As the new Inside Survivor contributor recapping MTV’s The Challenge: Double Agents, I feel like I need to give Survivor fans an idea on why The Challenge should be their new reality-tv guilty pleasure. This season should be of particular interest, considering Survivor‘s own Natalie Anderson and Jay Starrett are competing, giving the show an air of legitimacy that some will argue it does not deserve.
A common way of summarizing The Challenge and its relationship with Survivor is as the cross-fitting, binge-drinking, less strategic cousin (if that cousin wasn’t already Big Brother), and to some degree, I understand that. When Survivor had Tribal Council, The Challenge added House Votes. When Survivor had Redemption Island, The Challenge added Redemption Houses. When Survivor had Blood vs. Water, The Challenge added Bloodlines.
However, I feel that description robs The Challenge of what makes it truly unique—a long-running reality-tv show, which successfully changes its casting, format, tone, location, and theme every season, all while remaining consistently entertaining. It’s a blend of serious athletic competition and petty drama—a show which is capable of telling emotionally deep, long-form narratives while never being above showing a drunken fight or hook-up.
In terms of obvious differences between The Challenge and Survivor, The Challenge is obviously a lot more physical. The upcoming season, Double Agents, boasts both two-time Olympian Lolo Jones and former WWE superstar Lio Rush as rookies. Veterans of the franchise dedicate large portions of their real lives to training for upcoming seasons, making challenges resemble professional sports more than traditional Survivor challenges.
Furthermore, unlike the recent monotony of the “obstacle-course-then-puzzle” or “balance-holding-onto-balls-endurance” challenges that Survivor has become, The Challenge has been really good at experimenting with a wide variety of physically taxing challenges. Whether it be solving a jigsaw puzzle off the side of a moving truck, wrestling a pole out of your opponent’s hands, or eating an ungodly amount of mayonnaise, the challenges are diverse and interesting.
While politics, strategy, and alliances definitely play an important role in The Challenge, it remains purely secondary to the physical games. Unlike Survivor, where bar a few twists, the gameplay remains largely the same, The Challenge creates new formats and will change them randomly as if it was a game of Calvinball. Even the format for the current season, which airs on WEDNESDAY, has not been announced yet, except for the fact that it’s being played in pairs. This makes the strategy a lot more random than an average Survivor season, as the cast is forced to come up with most of their strategy on the fly.
The typical The Challenge episode—regardless of format—is made up of a daily challenge, a vote, and an elimination. The daily challenge winner is almost always immune from elimination and (usually) gets to select one person to go into the elimination challenge. A vote will then take place, depending on the season’s format, leading to another person being sent to the elimination challenge. The two people will then compete in a one-on-one challenge, where the loser will be eliminated. At the end of the season, the final ten people remaining will run a final, where the first to finish of each gender (usually) will win the season.
From what is known about the Double Agents format, a large portion of the strategy seems to be based around partners. Stealing and trading partners have been mechanics that have been teased in promotional material for the season, making being a “physical threat” an asset that can keep you out of an elimination challenge rather than a target who should be eliminated.
However, for Survivor fans needing something to replace the alliance-drama that they’ve grown accustomed to, The Challenge has that in droves. No matter what the format ends up being, alliances will end up mattering. House splitting votes and attempts to go against the people in power are relatively common in The Challenge-universe, and fan favourites can go at any time because, if they get eliminated, they’ll just be invited onto the next season.
The real star of The Challenge, and probably the most obvious difference from a regular Survivor season, is that roughly two-thirds of each cast is made up of returning contestants (many from other reality-shows such as Big Brother, Ex On The Beach, and recently, Survivor). Historically, newer players (“rookies”) are targeted week after week by veterans until they begin to make inroads and form relationships with the established veterans. In Double Agents alone, Chris ‘C.T.’ Tamburello, Aneesa Ferreira, Wes Bergmann, and Leroy Garrett all have a double-digit number of seasons to their name, with Aneesa’s first MTV show being filmed in the year 2001! This makes The Challenge effectively a workplace drama, but the workplace is competing on a reality tv show.
This long returning cast adds a sense of stakes, consequences, and familiarity that other shows do not have. Drama that would typically be reserved for Twitter or Reddit threads in the off-season plays out on camera. People have met, gotten married, and then divorced on The Challenge. Pre-game relationships and alliances aren’t just subtext on The Challenge—they are the text. Some of the most emotionally impacting storylines and character arcs on reality TV, such as CT’s relationship with Diem Brown, are allowed to occur in real-time, over multiple seasons, if not decades. Pivotal and iconic moments don’t just impact that one season but multiple seasons heading forward.
This age and lore may feel intimidating to a new viewer, but The Challenge does a good job summarizing these storylines. And it’s entirely likely that all of the important long-form storylines will be summarized within the first fifteen minutes of episode one.
For the Survivor viewer looking for something to quench their competitive reality-tv thirst until Survivor can start filming again, I would definitely recommend giving The Challenge: Double Agents a shot—and not just because I’m going to be covering it all season.