After what felt like a millisecond since last season’s divisive finale, The Challenge is back with an unfortunate title, a swell of new faces (and accents), and more Mission Impossible cosplay to send me over the edge!
I knew this was coming. There was no way the producers were going to sway from the generic “dude movie” aesthetic they’ve shifted to over the past two years just because I’ve been lambasting it loudly on the internet — in addition to these things being planned out ahead of time. And why would they? The ratings are sky high. The Twitter hashtag is poppin’. The show is broadcast in more countries than ever. Most importantly, Drake and Rihanna went public with their love for the franchise by following a select group of cast members on Instagram. Who cares what a disgruntled, albeit correct, freelance writer has to say when you have the Fenty seal of approval? (Although, I believe my aggressive petitioning to remove the skull twist had an impact).
However, there’s no excuse for this title: Spies, Lies & Allies. Is this a commonly uttered phrase or a play on a phrase that exists somewhere in the pop-culture lexicon that I just don’t know about? Is this a less popular Bond movie I haven’t seen?? The only thing that comes to mind is the Jonas Brothers album Lines, Vines and Trying Times. Maybe one of the producers saw someone tweet “real eyes realize real lies’” and got inspired? Either way, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue despite the rhyme scheme. But let’s get into this premiere, shall we?
After a dramatic cold open featuring TJ driving a red sports car through a black-and-white Croatian town made me feel like I was playing “Need for Speed” on my brother’s PlayStation, the competition kicks off rather abruptly with our American contestants handcuffed to giant blocks of cement on a beach feigning like they’re in real peril. Meanwhile, the mostly new cast of international competitors is lined up miles away somewhere in the woods ready to select their new teammates.
This first challenge, which basically entails unlocking a competitor, breaking cement, running, entering a code, and running again, isn’t super compelling. Additionally, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on because we’re being interrupted with a bunch of talking heads and voice-overs with brand-new people trying to display their personalities while commenting on the challenge. This is why I’ve always preferred season premieres that begin with the contestants arriving at the mansion, fighting over beds, and sizing each other up instead of a challenge straight out of the gate. It’s always nice just to get a good look at these people’s names and faces before you evaluate them athletically.
That being said, I should mention the “Declassified” episode that aired on Tuesday, where we got to see everyone arrive at the house and chat it up, but which wasn’t the actual premiere (for some reason). I’m not sure why these producers treat cast introductions like additional footage and not a vital part of the storytelling for the rest of the season. I’m sure some of what was revealed about the cast members’ backgrounds and interpersonal drama will be repeated as the season unfolds. But I would’ve loved it if this premiere included Tori’s admission that she had sex with Fessy in Turks and Caicos or Fessy observing Ramadan or Kaycee revealing that she’s now single and interested in Nany after all the drama that went down on Total Madness. Why not plant some interesting seeds??
But back to the beach, where everyone is running around like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off. Aneesa and Logan end up coming in first place, forming “the agency,” which I heard as the Beygency, as in the SNL sketch, every time they repeated it. Ashley and her partner Hughie come in last, which, at first, was exciting to me because, frankly, I find Ashley exhausting to watch and was ready to be relieved of her presence. But TJ reveals that they won’t be automatically eliminated or sent into elimination, which makes me think that this entire segment could’ve just been a straw-pulling contest for immunity.
Back at the house, everyone’s getting to know each other on a surface level. The vets keep reiterating how much they distrust the rookies, mostly the Survivor people, and vice versa. “This is going to be a bloodbath of rookies!” Kyle says in his pirate accent. It’s an extremely obvious point of tension within the house and, like, the intent of the format. But they’re really hitting us over the head with this divide, to the point where Nany even explains the literal difference between rookies and vets in her confessional.
