We are well into The Challenge: Total Madness and there has been the typical amount of drama we expect from the series. Sure, the players are now staying inside a Cold War-era bunker in Prague, as opposed to the posh digs they’ve come to expect. Yes, Johnny Bananas and Wes Bergmann have elected to work together, at least in front of the cameras. And among the first four players sent home were two past champions: Chris “CT” Tamburello (upset by Survivor alumnus Jay Starrett) and Ashley Mitchell (defeated by Dee Nguyen, one of the winners of last season). Both got the classic farewell spiel from host TJ Lavin, including the bit about seeing them again. However this time these departures have the potential to carry much more weight.

On a few occasions, TJ referred to himself as “the dirtiest player in the game.” Well he has been usurped by the COVID-19 virus. It is the ultimate dirty player, capable of flipping an endless series of tables. Did you plan a vacation this summer? You’re probably going to stay home. Got season tickets for your favorite team? You might be getting a refund. Looking forward to blockbuster movies? You’ll either wait longer to see them on the big screen or you’ll wind up watching a smaller version at home. For me, it will probably be a long time before there will be comic book conventions to attend . . . and I’m at peace with that. What I’m saying is there’s a possibility — albeit small — that Total Madness might be the last season of The Challenge we’ll be seeing for a long time . . . if it ever comes back. And this might be the last time we see CT, Ashley, or any of the other cast members.

ct jay total madness elimination

Yes I will admit that I often talk about seeking a twelve-step program to pry me from the long-running series. After all it provides me a near-endless supply of agita and the odds of a season ending happily are slim. I never considered that The Challenge might be blipping out of existence due to a pandemic. Thanks to COVID, “going viral” has new and terrifying meaning.

The Challenge isn’t the only reality show with an uncertain future. Survivor has been rumored to have two seasons cast following Winners at War but COVID prevents the production crew from making the trip to the series’ permanent locale in Fiji. Big Brother and Love Island start dates are still up in the air this summer. The Amazing Race wound up suspending their thirty-third edition after three legs. They planned on televising the thirty-second season after Survivor: Winners at War wrapped up but the network elected to push it further into 2020. I could bellyache about how that season has been on the proverbial shelf for over a year but then I’d wander way off-topic.

So far, Total Madness has been pretty good. I keep thinking on what might have happened had Bunim-Murray Productions known this would be their final season to film for some time. For one thing, this is the first time since Rivals III that Cara Maria is absent. Also out is her boyfriend, Paulie Calafiore, whose current Challenge legacy is gassing out at the worst possible time. Turbo is also a no-show. This is a shame because no matter how you feel about him, he is the closest thing to Chuck Norris that the series has ever had. After going ballistic on Jordan in War of the Worlds 2 and coining the phrases “pussy chicken” and “you cannot copy my walk,” it was probably best he stayed home . . . presumably so he can battle COVID with his bare fists. If that is the case, my money would be on Turbo.

Turbo Turabi

Natalie Duran isn’t here this season. I realize how she irritates people on either side of the screen but I never got into how the one nicknamed “Ninja” deserved the metal-melting venom she has received. After finishing back-to-back seasons with no prize money to show for it, I assume she took the next season off. Maybe she wanted to return to training for American Ninja Warrior unaware that might also be taken off the air by COVID. And what about the veteran she upset last season, Laurel? BMP could have given her a chance to have a better ending than crotch-chopping after she assumed victory over Natalie.

And the list goes on: Joss, Devin, Leroy, Laurel, Da’Vonne, Nicole (Ramos and Zanatta), Brad, Emily, Hunter, Natalie, Zach, and on and on and on. Aside from most of the newbies from Big Brother, I have nothing against this season’s rookies. But imagine what might have been had we had everyone for one final blowout, with all the major players, tea servers, and potential Section 8 cases. And I didn’t even mention Sarah Rice. Imagine her in a “Mercenary” position, emerging from darkness and smoke, winning her way into the game and not breaking eye contact with Johnny the entire time? For him, the guy that denied her a six-figure payday after they won Rivals III together, it would be the stuff of nightmares. But the audience might see it as the best thing that to be inflicted on Johnny since CT turned him into a backpack in Cutthroat.

