The Real World/Road Rules Challenge

It’s been on for 17 seasons. Why I can’t stop watching.

Real World/Road Rules Challenge

Here’s a fun little wakeup call: The Real World/Road Rules Challenge is wrapping up its 17th season tomorrow night. That’s right, 17: still too young to drink but plenty old enough to drive. It’s just one season behind the most durable reality challenge series, Survivor, and three ahead of Emmy magnet The Amazing Race. It shows up twice a year, as predictably as Memorial and Labor Day, and it’s just been renewed for four more seasons.

It’s also the only reality challenge series that never gets old. In a genre that has made a fetish of sticking to formula, the Real World/Road Rules Challenge freshens up the franchise every season. Even the title sequences change each time around—and for this season, The Duel 2, it’s a doozy. In an homage to host country New Zealand, the contestants stomp and flail and grimace and flap their tongues in an excruciating approximation of the Maori dance known as the Haka. You want to look away … and you just can’t.

Now I’m the first to admit it: I’m too old for this show. At least, I should be. It’s about a bunch of self-absorbed twentysomethings, for heaven’s sake—the spawn of an incestuous liaison between the absurdly tenacious (and increasingly sleazy) The Real World and its own spinoff, the now-defunct Road Rules. But by rolling a soap opera, a reality show, and a sports event into one energetic, artfully edited bundle, it transcends its tawdry origins. The sleeper hit of MTV, RW/RR: The Duel 2 has been winning its time slot among its 12-to-34 target demographic on cable and broadcast, with its audience growing season to season (unlike The Hills, which has seen its numbers drop).

Each season, around two dozen cast members from the twoparent shows—equal numbers male and female—are jetted to an exotic locale and bunked up together in a Real World-style luxury pad. All the requisite reality TV stereotypes are present and accounted for, often in multiples: the psycho, the good guy, the gay, the lesbian, the bisexual, the minority, the meathead, the drunk, the asshole, the bitch, the sweetheart, the floozy—even the cancer survivor. The usual frat-house shenanigans ensue—everyone parties, vomits, fights, hooks up, and behaves as badly as humanly possible.

So far, so formulaic. The twist is that each morning, hangovers be damned, these players have to make the unlikely transformation from party animal to warrior. Each one is either a repeat player—a “veteran”—or drafted onto the show from the most recent Real World installment—a “rookie.” Different themes are rotated from season to season—Battle of the Sexes, the Inferno, the Gauntlet, the Duel—each determining the mode of combat and team formats, which vary from men vs. women; “Good Guys” vs. “Bad Asses”; veterans vs. rookies; or, as in this season’s The Duel 2, no teams at all. Players compete in a series of extreme challenges that result in elimination playoffs so brutal, they’d make an American Gladiator weep.

Elimination rules also get switched up season to season. (It gets confusing, but you quickly learn to just go with the flow.) These changes work to shake up the natural patterns of dominance—veterans ganging up on rookies, males picking off females, meatheads freezing out the gays. One game-changing maneuver was Season 12’s Fresh Meat challenge, when veterans were forced to partner up with complete newcomers, throwing off alliance patterns carried over from previous challenges.

Each season RW/RR amps up the intensity of the challenges as well. For the first few years, the series had a distinct Survivor meets Fear Factor vibe—there was jousting on slippery poles, suspension in slop-filled tanks, wrestling with muddy pigs, puzzles. But somewhere along the way, RW/RR turned into the Thunderdome. Challenges began involving harnesses and helmets and ropes and straps and chains and platforms suspended hundreds of feet in the air—all of them requiring Herculean levels of endurance and fearlessness. The one-on-one elimination rounds became as fierce as MMA. Ankles get sprained, shoulders dislocated, kneecaps busted. One guy even got a hernia. But nothing stops these players—they pummel and kick and slam one another when they’re in battle and connive, cheat, and backstab when they’re not. All this for a $300,000 prize that gets split between maybe half a dozen people. It’s deliciously barbaric.

To keep up with the game’s constant evolution, veterans show up a little more enhanced each time. Guys who were merely built in previous challenges return as pumped as Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. The girls beef up too—breast implants are now practically de rigueur. They’d all be right at home in the WWE. (In fact, one former RW/RR player is—Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, from The Real World: Back to New York. He recently graduated from the ECW to Raw.) In 11 years, RW/RR has managed to create its very own monster breed of reality star.

RW/RR’s hard-core arena-style athleticism hasn’t gone unnoticed in the sports world. ESPN’s Bill Simmons frequently writes and chats about RW/RR. He recently devoted the full hour of his B.S. Report podcast to deconstructing The Duel 2’s first episode with ESPN producer Dave Jacoby, another die-hard RW/RR fan, ruminating on everything from the prowess of the players and the intensity of the challenges to the sheer size of the guys. “I really feel like The Duel II should replace the NHL as our fourth professional sport,” Simmons declared. “It’s more interesting, it’s easier to follow, it gets higher ratings. … What are we waiting for?”

It’s indisputable that the train-wreck factor is a huge part of RW/RR’s appeal. These kids are Real World and Road Rules alumni. They’re professional narcissists with rock-star attitudes, ready and willing to do anything it takes to stand out from the pack. They’re A-listers in their own personal blockbuster movies, headliners in the Madison Square Gardens of their minds. Between seasons, many of them get hired as hosts on the party circuit. (Two cast members are already confirmed for StudentCity’s Ultimate Spring Break Experience in 2010.) They all hang out together off-screen, and relationships of every stripe come and go. All that drama gets brought back into the game: Players drag all the grudges and hookups and betrayals and broken hearts that prevail in this incestuous, hermetically sealed little world right along with them into each new season.

Because you get to know everyone’s foibles, you’re given the luxury to form relationships with the characters and anticipate what’s going to happen—that C.T. (the psycho) will get in a fight the very first night and get eliminated, again; that Paula (the floozy) will latch onto one of the alpha males; that Evan (the asshole) will screw somebody over to get ahead; that Evelyn (the lesbian) will keep getting voted into the elimination round and keep winning; and that Diem (the cancer survivor) will manage to coast on the sympathy vote but never quite make the final cut. Yet there’s also always a new twist. The only predictable thing about the show is the way host T.J. Lavin praises players by saying “You killed it” in his skater-dude monotone, week in and week out. But I’d rather hear that than Survivor’s “I’ll go tally the votes” any day.