For the most part, the rookies are already proving to be more interesting than the people with Challenge experience, particularly Michaela, who looks like she’s always calculating something, and Michele, who, straight out of the gate, announces in her confessional that she’s a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” There’s Tommy, a Survivor winner like Michele. I don’t have any reference for him, as I’m not a Survivor viewer, but he emits Wes energy, and I’m not just talking about the red hair. I also have to mention a rather alarming cast member named Emy, who looks like JoJo Siwa and Billie Eilish were put in a blender and speaks in her confessionals like an animatronic toy short-circuiting. She could be 12. She could be 30. All I know is that she’s … a lot. We’re also introduced to Kelz, Jeremiah, and Corey L. the next day in a brief scene the next day where they’re lifting weights. They’re hardly saying anything important except that Corey mentions that he’s gay. Black, gay men on this show, and gay men in general, are pretty sparse, so it’s nice to have him represent. He’s also a refreshingly charismatic presence to have on a show that’s been lacking charisma in recent years. He’s also a beast physically, as we see later on.
I, unfortunately, have to mention the very tired coupling of Ashley and Nelson. Watching them awkwardly peck each other in front of the camera, I just kept thinking, “Wow, these two are tired.” This whole situation reeks of desperation and thirst. I’m not buying that these two are actually into each other because Ashley moved to Austin where Nelson lives. Individually, they’ve over welcomed their stay on this franchise, and now we have to deal with their combined efforts for attention! In other couple’s news, Fessy and Amanda make out, which I wasn’t expecting at all since it previously seemed like Fessy solely had a thing for blondes. I was honestly hoping that Tori and Fessy would continue hooking up until it blew up in their faces inevitably. But according to the “Declassified” special, Tori seems more than done.
The big plot point in this episode, though, is that there’s a list. We can’t be more than 48 hours in, and Team Survivor is already living up to rumors circulating around the house that they’re the messiest of them all. Love that for them! While the details are mostly hearsay, with Emy being the primary messenger, Michaela allegedly made a list of competitors who she can and can’t trust with one of the names on the do-not-trust side being Tori. Tommy’s ready to distance himself from his CBS peers by any means necessary, which means putting Michaela up for elimination and throwing her under the bus in front of everyone. The deliberation is ultimately the most enthralling portion of the ep. There’s truly no saving yourself when you’re the first rookie of the season being considered for elimination and everyone’s eager to have someone to vote for, but Michaela is certainly putting up a fight. Ultimately, Emy, in the most cringeworthy fashion, puts Michaela on blast without any actual evidence, cementing her and her partner Renan’s presumably unanimous vote.
Meanwhile, Aneesa wants to throw in Emy (with Corey L.) now that she and Michaela have established beef, but Logan doesn’t want to throw in his friend. I was so excited to see Emy possibly go and make my screening of this show 10x less cringeworthy. But Logan’s eventually relieved of this decision when they arrive at The Layer, and TJ announces that the agency can nominate whichever male and female competitor they want regardless if they’re on the same team. They switch out Emy for Michele but still vote for Corey despite the fact that he had nothing to do with Emy’s snitching. He rightfully voices his frustration about this. Rarely, do competitors have any interesting rebuttals when they get sent into elimination, but he makes a very clear point.
Finally, the game producers have put their brains together to give us a solely physical elimination that isn’t pole wrestling or a hall brawl. “Back Me Up” most closely resembles the elimination where Johnny Bananas and CT were strapped to each other’s backs, and CT famously turned Bananas into a backpack — a moment this show will never let us forget! In this version, the two teams are strapped together on a platform with ramps on the ends and have to pull the other team down their ramp to win.
Corey ultimately has enough anger to pull Michaela and Renan over the edge, seemingly on his own. Then comes a twist that sounds exciting on paper but could turn out to be a flop as the season goes on. But I’m holding out hope! The winners of the elimination can either return to their partners, become a new team together, or steal new partners. Michele decides to take Devin for no other reason than he literally raised his hand. And Corey picks Tori because apparently she’s the top woman now. Nam, who was previously Michele’s partner, had to go home for undisclosed reasons, so he gets replaced by a very jolly white man named Ed. I loved TJ trying to enthusiastically pronounce the name Ed. Emy becomes his new partner. And Tracy, who’s face I hadn’t seen before this moment, is now with Kelz.
This premiere started off a little hurried, but it feels like the show can finally breathe again without the skull component. Mostly, I’m excited for Team Survivor to bring us the entertainment that Team Big Brother has been severely lacking.