Vendettas and Final Reckoning, the second and third seasons in the trilogy which aired in 2018, that showed The Challenge operating at a higher level than it's ever done before.
There's several reasons that contributed to The Challenge's return to glory, but let's just break down the five biggest factors in the MTV show's resurgence.
1. The British Invasion
With Road Rules over and The Real World being repurposed for Facebook, The Challenge has had to get creative with where they recruit new faces to challenge the decreasing pool of veteran players returning every season. Previous newbies have come from other MTV franchises like Are You the One?. Those cast members have been good at stirring up drama in the house, but they've done little to elevate the politics or difficulty of the game. Vendettas was the first season to go across the sea to the U.K. and returned with the gems Joss, Kyle, Kayleigh and Melissa.
Joss won the very first challenge on Vendettas, putting all of the veteran guys on high alert that there was someone who could top them when it comes to the grueling physical challenges of the show. Kyle was a surprise in the physical challenges but sparked a lot of intrigue when it came to the "polidicking" inside the house. Meanwhile Melissa and Kayleigh not only started great fights but participated in some of the most intense eliminations of the entire season. Bringing people from U.K. franchises could have been a huge disaster, but the casting department really picked out interesting additions that have brought a vibrant, exciting new energy to the show.
Eliminations separate the real Challenge competitors from the people trying to score a vacation on MTV's dime. Heroes have been made in these challenges and legends have fallen in the same pit. Select eliminations in Vendettas added a new element of stress, though: mercenaries. Top competitors from previous seasons were brought back to take out Challenge cast members that performed the worst in the daily challenge or were voted in by The Troika. So not only did the voted-in competitors have to deal with the stress of possible elimination, but they had to beat someone who was flown in specifically just to show that they're better. They've only ever done that with CT (and one time CT and Zach) in the past, and that was just to prove that MTV still has CT's number rather than keeping players on their toes.
Final Reckoning took the mercenaries to the next level where they not only showed up unexpectedly, but if they won the elimination they won a spot into the house and their own shot at the prize money. Ashley and Hunter came in as mercenaries and ended up winning the whole damn thing (well, Ashley did. More on that below). It just proves you can never know what to expect when it comes to a Challenge elimination.
3. Alleged Blind Voting
For many seasons leading up to Vendettas, voting people into elimination was done out in the open so everyone could see who voted for them and why. The transparency lead to a lot of bandwagoning and burn votes because no one wanted to say to their enemy's face that they didn't like them. Vendettas introduced The Troika, where the day's challenge winners would get together in a closed-door meeting to decide three people who would be up for elimination against the challenge loser. The chosen three, known as The Inquisition, would have no idea who in The Troika nominated them to be on the chopping block... until actually going to elimination. At that point, The Troika would have to individually vote in front of everyone for who should actually face off in the elimination. So backstabbers could put up their bros at first, but would have to betray them in front of everyone else. It was glorious and the set up gave us a betrayal for the ages when Tony sent his mentor Bananas into elimination, which he ended up losing, and potentially permanently ended their friendship (that drama is still playing out).
Final Reckoning again stepped up Vendettas' thirst for drama by allowing each individual team pairing to vote privately. Again, the teams thought they were safe and then got a rude awakening when they actually arrived at elimination. The team with the most votes was revealed and automatically forced to play, but then every team that voted for them was also illuminated and the chosen team could have their pick of anyone who helped send them in. Mama loves a twist and this complicated reveal in the beginning of Final Reckoning was perfection. It made the conspiring teams have to take accountability for their votes and helped ensure no one voted for anyone they weren't confident they could take out themselves.
4. Elevated Game Play
Even if you can't predict what will happen in elimination, that doesn't stop certain cast members from trying. The complicated elimination politics in both Vendettas and Final Reckoning brought out some of the smartest Challenge game play that we've seen in many, many moons. For too long, the men that physically dominated the game used their influence inside the house to avoid elimination, but it's been a very long time since The Challenge audience has seen fresh, bright political minds enter the house and dominate. Devin took the cake for Vendettas when he used a Bananas and Kayleigh hookup rumor to put Bananas on the chopping block and successfully removed the legend from the house.
That was child's play compared to Killa Cam's masterful work in Final Reckoning, though, when she convinced everyone in the house to use burn votes on themselves except for the two rookie teams. That forced the newbies to have to face each other in elimination and guaranteed that one of them would be sent to the redemption house. It would have worked, too, if MTV hadn't chosen that particular elimination to be a mercenary challenge but it was beautiful to see Cam using her skills as a puppet master. She manipulated every single person inside that house and proved that she's not only one of the toughest physical competitors, but is the most astute politician the show has seen in years.
5. The Era of Women Winners
A common criticism of The Challenge has been that the physical challenges are designed to heavily favor male athletes, allowing a pack of muscle-y dudes to control the show on and off the field. That's true, when the final involves mostly carrying heavy stuff for several miles and relatively few obstacles that would allow less muscle-endowed women to dominate. That changed with Vendettas, which was the first Challenge season to award a solo winner no matter their gender. The combination of physical and mental trials — not easier, just more balanced — saw Cara Maria take the first solo prize for herself. She proved to millions of viewers that a woman is just as capable as any of the boys. She even beat Zach, who is potentially the most built man on the face of the planet.
The era of female Challenge winners continued on Final Reckoning when Ashley and Hunter made it to the end of the final with the lowest combined time. The pair was offered the $1 million cash prize, but since Ashley technically completed everything in even less time than Hunter, she was given the choice to split the money or take the whole thing and run. Homegirl decided to stand up for herself and took the whole prize, citing Hunter's disrespect toward her and women in the house as the reason for stabbing him in the back. The show's sizzle reel after her decision didn't help put Hunter in a more favorable light, and his subsequent blowup only further validated Ashley's decision.
While Cara Maria and Ashley are sworn enemies, they are united in the fact that they showed The Challenge is not uniquely a boys game that belongs only to the men with the best CrossFit abilities. There are strong women in this game who can come through and dominate and that's an exciting new era to enter with this show.
The Challenge rose to new heights in 2018 and showed that it still knows how to surprise and go farther than it's been before. Here's to continuing the trend in 2019.