Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: What MTV's 'The Challenge' Says About Modern Culture

MTV The Challenge_Illo - THR - H 2019
Illustration by: Zohar Lazar

For two decades, the reality show has delivered an addictive blend of drama and competition, but a recent pivot to showcasing “fame desperados" mirrors America's broader overvaluation of celebrity "self-parody," writes the Hollywood Reporter columnist and NBA great.

Now in its 21st year and 33rd season, MTV's The Challenge is one of the most entertaining reality shows on television. The current season, The Challenge: War of the Worlds (though what worlds are at war is unclear), just had its highest-rated episode since 2013. More than 30 contestants are forced to live together in a house without TV, phones or entertainment. When they aren't socially torturing each other, they face off in physical challenges that often involve scary heights, thick mud and brutal body slamming for a shot at the prize money. A spicy jambalaya of grueling sports and angsty melodrama, it’s basically Lord of the Flies in a fancy villa. Instead of fighting for the survival of the moral values of civilization, they’re backstabbing for a million dollars. The down-and-dirty competition isn’t just on the field of battle, but also in the living situations where the contestants goad, bed, and politic each other. It has all the sumptuous excess of Kabuki theater, which is what makes it so addictive. But any show that lasts as long as The Challenge also says something about the culture that supports it. In this case, some good things and some bad things.

First, the good. Most of the athletic competitions these contestants endure are no joke. They are torturous and sadistic versions of Survivor games. They require stamina, strength, and fortitude of will. Even though most of the guys look like big-muscled, six-packed Calvin Klein underwear models and most of the women look like hard-bodied yoga instructors, the outcome of any challenge is rarely predictable, even if one team is significantly bigger or more athletic than the other. Willpower, puzzles and trivia questions sometimes neutralize the contest. In one memorable trivia showdown, one contestant was asked what language was spoken in Australia and he answered, “Dutch.” Another contestant was asked what continent the United States is part of and she answered, "The Northern Continent." But even these intellectual lapses are vastly entertaining to watch because it's all good-natured fun.

Another delight for a longtime watcher is to see certain familiar castmembers mature over the span of the years. Chris "C.T." Tamburello first appeared on The Real World: Paris in 2003 when he was a 22-year-old hothead, defensive about his blue-collar upbringing. In subsequent years, he got kicked off The Challenge several times for violence against castmates. Now 38 and married with a son, he's still a physical threat in challenges, but in house situations he's more the goofy but levelheaded elder statesman. Clearly, the show can take some credit for Tamburello’s maturation, but it is Tamburello himself who chose to learn from the experience and evolve. Yet other repeat contestants, like Johnny "Bananas" Devenanzio and Kyle Christie, show no maturation at all, stuck in an adolescent vortex of entitlement and cluelessness. Still, that's all part of what makes the show so compelling. We see not only the competition within each season, but also who's winning the longer game of gaining insight and self-awareness to become a better person. And who isn't.

There are troubling aspects: There have been some racist, homophobic and sexist slurs. To be fair, most are open-minded and accepting people. At least 70 percent of the cast are charming, spunky, dedicated people whom you enjoy rooting for. But the pressure of competition and household drama occasionally bring out the worst in the rest. Sexism seems embedded. Although they make a public show of treating women as equals, the men are generally dismissive of them as competitors and as people. They verbally bully and sometimes physically intimidate. Like junior high boys, they criticize female appearance as if that were women's main value. Even the men's praise can seem paternalistic. Some hook up and then disparage the women to the other guys. This is not to suggest the women are flawless. Like the men, some are aggressively antagonistic or cruelly deceitful, which they justify as the result of being "strong, smart women."

My main criticism, however, is that MTV, which initially cast The Challenge with standouts from The Real World and Road Rules, started including people from other reality shows, including Are You the One?, The Bachelor, Big Brother and Love Island. This made the show a throbbing scrum of needy fame desperados, each competing to have a popular "story" that will guarantee their return and get them more followers on social media, which they can then monetize. Watching these shameless professional reality show personalities struggle so hard for significance diminishes the relevance and fun of the show. By bringing them in, MTV is basically urinating in its own swimming pool. The contestants no longer reflect their generations but only their most desperate, shameless, and needy members.

Of course, the predictable defense would be that I'm not the intended youthful demographic — that the proof is in the profit. Unfortunately, this is the same "Greed is good" mantra of some of the wickedest contestants, made worse when the network itself flaunts that sad ethos. This commerce-over-conscience principle is embodied by one of the show’s old-timers,  Devenanzio, now 36 and 17 seasons into The Challenge. We all realize that cast members on reality shows assume roles that benefit their popularity. Devenanzio’s role is to be the house dick. But the truth of character was revealed in the Rivals III season when he and his partner, Sarah Rice, won the season, only to learn that the person with the best time (Devenanzio) could split the $275,000 prize money with his partner, or keep it all. He kept it all. Since then, he has given the most convoluted, ethically twisted reasons for his greed that defy logic and humanity. This same decision was reached last season by Ashley Mitchell, this time for $1 million, when she shut out her partner from his share with equally lame reasoning about how he said nasty things to her (which is true, but no worse than the insults she spewed at pretty much everyone else).

This is not to imply that MTV is responsible for contestants' immoral choices. In fact, MTV is quite clever for putting competitors in the position of making that choice — it made for great TV. But the network can bring back some of the same cast purity that it demonstrated in The Real World and Road Rules when it featured average people who were sincerely working out personal issues of maturation, not building a cheesy reality TV résumé. The danger is that the show jumps the shark by descending into self-parody, the final death rattle before extinction. I would hate to see that happen to such a vibrant show.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a THR contributor and NBA Hall of Famer.

This story appears in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.