The Challenge: Total Madness recap, takeaways — Will Johnny Bananas and Wes actually work together?

America’s fifth major sport kicked off its new season on Wednesday night at a time when the country — nay, the world — needs it more than ever. I’m talking, of course, about MTV’s “The Challenge.” The reality competition show kicked off its 35th season with the latest edition called “Total Madness.” And based on the first episode, the name of this season seems fitting.

I watched it because I’ve always watched it, and each week, I’m going to recap it here for you because I’m a sportswriter, and I need to write about sports. So here are my five takeaways from the first episode of “The Challenge: Total Madness,” including a surprising one to open things up here.

Johnny and Wes have seen the writing on the wall

One of the early surprise reveals this season is that Johnny Bananas and Wes are finally teaming up to work together. The two have been playing the game longer than just about anybody else, as this season is the 21st time Bananas has played (six wins), and the 15th time we’ve seen Wes (two wins). In all 15 of their prior meetings, they’ve played while being enemies the entire time, always plotting against the other one.

The problem is that working against one another has not been a winning formula in recent years. Johnny might be the greatest Challenge contestant of all time, but it’s been seven seasons since his last win. The last few years have seen early exits for both Bananas and Wes as they’ve routinely spent their time worrying about one another rather than realizing the new reality around them.

Recent seasons of “The Challenge” have seen a lot of newcomers enter the game. Rookies from “Big Brother” or other MTV and CBS reality shows with no allegiance to most of the long-time returning players. It has been clear to viewers that, for either Bananas or Wes to have a realistic shot of getting deep into the game, they would have to work together. It’s just something they have refused to do … until this season. 

Now, whether this newfound alliance lasts or not, I don’t know. I think it will, simply because they don’t have much of a choice. Of course, working together might make the targets on their back more prominent than they already were, but if they can pull a few more people in, they have a chance to reach the final.

The new twist is a great one

Speaking of the final, thank heavens they added the new eligibility stipulation for this season. While it didn’t come as a surprise, just hearing host T.J. Lavin tell the contestants that, in order to reach the final this year, a player must survive at least one elimination, was a breath of fresh air. Like T.J., I too was bothered by watching players skate by and not have to do anything thanks to being in a powerful alliance only to reach the final and be completely overmatched. 

It’s the equivalent of an NFL team going 6-10 yet making the playoffs because it was the only team in its division.

Not only will this change help ensure that only the game’s strongest players make it to the end, but it will change the strategy. For a strong player, you’re not only going to want to get into an elimination to earn a potential spot, but you’re going to want to do it earlier in the game when there are more easy targets to go against. It will be interesting to see how this change plays out in the coming weeks.

CT is the veteran most affected by the new rules

CT is one of the greatest Challenge players ever, but the new rule changes impact him more than anyone else. CT was on last season’s winning team and reached the end never having to face elimination. When he reached the final of the “Dirty 30” season, he did so without going into an elimination as well. When he won on the “Invasion of the Champions” season, he went to elimination only once, beating Darrell. When he won on “Rivals II,” he did so without ever facing elimination. When he reached the final the season before on “Battle of the Exes,” he did so without ever facing elimination.

Have you spotted the trend yet, or do I need to keep hammering you over the head with it a bit longer?

“Total Madness” is CT’s 17th season on “The Challenge,” yet he’s only been in nine eliminations (he’s 5-4), and he’s reached the final eight times. Early in his career, this was partially strategy, but also a result of nobody in their right mind wanting to face a beast like CT in an elimination. He was a giant, angry man, and nobody wanted to mess with him. Remember this?!

Now he’s still a giant — though a far kinder, gentler one as a married father — but he’s no longer the only physically imposing giant. He’s also 39, so building strong relationships and alliances to avoid elimination has been the best strategy for him, and one he’s adapted to well. But this year he has no choice. He has to go in at some point. 

The tribunal screwed up the first nomination

Keeping in mind that the players didn’t know about the rule changes until after the first elimination, the tribunal of Rogan, Jenny and Corey made a bad decision. After the house voted to send newcomer Asaf into elimination, the tribunal nominated Jay, Kyle and Wes (it was a men’s elimination) to go against him and ultimately decided to send in fellow newcomer Jay.

Where they went wrong was never considering Chris a.k.a. “Swaggy C.” Swaggy, like Jay and Asaf, is a rookie. He’s also part of a built-in alliance as he enters the game with his fiance, Bayleigh, whom he met when they were on “Big Brother” together. Oh, and you should know that there are two other rookies from the same “Big Brother” season on the show in Kaycee and Faysal. 

So you have two people who are legitimately engaged and madly in love with one another. That’s a powerful alliance in itself, and then you add two more players they have a prior relationship with, and you have the potential for a powerful foursome, including a former college football player (Faysal) and a “Big Brother” champion who also happened to play for the San Diego Surge in the Women’s Football Alliance and proved to be a competition beast (Kaycee). So they should have attacked it head-on and nominated Swaggy. 

I understand avoiding Faysal as he’s big and athletic, and you don’t want to make an enemy of a player like that this early. But the biggest reason given for not nominating Swaggy was that they were scared of Bayleigh. Why? I get that she’s not shy about sharing her feelings and would be angry at you, but on their season of “Big Brother,” the two were together, and Swaggy was the second person voted out. Bayleigh was mad, flipped out, and then got over it and moved on. She was then voted out herself four weeks later.

Meanwhile, Jay has no prior connection to anybody on the show and could have been an ally. Now, he’s back in the game after eliminating Asaf, and it’s hard to imagine he’s dying to work with the three people who unanimously voted to put him in an elimination.

This season’s living situation is rather ironic, no?

Considering that we’re all confined to our homes MTV’s decision to have the players living in an abandoned anti-aircraft missile bunker outside of Prague is one hell of a coincidence. Keeping them confined to a bunker for the entire time is bound to lead to some great fights. 

Player of the Week: Jay

As mentioned above, Jay is a rookie and is the first former “Survivor” contestant to appear on “The Challenge.” It was a strong debut for him as he didn’t freak out when he was voted into elimination and proved to be smarter than Asaf once there. He’s also eligible to make the final having won an elimination. The question is whether that will serve to make the target on his back bigger or make him a more attractive ally. Personally, I think he’s a player I’d want in my alliance going forward.

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