Thursday, January 26, 2012

MTV's 'The Challenge': Now A Love Story?...

Last night, The Challenge returned to MTV.


Yes, I know what you're thinking: "That show is still on?" But not only is it still on, with its new take on the old formula, it may be thriving for the first time in a long time. This particular season is a Battle of Exes, and under the guise that those participating had no idea they'd be partnered with their ex (though for legal reasons, I have to assume MTV disclosed the fact that a particular ex was going to factor quite heavily into the gameplay), returning favorites and some new blood signed up for their chance at cash, prizes, physical competition, and of course, an extension of their fifteen minutes of fame. Though I have to admit that MTV seems to be using the term "ex" loosely, I was more than happy to see a number of the players come back, as well as meet a couple of rookies, even if for a short time. I was so excited by the return of the series that I broke my "no reality" rule and live-Tweeted the premiere episode. I expected a lot of railing at each other off the bat, as those who have not spoken, let alone seen each other in perhaps years were suddenly thrust into intimate space with each other. I expected additional (most likely drunken) hook-ups, either between partners or mixing and mingling and "building alliances." I expected Wes to stomp around the house about how Johnny is this and Johnny is that, while Johnny actually slithered much more quietly, planting his venom and lying in wait. I expected a rookie team to go home first. I got most of that, of course, but what I never expected was to be thrust back into the romantic arc of Chris "CT" Tamburello and Diem Brown. And I can't help but now suspect that this entire season may have just been a ploy to get those two crazy kids back together. It's been awhile since MTV did a wedding reality show, right?

Here's the thing: CT is big; he's loud; he's wild. He gets drunk and yells; he has a short fuse and is quick to throw a punch. He's a bear. If you poke him, he'll rip your head off. But he's a bear in a good way, too-- the cuddly, protective kind. And we saw that seasons earlier when he fell for Diem and inspired her and made her feel good about herself when she was going through her chemo treatments. All of a sudden audiences saw a brand new side to him-- a side she surely brought out. It was the side that made the young girls swooning at home that he was so cute feel like they could like him even more and not worry what that said about their tendencies toward abusive men. He was never anything but sweet with Diem when they were together. It was what came after that got scary.

MTV didn't brand their romance "Beauty and the Beast," but they might as well have as everything that came of CT before and after Diem was messy, angry, and yes, violent. I thought it was clear he had been hurt by her and how their relationship ended, but many people disagreed. They saw her as the cute, passionate survivor and him as a guy known for outbursts. It was a fair assessment, given the majority of what MTV shows. I figured CT wasn't verbalizing this pain-- whether because he couldn't or thought it wasn't "manly" or because he didn't want to air everything on television, especially when she wasn't even around. His brother had recently been killed, too, and that no doubt added to the stress and switch. But thanks to Battle of the Exes, we are being given some clarity.

It appears that Diem broke up with CT because she wanted to focus on her career. That is a perfectly valid reason, though CT would have an equally valid reason for being upset about it. But that is just the surface. It also appears that the way Diem broke up with him was simply to start freezing him out-- to grow more and more distant-- until she ultimately texted him and didn't show up to his brother's wake. I'm sorry but no matter what you may want out of life or be going through on your own, that's just cold! There is never a good time to break up with someone, and after the death of a loved one, you may look like an even bigger jerk for doing so, but there are always better ways to break up with someone. Be mature; be vocal; don't just get weird and aloof and passive aggressive. You may think it's making your intentions clear or forcing the other person's hand to make the decision for you, but that's not cool. You have to stand up for yourself. In love, in relationships, in life. Always. That's something Diem has become known for, thanks to MTV, so it's fascinating to see this other side now.

Of course, with only one episode into Battle of the Exes, I'm not saying we have the whole story. It certainly seems like Diem still has feelings for CT, and vice versa, though they're each trying to suppress them for their own, various reasons. But I just feel like throwing them back together like this is a blessing. Even if they don't get back together, they will be forced to actually sit down and talk about their relationship and perhaps at least repair enough good feelings toward each other to go on to win this competition and then remain friends after it. They are both amazing competitors, and I have no doubt they will be a force to be reckoned with all season. They placed in the top four in the first event, and that was an awkward, not really speaking to each other challenge. Time can only push them toward success, even if not heal all wounds.

MTV is smarter than a lot of people give them credit for. The Challenge is in its 22nd year. A lot of the fans who watched for years and years have since tuned out because it was always just more of the same all of the time. But giving an audience an actual meaningful arc, romantic elements aside, is a way to win back those audiences who have matured from finding the revolving room-doors amusing. I know I am certainly more invested now than in almost any other year, and certainly in every year since Diem and CT met. And that's even with a bunch of newer castmembers who I don't even remember from newer seasons!

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