MTV's 'The Challenge: Total Madness': Episode 1 recap

The first episode of any season of MTV’s “The Challenge” is always roughly the same. The competitors arrive under ominous circumstances, everyone mean mugs each other, T.J. welcomes them to the new season, they clap, there's a daily competition, they run around the house, people get drunk/hook-up, and a rookie inevitably gets eliminated. Episode 1 of the 35th season (“Total Madness”) featured all of that, too – though there was a game-changing twist dropped on the cast members at the end.

Host T.J. Lavin (who had a big night, as usual) sternly announced:"I'm done with people skating by. I'm done with people just going under the radar. ... This season, the only way to make it into a final is to win an elimination."

MORE CHALLENGE: Season 35 preview | Best competitors of all-time

This wasn’t exactly earth-shattering news to most viewers, as this twist had been widely reported, but it still put a fine point on a solid episode that laid the groundwork for what figures to be an entertaining and competitive season.

“The Challenge: Total Madness:” Episode 1 recap

***NOTHING BUT SPOILERS AHEAD***

The episode starts with all the cast members on a helicopter at night. Everyone is silent and staring at each other in the dim red light of the aircraft. The chopper lands, T.J. opens the doors, everyone screams, and the Bassment Jaxx's “Where’s Your Head At” kicks in. That song came out in 2001, so day-one fans must have had flashbacks of Susie, Timmy, and The Miz, but sadly, the closest thing we get this season is Aneesa.

Everyone lines up in a forest, Teej arrives in a tank (naturally), and tells them it’s an individual game this season, though they will be working in teams and pairs throughout. He then announces they’re playing for $1 million and they all freak out. Turns out, these professional reality show competitors really like money. Who knew? T.J. also says – several times -- that this is the Most Dangerous Season EverTM.

DAILY COMPETITION: BATTLE LINES

As is often the case on “The Challenge,” the explanation of the daily comp gets a bit brushed over. For this one, competitors have to pull heavy barrels on a string, then do a puzzle, then pull more barrels, then do a math problem, then carry some weight. Puzzles and math on the first comp? This really is the Most Dangerous Season EverTM.

Oh, one more thing: T.J. and some other unidentified person (Jonny Moseley?) will be driving tanks through the game area, and if they crush one of your barrels, you’re out.

The guys get ready to kick things off, but not before Nelson does some push-ups because “this season, [he’s] going into the game a lot different. ... It’s time to get [his] hands dirty." I guess he meant that literally because his hands actually got dirty from doing push-ups. Kyle refers to Nelson’s push-ups as an “idiot move,” but, to be fair, he didn’t hear Nelson’s little speech.

Nany has her eye on rookie Asaf (it’s none of our business who Nany hooks up with, though, as she pointed out during her fight with Nia on “Battle of the Exes 2”), who begins his introduction with, “You probably know me from...” Let me stop you right there, Asaf Goren, because we don’t know you from anywhere, nor do we care where you’ve been.

The comp starts and it’s all very confusing. Dudes are pulling barrels on a string 500 yards across a field, but as usual, we can't really tell who’s doing well. Once T.J. and the other unidentified person start up the tanks (seriously, who the hell is driving that other tank?), barrels get run over and competitors start getting eliminated.

The puzzle comes and goes (Cory was undoubtedly hoping he could just pick it up and run with it instead of solving it), and there’s more barrel pulling. Rookie Fessy explains that he was a “two-time Division 1 All-American at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.” Well, a two-time Division 1 FCS All-American. Kind of a key detail to leave out. Hey, there are plenty of great FCS players in the NFL, but, you know, he wasn’t exactly squaring off against ‘Bama and LSU every week. Fessy also implies that he would be “playing on Sundays” if not for an AC joint injury his senior year. Again, he was a solid player in the SoCon, but let’s not pretend Bill Belichick was trading up to get him in the draft.

Anyway, Fessy is doing well, CT mangles some Spanish words, and Bear announces he’s the best at math. He then sees this brain buster, 67 + 54 - 53 / 2, and almost craps himself. CT, Fessy, and Rogan are the last guys left, and Rogan brings it home. No doubt Joss shed a tear (and his pants) while watching.

The gals are up next, and after Tori reminds us she's a huge nerd by adopting some kind of rapper persona and saying, “We are playing for a million muhf***in' dollars, baby, yeeah, tryna get my bank on, woo,” the comp starts. There’s more pulling and tank driving (T.J. really likes driving a tank), and Jenny jumps out to a big lead.

