Another season of The Challenge has wrapped up. As one would expect, the highlights for Total Madness were plentiful. Johnny Bananas finally got his seventh title, winning his first elimination game since Rivals III and beating longtime rival Wes Bergmann in their first one-on-one battle (not counting Champs vs. Pros, of course). Jay Starlett managed to make a huge impression in his rookie season, winning two Purgatories before Rogan O’Connor took him out of the game. Thanks to insensitive tweets from Dee Nguyen, the editors at Bunim-Murray Productions had to work overtime, editing her out of key scenes. Jenny West won her first title, Melissa Reeves made it through an entire season while unknowingly pregnant, and Cory Wharton told us he had a daughter. He was subtle about it, so you might not have noticed.

There’s no real timetable on when the next edition will be filmed or any official go aheads for Mark Long’s “O.G. Challenge.” Safe to say we won’t have a new season for a while. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t critique Total Madness. Even with the Dee drama and the lack of longtime veterans surviving, I can pinpoint the main problem of this season: the Red Skulls are a dud.

Like most gimmicks The Challenge has announced, the Skulls looked great on paper. The premise: host TJ Lavin was tired – TIRED! – of players skating to the end without seeing an elimination. Given how only four out of the twelve players that started the final mission of War of the Worlds 2 had gone to the Proving Ground, he had a point. In Total Madness, the only way a player can run a final was if they have a Skull, and the only way they can get a Skull was if they win in a Purgatory. Just like that, the pressure came in harder on the Challengers, as they found themselves trying to get in a situation where they might wind up going home.

The Challenge MTV TJ Lavin total madness

In the beginning, the Skulls worked out. Jay started off the season by dispatching Asaf Goren (a veteran of American and Israeli reality shows) in Purgatory. Two episodes later, he found himself back in the crosshairs when he was voted in by the house. Before the Tribunal could vote on who Jay would face in Purgatory, Chris “CT” Tamburello shocked everyone by stepping down to take on the rookie. Even crazier, Jay managed to defeat the longtime veteran to earn his second Skull.

This is the point where I should mention that I am a bit of a geek when it comes to stats and speculation. I used to keep track of players’ wins and losses in past seasons, before things got too complicated for me. Part of my love for The Amazing Race stems from how easy it is for me to analyze teams through numbers. With Total Madness, I started wondering what effect a player getting sent into Purgatory more than once would have. In my head, I thought that the result would be one less player would be allowed to run in the final mission. If there were only so many Skulls that could be won, one player getting multiple wins would be problematic for the others in general. And if players without Skulls were barred from running the final mission, we would surely get to a point where some people would be left out in the cold.

In the end, eighteen Skulls in total were awarded to Purgatory winners. Unfortunately, we started with 28 players. Had there been a situation where each competitor went in once and once only, that would leave fourteen players remaining. At that point, two more missions would have been played, as well as four more Purgatories. Sadly, the odds of someone getting shut out at the end turned out to be very slim, and I considered that scenario to be a great selling point.

As the season approached its end, there were only three players without Skulls: Bayleigh Dayton, Josh Martinez and Kyle Christie. From the teasers, I figured they had one last chance to gain entry to the final mission. It looked like everyone in the Bunker had jumped to the same assumption I did. Like most people, I thought that Bayleigh would make her way to Purgatory, and Josh and Kyle would face off against each other. Oddly enough, the thought of that going down irritated me.

the challenge total madness red skull josh kyle elimination

The Challenge is never a fair game. I don’t think it has ever been a fair game. My mental image of the show in general would be Johnny pointing finger guns, smirking about how “all’s fair in war, love and Challenges!” Each season, the players find ways to screw each other over. They have a talent for figuring out how to make the format work for them, and how to maneuver through the loopholes. Promises are broken all the time. I can’t really put The Challenge on the same level as Survivor, but they share one premise: If you are not at least thinking of stabbing someone in the back, then you’re probably not playing correctly. The part of me that lives for chaos wanted at least one of the three Skull-hungry players to be shut out. So, what happened next?

  • Fessy and Jenny won Running Out Of Time, and they picked Josh to join them in the Tribunal, guaranteeing the Big Brother alumnus his shot in Purgatory.
  • Bayleigh and Kyle volunteered to go into Purgatory, and the players outside of the Tribunal put up no opposition.

The one time I wanted shenanigans, I was denied. None of the three players could have been considered a “lay-up” for an easy win in Purgatory, but I figured at least one of them would be denied. It didn’t help that I wasn’t fond of any of them. Kyle came off as a tool most of the time, I have a bias against Big Brother in general even before Bayleigh started getting dramatic, and I still cannot believe Josh won $500,000 on that show.

Of course, someone had to be cut off at the knees, and that person was Aneesa. While I can’t say that I’m a fan of hers, it was painful to hear the other players call her weak. That included Josh, who strikes me as all sorts of vacant. They had fears of being forced to pair off with her in a final mission. The last time something like that happened was in Dirty 30 five seasons ago. Perhaps Aneesa’s critics remembered her poor third-place finish in Duel II, and how she kept Mark from running alongside Brad and Evan for the men’s title. That season aired in 2009. To give some perspective, the show was still called Real World/Road Rules Challenge back then. President Obama was starting his first term as President. That might as well be considered prehistory for many of the younger fans.

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The Purgatories played out as I had dreaded, as I vainly hoped Fessy Shafaat (the least irritating rookie from Big Brother) would hop down to meet Kyle in Purgatory. That would have been a stupid move, but it would have been off-script, and I wanted that so badly. Josh and Jenny voted Aneesa into Purgatory over Melissa, and she lost to Bayleigh giving her yet another loss so close to the end. Josh wound up facing Kyle and losing, sending him home to wait for his next chance to annoy viewers. As Bayleigh and Kyle celebrated their respective berths into the final mission and TJ sniped about Josh’s tendency to cry as soon as he was out of earshot, the other Skull-holders waited for him to announce that they had made the finale. But TJ left them hanging, paving the way for two more purgatories, as well as Nelson Thomas’ “sacrifice” to save Cory from Purgatory and Jenny sealing her ticket to the final by mauling Dee.

I find myself often disappointed by The Challenge. This season, it’s because I kept trying to figure out the nuances of the format, only to find none. Like most concepts, the Red Skulls was good but poorly executed. It turned out there were too many to be awarded, and there was no advantage in winning more than one. I’m guessing everyone at BMP from the top down now has the same thought as they barrel towards an uncertain future: “Back to the drawing board.”