Alright… so… I know I’m way behind the times here… but I decided to throw together a little retroactive recap and analysis of last season’s Challenge Finale. At least I’ll get it out before the new season starts. BUT ON TO THE STORY!
The entire season of Free Agents, to me, represented a referendum on the Real World vs. Road Rules challenge. It was supposed to be a changing of the guard. A clash of generations. And a torch passing from my generation of Challenge fans and competitors (the old Era of Real World/Road Rules challenges where people had to do silly things like cover themselves in condiments or melt a block of ice with nothing but their vigorously shaken posteriors) to the new, streamlined, sports-centric “Challenge” where they tried to embrace their identity as what Bill Simmons has dubbed “America’s 5th Major sport (behind the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL).
This entire season seemed to be a turning point from the start. First and foremost, the numbers were disproportionately in the newcomers’ advantage. When you look at the primary contenders, both for guys and for girls, newcomers dominated the field for this challenge. I’ll run through the girls’ side first because they’re a bit of a different animal. The primary contenders here (at the start of the season) were: The Godzilla of female Challengers (seriously… watching this freak of a human being compete is like watching Andre the Giant battle some horrifying alliance of Oompa Loompas and Munchkins from Oz. You really thing the sheer number of opponents will matter and the Vegas line is just begging you to bet against her, but you just know you’re gonna lose money in the end),
Cara Maria (always a pre season favorite, but you know you need to hedge your bet as some point because the inevitable mental breakdown and tears are on their way), and Camilla (same story as Cara, except instead of a meltdown into tears this one is a drunken meltdown where she yells at someone for something they didn’t do and tries to get herself kicked off the show…) and both Nany and Theresa proved themselves to be capable of competing in the top flight (if not at an elite level) for seasons to come. Ok so we had 5 primary contenders for the title on the girls’ side and ALL of them are New Era Challengers. Now, this is a much different story than with the guys because the only truly dominant force the Founding Era girls had was Evelyn who appears to be permanently retired. So in any event it appears as if the girls have irrevocable moved on to the New Era.
The guys, however, are different. Now it didn’t appear this way at the start of the season. The male competitors who stood a real chance of winning (preseason) were Bananas, CT, Roid Rage Zach the Viking, Leroy (one of my personal favorites), Jordan (… little shit…) BDN (Brandon), and Isaac. Two Founding Era guys and five New Era guys. More than twice the number of New Era! If only by sheer weight of numbers you would have expected one of the new generation to win this thing. In reality, however, if not for a surprise last-minute elimination half of the finale field would have consisted of founding veterans (Bananas and CT) while only ONE finalist was an elite New Era guy (Zach), and one was a complete wildcard new guy (Boston Johnny). Moreover, the rookie in the final (Boston Johnny) seems to be accepted by the by the Old Guard guys (or at least by Bananas as he intimated on a podcast with Bill Simmons this summer) as one of their ilk rather than one of the impetuous New Blood, which is pretty interesting in its own right.
You see, I never bought into the “pay your dues” narrative that guys like Bananas, Kenny, and Evan tried to force feed us. It always struck me as insincere. Guys like Bananas would try to say “wait your turn until I’m too old to do this.” If they had their way noone else would ever grab a title. That’s bullshit. That doesn’t promote competition. However, in the aforementioned interview with Simmons, Johnny made some really interesting points that justified this argument to me (another notch on the rehabilitation of Bananas in my eyes… this season was full of them).
In any event, Bananas went on a tangent elucidating why he hates Jordan but loves Boston Johnny by juxtaposing the two. He hinged his argument on a baseball analogy. Basically he wants the young guys to prove themselves the way rookies do in real major sports (again pushing the argument of the Challenge as a 5th major sport) where rookies are forced to carry veterans equipment, dress in ridiculous costumes, and are generally hazed and humiliated for the benefit of all but them. Now, this in and of itself did not win me over. This is the same discussion from past seasons which in my opinion seemed to fundamentally inhibit growth of new characters. However, when Johnny explains it, things become much more sensible. He feels that the Old Guard figures such as Evan, Kenny, CT, and himself MADE this show.
At the end of the day this show is a competition for prize money. The prize money is taken from this shows popularity and its ability to drive advertising revenue for MTV. It’s the guys like CT, Kenny, Evan and Bananas (and retired players like Brad, Derrick, and Mark etc) who CREATED this show in part with the MTV producers. They are the personalities who have driven the shows popularity. Their storylines have sustained the show for 25 seasons, and they need to be credited for that. When these new players come in, for whatever reason (they’re attention whores looking for fame and exposure, they just want the prize money, the want a free trip to a foreign country, they want free booze) WHATEVER it is… they would not be able to do so if it weren’t for the guys who came before them and made this show a staple on the network. History matters, and whether the New Era gentlemen will be taking the reigns some day or not, the fact remains that they haven’t yet.
Against all odds (listed above) the Old Guard DOMINATED this challenge and proved their value above all challengers. Moreover, the one wildcard rookie who made the finals has admittedly put himself under the wing of the Old Guard, bought into the propaganda, and played by their rules. So not only do the Old Guard still have an ample amount of juice (pun intended) left in the tank themselves, they very much maintain the ability to make and break other characters on the show (both by developing their on-screen personas and characters AND helping them physically [Bananas trains with LeRoy in the offseason, helping to condition him for challenges]). Furthermore, the one New Era challenger we got in the finals (Zach) put on an absolutely disgraceful display. I think it was convenient that his cramps coincided with LeBron’s now infamous cramp incident in the NBA finals and I do buy that this hindered him greatly during the competition, but to hear him whine and complain after cultivating this personality as a modern-day Thor was absolutely disillusioning, disheartening, and served to pull back the veil of this dominant New Generation on whole.
These new characters are DEFINITELY entertaining, they WILL one day take over the show once the bodies of vets like Bananas irreparably break down, and the ARE vital to the continued success of the show both as entertainment and as an ever-increasing physical spectacle. However, clearly it is not time for the Old Guard to step away just yet (much to my own pleasure). They are clearly still the top of the hill, and their ways haven’t been proved ineffectual yet. Their years of mental and physical experience in these challenges, as well as their offseason determination to commit to the show will carry them on into the future, and hopefully they can pass their skills on to worthy heirs once the time has come… but that isn’t yet.