Among most Gen Zers, the most common association with MTV’s television channel is an abundant amount of “ridiculousness” or the latest mystery “Catfish.” But for me, MTV’s fame dates back to the early days of reality TV, back to the days of “The Real World”, “Road Rules” and my favorite, the worthy heir to the previous two: “The Challenge”.
Before the days of modern reality television, with the likes of everything from “Keeping up with the Kardashians” to “The Bachelor,” there was the hit “The Real World.” It followed a group of twenty-something strangers as they navigate adulthood under a shared roof in a new city. Although the popularity of such a simple plot might seem unclear to a modern-day reality TV addict, it was groundbreaking when it was introduced in 1992.
Watching a group of real people go through a series of real tribulations was accessible to all audiences, which is a big part of why the TV model exploded. Being able to track the growth of what were considered ordinary people as they navigated into adulthood over the course of several months was light, digestible, and intriguing.
As the model progressed, however, the demand for its evolution also increased. In 1995, MTV launched “Road Rules,” a sister show to “The Real World” which chronicles a group of strangers as they live in an RV and travel to different locations to go on missions. The two shows crossed paths in 1997, when the respective cast from that year’s season were reunited to compete for a cash prize. The meeting inspired the creation of “The Challenge” in 1998.
In its early years, “The Challenge” brought together former 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 television began to explode, 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 to dominate in popularity. It transcended the lifespan of “The Real World” and “Road Rules”, reaching media consumers who weren’t even born when it was created – 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 that I clearly remember watching from start to finish was “Free Agents” in 2014. The appeal of this one
was simple: the competitions were interesting, while the social politics were captivating. Watching the contestants, who were compelling characters in their own right, plan their way to prize money week after week kept me coming back for more.
One of the show’s strengths was, and still is, its personalities. Over the years, and with the conclusion of “Road Rules” and “The Real World,” the show took 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 viewing, there were already established characters who originally appeared in “The Real World,” but as the seasons go by, I enjoy seeing what new reality stars will appear on the show.
When new personalities enter the game, they are on a learning curve as the challenges are always mentally and physically harder than they realize. They’re also usually greeted on the show by being thrown into elimination first, which is always fun to watch as only the strongest come back.