So, the Emmy nominations were just announced, and most of you will probably spend the rest of the summer catching up on all the nominees you might’ve missed, like Top of the Lake or Political Animals. Me? I’ll be right here watching MTV’s The Challenge: Rivals II, the reality competition that teams up former Real World cast members with their worst enemies for some totally bananas extreme-sporting challenges.
Yes, it’s young, dumb fun. People get tipsy in swimming pools. They wrestle in sandpits. They jump off high ledges. And they cry. They always cry. But, somehow, all of this makes for the perfect summertime guilty-pleasure show, and I’ve tried to explain why below. When this season is over, maybe my brain will melt into a lake of madness. But then I’ll be able to bungee-jump to the bottom of that lake, do a puzzle underwater, and win a prize for my efforts. So maybe that’s not so bad.
1. You don’t really have to pay attention to what’s happen on screen until someone gets punched in the face
If you need to check your email or take a Mensa quiz or haul a 320-ton ship over a mountain from one Amazonian river to another, you can totally do that while you’re watching The Challenge. You won’t need to worry about losing track of the plot, because the contestants will tell you what’s happening, over and over again, right up until that moment when Boston hothead CT loses his temper and punches someone. (It’s inevitable. As we’ve told you before, this is a guy who once punched a cactus. And when he does punch someone, another contestant will be there to tell us, “CT just punched someone!”) Case in point: The first episode of Rivals II is called “Rumble in the Jungle,” a nod to the fact that it’s set in the jungle of Phuket, Thailand. But just in case you didn’t catch the reference, spacey blonde Paula can spell it out for you: “I’m in a jungle!” she says in the opening montage. “I am actually in a jungle.” Okay, so that’s not just a metaphor? Good to know.
2. It offers some of the best subtitles on television
If you can’t handle listening to the contestants bicker, you can just mute your television and watch the subtitles, which are far funnier than anything anyone says out loud. When these kids first start pouring alcohol and making tipsy toasts to their adventures, the subtitles read: “All cheer.” Not long afterward, we’re treated to this succession of revealing subtitles: “Overlapping chatter,” “Shrieks,” “Glass shatters,” “Bleep,” “Overlapping shouting,” “Rock music,” and, finally, “Snoring.” Now, even without looking at the screen, you can probably guess what happened: partying led to fighting, which led to CT trying to strangle someone, which led to even more partying, which led to Jäger-induced sleeping. Or, as Derek explains about the snoring, “Tyrese passed out butt-[bleep] naked on the toilet, mid-poop.”
3. The music supervisor has a great sense of humor
You know how when you’re watching Mad Men, you’re always on the lookout for pop culture references and rich symbolism to decode? You don’t have to do that here. MTV does the work for you, by adding music that’s so incredibly literal, it breaks down the subtext (or lack thereof) behind every scene. When CT makes out with pretty young thing Anastasia, the song that’s playing in the background analyzes what he’s thinking: “Hey!/ I know we just met/ I’d like to get to know ya.” Another episode features Robert Delong singing, “Everybody on the dance floor, dance floor/ Hands in the air!” And guess what the contestants are doing in that scene? Studying for their MCAT exams! (Just kidding. They’re dancing.)
4. T.J. Lavin is the Silent Bob of reality competitions
BMX rider T.J. Lavin is the host of The Challenge, and it often looks like he’s bummed out to find himself in that role. He doesn’t talk much — at least, not more than his contract requires — and he often takes a deep breath before breezing through the directions to each challenge in a dull monotone, as if he’s trying to get this over with quickly so that he can go practice cliffhanger backflips somewhere. Here’s the thing about Lavin, though: When he does have something to say, it comes out of nowhere, with deep, Yoda-like wisdom and a fierceness that takes you aback. When skinny Anastasia nearly passes out during a challenge, a normally lackadaisical Lavin suddenly perks up. “I guess you shouldn’t smoke cigarettes and not eat!” he announces. When the camera cuts back to the contestants, their mouths are hanging open.
5. Watching the contestants use logic is fun
These twentysomethings work their bodies pretty hard, whether they’re chugging from a bottle of Bacardi, or carrying their partners upside-down through the sand to pick up a ball with their teeth. You’d think that all that hanging upside-down would at least get some blood pumping to their brains. But that’s not the case for poor, miniature human Jasmine, who totally fails the sand challenge. “There is no way that I could’ve practiced for balls being in my mouth!” she protests. Then a look of sudden recognition crosses her face, as she realizes what she’s saying. “I mean,” she clarifies, “I guess I could’ve practiced for balls on my mouth, but not sandy balls in my mouth.” Another look of sudden recognition. “Oh my god. Next question.”
6. Watching the contestants use logic while they’re drunk is even more fun
This is CT, telling another contestant why he nearly strangled a man in a swimming pool: “What I’m sayin’ is, Leroy, when it comes down to it … ” [Long pause while he tries to remember what he's saying.] “…I love you, man!”
7. It’s a feminist show. Sort of.
Let the other reality competitions strip off women’s clothes or make them bake cupcakes. This one’s all about letting women prove that they can compete physically with the guys. Kind of. “Since girls are first in every other aspect of life, it’s gonna be a guys’ challenge day,” TJ tells the players in the season premiere. There are high-pitched screams from the crowd. “Girls” are first! Right after the guys! Tomorrow, these ladies will move on to the next challenge and score a few points for equality. The kind of equality you can only achieve by operating a hand saw with your lady parts.
8. The foreshadowing could not be more impressive
Cooke describes herself as “a Division 1 athlete.” Naomi describes herself another way: “I love shopping!” she gushes. “I love brunch!” Which one of these women will prove to be a strong competitor? Well, they can’t tell you. Because the weaker one’s mouth is full of french toast.
9. Because YOLO, or whatever
As if you needed an excuse to dress up like a ninja and throw water balloons at your hungover teammates, The Challenge is happy to provide one: You’re young, and this is what young people do. Why does Anastasia hook up with CT, even though she knows he’s a total player who once punched a cactus? “I’m vulnerable,” she says. “I’m young.” (We also would have accepted: “Because he’s hot.”)
10. Okay, sometimes, the show is legitimately moving
For every time tears are spilled for bad reasons (say, getting sand in your eye while trying to pick up balls with your teeth), there’s a genuinely poignant moment. When tough guy Jordan lifts weights, even though he’s missing fingers from one hand, that’s one of them. (“I love being the underdog,” he brags.) But the most inspiring story belongs to Diem, who has battled ovarian cancer for years and still keeps coming back to the show. “I was told I wasn’t gonna see the next year,” she confesses. “But you realize very quickly that if you don’t let things crush you, you become stronger.” And that’s so true — even if, in this case, being “stronger” just means hanging from a truss that’s 30 feet above the water and not throwing up.
Melissa Maerz on Twitter: @MsMelissaMaerz