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  • Writer's pictureJack Vita

The Challenge: Total Madness' cast has outsmarted the skull twist

MTV's most watched show is back with its 35th installment, returning to television at a seemingly perfect time.

Filmed in the fall of 2019, without knowledge of what the coming months would bring to the world, The Challenge: Total Madness sequesters 28 contestants from not only society, but the sunlight and the outdoors.

Trapped in an underground bunker with no windows or doors, the competitors' only opportunities to see the light of day come in the form of their daily challenges and eliminations both occurring in the cool autumn of Prague, Czech Republic.

Six months later, the United States is under an unprecedented lock-down, as is the sports world, making The Challenge — dubbed loosely by Bill Simmons as "America's fifth professional sport" — a very fitting pastime for its consumers.

Adding to Total Madness' quarantine-like nature, the season presents a game-changing twist. Dissatisfied by how the season's predecessor, War of the Worlds 2 played out, host TJ Lavin pushed heavily for a new format that would require each competitor to win an elimination round in order to contend in the show's final leg.

The concept in itself is captivating. After three of last season's champions, CT, Rogan and Dee, skated by on their social politicking abilities en route to the final, while coldly tossing their outnumbered (and some arguably stronger) teammates into elimination after elimination, something needed to change. Lavin got sick of challengers scurrying away from competition and wanted to return to the show's roots, where in order for contestants to come out on top, they needed to earn it.

Similar to how college football coaches award their players with stickers on their helmets for impact plays, whenever a contestant on Total Madness wins an elimination, they receive a red skull on their helmet. No red skull? No final. Without total confirmation from MTV, it appears that at a certain point in the season, just before the final, the contestants without a red skull will all get cut and the elimination champs will have at it for the million-dollar prize.

On paper, the concept sounds great. Who wouldn't want to see a March Madness-style elimination bracket making way for a best of the best finale? But just as CT, Rogan and Dee were able to manipulate the format of War of the Worlds 2, the cast of Total Madness has found the show's latest loophole.

Through the show's first five episodes, by popular vote, newcomer Jay Starrett (seen previously on Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X) has been forced into all three of the season's men's eliminations thus far. When Jay was voted in to face fellow prospect Asaf in episode one, it appeared to be commonplace. The premise of rookies having to earn their stripes isn't a new one. But since Jay was forced into his third elimination in a row, a glaring flaw in the show's format has been highlighted.

By continually voting Jay into "Purgatory", the number of men qualified to compete in the final remains at one. Keep Jay out of Purgatory, and the field expands. As it stands right now, it seems that perhaps the best strategy for the show's vets is to keep the number of qualified competitors small, and eventually replace Jay as the sole competitor with one red skull.

Purposefully created as an incentive for challengers to throw themselves into elimination rounds, the red skull twist hasn't quite paid off yet. Instead, owning a red skull in the game's early stages is appearing to be more of a curse than a blessing. For Jay, having a red skull on his helmet is the equivalent to having a bullseye in the same location. Factor in that Jay is one of the smallest men in the house (he's due to lose a physical elimination to a physically imposing male at some point, right?), and it looks like Jay's only hope of staying out of eliminations is to make it into the tribunal on every guys' day. This presents several questions.

If and when Jay does get taken out in an elimination, what will happen to the next competitor that he passes the torch to? If Rogan is able to eliminate Jay from the game and collect his own red skull at the start of episode 6, will he become the next marked man? If the show's strategy entirely morphs into "Who can win an elimination last?", then aren't we primed to see similar gameplay to what we saw last season, as challengers avoid eliminations, this time however, until the final moment when they need to compete in one?

While it isn't talked about much, contestants on just about every reality competition show receive money for appearing on their show. They also receive more money the longer they stay on the show. Producers have to pay their employees that they are using to make TV. So, isn't there likely going to be a group of contestants on Total Madness that cares more about being on TV, gaining social media followers and collecting a paycheck than it does competing? There sure are. Nonetheless, it makes sense why there isn't a high percentage of challengers lining up to go into early eliminations, and it makes sense why Jay is getting the short end of the stick.

This wasn't the way MTV was hoping for their new twist to play out. So how could the format be slightly tweaked, for better results? I have a couple of ideas.

First, is an idea I like to call "the Mario Brothers twist". In the Super Mario video games, you are able to collect coins to eventually exchange for an extra life in the game. What if, after obtaining two red skulls, you are awarded an extra life in The Challenge?

In other words, what if after Jay loses to Rogan in episode 6 (assuming he is able to continue competing), he wouldn't be eliminated from The Challenge, but instead, he'd now be on his last life in the game? Or, if he were to beat Rogan, he could pick up his third life in the game. The Mario Brothers twist would also permit Jay to give a spare skull to someone that doesn't have one, if he so chooses. Suddenly, Jay becomes much more valuable to keep around. Buddy up to Jay, and he may gift you a one-way ticket to the final. While the Mario Brothers twist might not entirely keep Jay from being targeted week after week, it would offer him some protection and room for error.

In seasons two and three of The Apprentice, production added a nice touch that incentivized its contestants to take the bull by the horns, and step into a position where they could fail big, or be richly rewarded. In each episode of The Apprentice, two teams compete in a business-oriented task. For every task, each team must elect a team member to be the task's "project manager". Responsibility would ultimately fall on the shoulders of the project manager, and failed project managers would have a high likelihood of being fired by Donald Trump. But win as the project manager, and you're automatically safe from being fired the next time your team loses.

Let's apply this method to Total Madness, similarly to how War of the Worlds featured the relic twist. What if, after obtaining a red skull, said contestant would be safe from the next one or two eliminations? Jay would be safe for a little bit, and we could move on to some fresh, intriguing match-ups and story lines. Meanwhile, other competitors would be obtaining red skulls, widening the competitive field for the final, and preventing Jay from being singled out.

I think one of, or both, of these twists would liven up the format and get Lavin the product he was initially hoping for. Perhaps ole TJ has something up his sleeve that has yet to come on Total Madness. We will see.

Until then however, I don't anticipate Total Madness being played any differently for the time being. At the same time however, I can't fault the challengers for playing the hand they've been dealt. In the words of the great Johnny Bananas, "All is fair in love, war, and The Challenge".

For more reality TV and sports analysis, follow me on Twitter @JackVitaShow, and subscribe to the Jack Vita Show on iTunes or wherever podcasts are found.


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