<EM>The Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Gauntlet III</EM> The Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Gauntlet III

Have you missed some of the action on this season of The Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Gauntlet III? That doesn't mean you have to miss out on the show's finale (tonight at 10 pm/ET, MTV). We’ve got everything you need to get caught up.

Does it matter if I haven't watched The Real World since Eric Nies was on it? No. Just because you don't know the players doesn't mean you can't enjoy the game. Cast members are recruited from previous Real Worlds, Road Rules (yes, it's still on!) and Challenges. Divided into two teams — this season it's Veterans vs. Rookies — they compete in crazy competitions, like running across a beam high above water while the opposite team tries to knock them off with 25-pound medicine balls. The losing team sends two players to the Gauntlet, a mental or physical contest, with only the winner remaining in the game.

There seems to be a lot more talk of alliances this year. Is The Gauntlet III more like Survivor? The plotting has always been there, but since there are 32 cast members this season (up from the usual 22 or 24), we're seeing a lot more of it. "The show is probably 30 percent athleticism and 70 percent politics," says Rookie team member Johanna Botta, a Real World: Austin grad. "It's not the strongest people who win. If that were the case [hotheaded hunk] C.T. [would] have won every Challenge. It's the smartest people. Sorry, C.T.!"

Speaking of alliances, why are the Veteran guys ganging up on the Veteran girls? In an attempt to lose some dead weight on their team — and have fewer people to split the prize money with, should they win the final challenge — the Veteran men deliberately lost a few challenges earlier in the game. But Veteran player Evan Starkman insists it wasn't as one-sided as we saw on TV. "Casey, Paula, Evelyn, Diem and even Robin were all in on throwing these challenges," says Starkman, who made his Challenge debut on the Fresh Meat season. "Some of the girls on our team showed up and couldn't even walk a mile. [We're playing for] real, life-changing money and these people who are standing in the way of a big paycheck need to go home." He's talking to you, Coral and Katie.

OK, then what about Eric? He's a big guy and would definitely be a liability on the final mission, which notoriously involves some sort of footrace. "Absolutely," Evan says. "But the way the [elimination competitions are] set up, we can't get rid of him. I'm a strong guy, but if Eric just laid in the sand I don't think I could [beat him in the Gauntlet]. We have a 300-pound anchor and no ocean to throw him in." But watch out, the Vets come to blows with Eric as the season winds down. Apparently Eric, who swore he was working out to get ready for the show, wasn't being completely honest. Shocker.

A huge part of the show is drinking — and the wild behavior it leads to. Where does the cast get their alcohol? MTV doesn't stock the fridge with booze, but the cast is given discretionary funds to use for whatever they want — which is usually alcohol. Then they elect a cast mate (this season it was Coral) to take alcohol orders and get a ride from a crew member to the nearest liquor store. Producers don't monitor alcohol consumption, but "if it gets out of control or if anyone goes too far and is in danger of hurting themselves, then we'll step in," says executive producer Scott Freeman. "But that hardly ever happens. They kind of police themselves."

The Coral-Beth showdown in the Gauntlet was one of the great moments in franchise history. Can anything else this season compare to that? "We were just in shock and awe," Johanna says of the clumsy clash between the two Challenge titans — whiny, manipulative Beth and outspoken ringleader Coral — in the Feb. 20 episode. "It was funny seeing them go against each other. It's not like you had two amazing athletes." Freeman admits "that's a hard one to top," but promises the best is yet to come. "I keep telling people, 'Don't miss the finale. It's so dramatic.'"

Check out full episodes and clips of The Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Gauntlet III in our Online Video Guide.

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