COVID also brings up something dark that probably hasn’t been addressed: the possibility that this season might be the last time we see any of the Challengers. I realize that is a morbid thought, but COVID does not seem to give a damn as to who it takes. Honestly, I’m not trying to be a “downer” for its own sake. Personally, I don’t think that had crossed my mind . . . until I found out about Dan Renzi.

If you haven’t heard of him, I’ll be brief. Dan debuted on The Real World: Miami in 1996 which might as well be prehistory for most fans of reality TV. He later appeared in Extreme Challenge where he was part of the first Real World team to win against Road Rules. He appeared in two more seasons: Battle of the Sexes and Inferno II. It was in the latter where I turned on him, as he took part in giving Jodi crap after she lost in the Inferno to Veronica. Recently, I found out that he was working as a nurse, and that he has traveled to New York to help. That is New York City, a confirmed epicenter of the COVID pandemic.

dan renzi nurse

Sure, Dan wasn’t on the Challenge circuit long but fans can recall memories with him. Like the time he had the shouting match with Melissa. Or the time he tried to snoop on the Mike/Melissa/Melody threesome (something not commonplace in 1996) along with Sarah and Flora. How about Extreme Challenge and the fetish mission, where he dressed as Siegfied with a blow-up doll playing Roy and Cyrus painted like a white tiger? Or the time when he returned to Battle of the Sexes after Puck quit the game and all of the female players hugged him. And there was a time in Inferno II where he and CT were sniping at each other and CT failed to make him flinch. No matter how a fan might think of Dan Renzi in one way or another, they still would think of him. And there’s a chance – no matter how small – that we’ll be remembering him during sorrowful circumstances sooner rather than later.

dan renzi

In its history of producing reality shows for MTV, there have been relatively few BMP alumni that have passed away. Most of us know about Pedro Zamora (The Real World: San Francisco; 1994), Ryan Knight (the second RW season in New Orleans and three Challenges), Frankie Abernathy (the first RW season in San Diego) and Danielle Michelle “Diem” Brown (Challenge veteran whose battle with ovarian cancer was well-documented). There are also a few that died having made an impact on the most diehard of viewers: Michelle Parma (Road Rules: Europe and Extreme Challenge), Joey Kovar (RW: Hollywood), Danny Dias (RR: X-Treme and Gauntlet 2), and Brian Lancaster (RR: Latin America). With COVID and its method of transit and infection, nobody can say that they are truly safe . . . and that includes people we’ve been watching on TV for ages.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you are a diehard fan of The Challenge, you might want to embrace Total Madness a little harder than past seasons, even with the usual drama and injuries. I believe the best-case scenario is that the next season will be delayed due to concern about cast and crew contracting COVID but will eventually come out. Of course if you want to rank the show or its regulars, even if you are concerned about mortality in general? I don’t see why you shouldn’t say that Wes’ winning percentage is barely above that of Wile E. Coyote and the Washington Generals. Or that Cara Maria is what happens if Tonya was caught in an explosion at a Hot Topic. Or that Paulie probably reeks of desperation and Sex Panther cologne. Or that Bear probably misses starting fights at lower-division soccer matches in England. Or that Laurel found out that she didn’t have to kill John Conner right away, and that’s why she popped up on Ex On The Beach. Or that Turbo would probably swing by Jordan & Tori’s inevitable wedding to drop off a dead yak as a gift for food and clothing. Or about how no one has had the heart to tell Jordan that three titles doesn’t mean he has to get weird with the hair on his head and face. Or how Zach is probably insanely grateful that Paulie took his “Most Likely To Gas Out In The Clutch” title. Or how we should all start making wishes if we meet Johnny in person, for he is currently the definition of “falling star.” Or  . . . well, you get the idea.

For me, I’ll try to take my own advice to heart, even if the ending punches me in the soul like it did in Rivals III and Final Reckoning. In killing time at home, I made two spreadsheets based on how many players won a season after winning the first elimination game of a given season (six in total), and which recent seasons had the greatest percentage of players “skating” into a final (War of the Worlds 2 and Rivals III). I also got inspired to recreate Jay’s shocking victory of CT using MS Paint and scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As much as I say I would like to quit The Challenge someday, I couldn’t imagine not seeing it – or its usual cast of characters — until now.