She gets to her math problem, 82 + 28 - 52 / 2, and unlike Bear, she’s prepared. She explains: “Every evening when I’m sat on the sofa with my guinea pigs, I have my phone out, on my app, doing my equations. And I am so fricken glad I did this. This is the training I needed to do last season.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that quote, so let’s just move on.

Jenny and Dee are the final two females. Jenny wins...all thanks to that fourth-grade-level equations app. (Does she mean a calculator? Do they call calculators “apps” in England? Never mind.)

Jenny and Rogan are automatically in the Tribunal. Bear lobbies hard to be the third pick (“I’ll take it. Just pick me, please. Can I do it?”) to no avail. They pick Cory to join them for no real reason (because he’s “neutral” and a “good competitor”? Huh?), but considering it’s a male elimination day, that’s great news for him.

T.J. explains the house will vote on the first person to go into the elimination round, then the Tribunal will make three nominations, interrogate them, and ultimately choose the second elimination-round competitor.

THE HOUSE UNVEILING

Everyone but CT runs to a door that they think will open to their living space. Instead, they’re led through an underground series of bomb-shelter-like hallways and more doors. They’re nervous. Things are almost too dangerous at this point. They finally find their living quarters, and unlike some of the luxurious mansions they’ve stayed in in the past, conditions are suboptimal.

Nany says, “This is a literal prison,” which confirms she’s never been in a prison.

Then Jordan and CT stumble upon an oasis in this bomb shelter: A cavernous open room that has a full gym, pool, sprinter’s track, billiards table, fully stocked kitchen, and probably some other stuff. The production team has their best moment of the night by playing DMX’s “Party Up” right as Jordan screams, “Look at this s***, baby”, CT bellows something unintelligible, and the rest of the cast pours into the room, pops bottles, and cannonballs into the pool.

We see our only clip of rookie Jenn, who says being on “The Amazing Race” prepared her for “The Challenge” because “you have to think on your feet.” It’s important to point out that Jenn lasted one episode on “The Amazing Race,” so if you’re playing Challenge Daily Fantasy on FanDuel next week, go ahead and pick her for your team because she’s definitely going into elimination.

Rookie Kaycee says she's gonna keep quiet, Mattie Lynn says she's overwhelmed, and Melissa is...also...there (I think).

Jenna informs us that she (Holy Spirit), Kailah (Son), and Nany (Father) are the Holy Trinity alliance, which is somehow extremely blasphemous yet arousing at the same time. Nany then goes on to do something our Creator would never do and make bedroom eyes at Asaf for what seems like an hour. They eventually make out and Nany, somehow, wakes up in Asaf’s bed the next morning. Ashley sums it up: “Nany has a strange taste in men. Well, actually, no...Nany just likes any men.” (None of our business, though. None. Of. Our. Business.)

Kailah wards off Bear’s advances and announces she’s in a relationship and it’s time to be more mature. So, we know they’ll be hooking up later this season.

ELIMINATION VOTE AND INTERROGATION

Everyone but the Tribunal members get together for the vote. Bananas says a vet should start the proceedings, then throws it to CT. Since we didn’t get to see the Bananas’ opening night toast this year, this bit of Bananas humor will have to do.

CT and some others pick Jay, more pick Asaf, and Asaf picks...Wes? Wes gets upset because he grew a beard and was trying to lay low this season, and he starts unnecessarily berating Asaf, which is the opposite of what someone trying to lay low would do (even with a beard). Wes calls him a “follower,” which leads to Asaf limply saying, “I ain’t no f***ing follower. I’m a leader. What’s up?”

In a way he is a leader because he’s the first person voted into an elimination round this season. That’s what’s up, Asaf.

Cory, Jenny, and Rogan try to figure out which other rookie they should send in. They’re scared of Fessy because of his size (they undoubtedly watched some big UT-Chattanooga games back in the day), and they’re scared of Swaggy because they’re scared of Bayleigh, who’s been talking s*** every chance she gets. Yeah, we get it – Swaggy’s “ya man,” but all that means is people will vote you in because you won’t shut up about it.

That leaves poor Jay, who seems like a good guy to know if you need weed but not necessarily a good guy for this competition. The Tribunal picks Kyle and Wes to join Jay in the interrogation room, which makes absolutely no sense. All veterans have relationships that are tough to break, but you can still win over rookies to your side – and an (FCS) All-American tight end like Fessy is definitely someone you want on your side. Get two rookies to pledge their loyalty to you for "saving" them, and you could be cooking with gas. But, nope, these three Mensa members botched a huge early advantage, and we’re treated to what’s likely gonna be the lamest interrogation of the season.

