Transcending generations: ‘The Challenge’ proves to be reality TV’s crown jewel

Melina Khan, News Editor

‘TheChallenge:All Stars 2’ is the most recent season and features franchise veterans. Screenshot from Instagram / @ChallengeMTV

Among most of Gen Z, the most common association to MTV’s television channel is copious amounts of “Ridiculousness” or the latest “Catfish” mystery. But to me, MTV’s celebrity goes back to the original days of reality television, in the era of “The Real World,” “Road Rules” and my personal favorite, the worthy heir of both of the aforementioned: “The Challenge.”

Before the days of modern reality TV, with the likes of everything from “Keeping up with the Kardashians” to “The Bachelor,” there was the breakout hit “The Real World.” It followed a group of 20-something-year-old strangers as they navigated adulthood under a shared roof in a new city. While the popularity of such a simple plot line may seem unclear to a present-day reality TV junkie, it was groundbreaking at the time of its introduction in 1992.

Watching a group of real people face a string of real tribulations was relatable for all audiences, which was a large part of why the television model blew up. Being able to follow the growth of what were deemed ordinary people as they navigated adulting over the course of several months was light, digestible and intriguing.

As the model progressed, however, so did the demand for its evolution. In 1995, MTV launched “Road Rules,” a sister show of “The Real World” that chronicled a group of strangers as they lived in a recreational vehicle and traveled to different locations to compete in missions. The two shows intersected in 1997, when the respective casts of that year’s season were brought together to compete for a cash prize. The meeting inspired the inception of “The Challenge” in 1998.

In its early years, “The Challenge” brought together alumni cast members of “The Real World” and “Road Rules” to compete in challenges and eliminate each other in order to win a cash prize.

At the turn of the new millennium, reality TV began to boom, becoming fundamental to American popular culture as we know it today. The habitual nature of the genre is what has allowed “The Challenge” to continue dominating in popularity. It transcended the lifespan of both “The Real World” and “Road Rules,” reaching media consumers who were not yet born at the time of its creation — like me.

I’ve watched “The Challenge” since I was old enough to watch MTV, which, in retrospect, was probably still too young. The first season I distinctly remember watching from start to finish was “Free Agents” in 2014. The allure of it

was simple: the competitions were interesting, while the social politics were gripping. Watching the contestants, who were captivating characters in their own right, scheme their way to the prize money week after week compelled me to keep coming back for more.

One of the highlights of the series was, and still is, its personalities. Over the years, and with the conclusion of both “Road Rules” and “The Real World,” the show has taken on contestants from shows like “Are You The One?” and “Big Brother” and even international hits like “Ex on the Beach” and “Geordie Shore.”

As an avid fan of the show, this is one of my favorite parts of “The Challenge.” In my early days of watching, there were already established characters who had originally appeared on “The Real World,” but as the seasons have gone by, I love to see what new reality stars will appear on the show.

When fresh personalities enter the game, they are in for a learning curve because the challenges are always mentally and physically harder than they expect. They are also typically welcomed onto the show by being thrown into elimination first, which is always fun to watch because only the strong ones come back.

Beyond the different reality show cast crossovers, “The Challenge” veterans are integral to the show’s icon. Several fundamental stars have been appearing on the show for nearly two decades, including some of my personal favorites, Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio, Chris “CT” Tamburello, Darrell Taylor and Aneesa Ferreira. These all-time favorites transcend generations because their reputations and winning streaks precede them. They are why the show has continued to be so successful, and personally, continued to be one of my all-time favorite reality shows.

However, the show’s longtime run does have its downsides. Among “The Challenge’s” fanbase, I find there are fewer and fewer Generation Z members as the years go by. When I mention to friends or peers how much I love the show, I’m often met with the response, “What’s that?” In a generation that has grown up with reality TV, it saddens me that there are not more fans of one of the original members of the genre.

While I was home for winter break and catching up on “The Challenge: All Stars 2” on Paramount+, my sister and I were enthralled to discover many of the show’s early seasons are available on the streaming service. Thanks to the 20-minute episodes and ample time on our hands, we binged seven seasons together. Going back to the early 2000s and reflecting on how the show has changed so much yet still stuck to many aspects of its original DNA, I was reminded why I love it so much.

If you’re reading this and you’ve never seen “The Challenge,” take this as your sign to finally put you or your roommate’s Paramount+ subscription to good use. Consider it an homage to one of the original greats of the reality TV universe.