In between, we learn that Bananas and Wes are teaming up this year. It's treated as a monumental moment in Challenge history, but we pointed out that such a move would make sense in our Season 35 preview, so we’re not surprised. Apparently, the rest of the house won’t be either because they already have their suspicions that something is up when Bananas and Wes hug. Again, way to “lay low,” Wes. Either way, Jordan isn't very worried because why would he be?

PURGATORY (ELIMINATION COMP)

We get the obligatory slow-motion cast walk to the elimination pit, which is called ”Purgatory” this season. Why not “The Asylum” or “The Padded Room” since the name of the season is “Total Madness?” T.J. explains that you’re halfway between heaven (victory) and hell (defeat), hence purgatory. Of course, if Teej had studied his Catholic teachings a little more closely, he'd know that if you're in purgatory, you're guaranteed to go to heaven, so you're not actually between heaven and hell (the story of St. Stanislaus sums this up). T.J. should have asked the Holy Trinity for some clarification on that.

Josh, as if reading from a cue card, tell us that "so much madness" is gonna go on there all season long. At least he’s not crying yet.

The Tribunal picks Jay by a 3-0 vote, and the world braces for the Asaf-vs.-Jay battle we definitely expected but still don’t care about.

The competition is called “Air Strike.” Both competitors hang on trapeze-like bars with a big plate of glass (or maybe it’s plastic) between them. They have to try to get the other person to fall twice. It’s a weird concept even by Challenge standards.

Jay explains that because he’s a rock climber, he has an advantage, which kind of makes sense. Someone else says that Asaf is a dancer, so he has an advantage, which definitely doesn’t make sense. Anyway, Jay says that his plan is to not move much and let Asaf tire himself out with kicks. The comp starts and Jay immediately starts kicking.

Asaf is kicking harder, though, and he’s flexing his arms while hanging (which everyone points out is dumb). Sure enough, Asaf falls first. Front-running Dee then suggests she wants to hook up with Jay because he’s exactly her type. Considering he’s nothing like Rogan, her hook-up last season, I think we can all agree Dee has a pretty loose definition of “her type.”

Both guys decide they’re not going to move at all during the second heat, which makes for an awful viewing experience. Where the hell is T.J.’s tank when you need it? Fire some grenades up there or something. (Most Dangerous Season EverTM my ass)

It should also be noted that this would have been a tough comp for someone as big as Fessy, so the vets really should have taken their shot at him right away. If he comes back, so be it. He can only go after one person at a time. Play the odds. You would think with all the Challenge experience in that room, they’d realize not every elimination is Hall Brawl or Tug of War.

Asaf eventually falls again, and Nany is sad her crush is leaving. She says she’ll “slide into his DMs,” but considering she’s already slid into his pants, that probably doesn't need to be said. Also, she’ll probably hook up with someone else within 24-48 hours (beeswax, not ours).

Jay says he’s stronger than he looks (maybe), and Asaf says he’ll be back (probably not), and T.J. turns into a college football coach and says he’s handing out helmet stickers – the most important of which is a red skull. The red skull means you’ve won an elimination, and only people with a red skull sticker are fit to run “his final” (as if Teej is out there setting up orange cones and stepping off checkpoints).

Jay takes this very literally, saying he’s the only person who can go to the final right now. Great insight, Jay. I bet he’s the type of dude that says a player who hits a home run on opening day is “on pace to hit 162 home runs.”

The cast excitedly wonders aloud how this twist will change the game and if they should want to go into Purgatory early. (Answer: Probably).

WHAT WE LEARNED

Like all reality TV producers, “The Challenge” crew likes to foreshadow. Sometimes it’s for the immediate next one or two episodes; sometimes it’s for the entire season. Based on what we saw in Episode 1, two things seem clear:

Ashley got a lot of a love as a master relationship-builder. She’s going to try to build a rag-tag alliance with the likes of her "protege" Big T and other randos, and eventually they’ll go head-to-head with the Holy Trinity. My money’s on Ashley.

Also, “Swayleigh” is going to have a huge blowup with someone at some point, and I’m not sure they can back up all their bluster. I mean, Bayleigh got into it with Jay, the least threatening person still in the house. Imagine when they face some real heat.

For the guys, we might have gotten a hint that this could be a good season for Kyle during a teacher-grasshopper moment with CT. The Bananas/Wes thing seems too obvious to work out long-term, but until we see the rest of their alliance and how they navigate the elimination twist, it’s tough to say for sure.

We also learned that Rogan has “go muscles,” not “show muscles,” the “easiest way to get sent home is going into elimination” (thanks, Kyle), and Dee plans on being a real D(ee)-blocker when it comes to Rogan this season.

Next week, we’ll see which female is sent packing (probably Jenn) and just how much more dangerous the Most Dangerous Season EverTM can get.