Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Amidst its highest ratings in eight seasons, MTV's long-running competition show, The Challenge, is experiencing a resurgence in popularity thanks in part to the ongoing pandemic that has audiences thirsting for new content. For long time fans, there is also the excitement of a possible "OG" season, an idea championed by Challenge veteran Mark Long. This renewed acclaim inspired me to take a look back at some of the more unique seasons of the show, starting with The Island.
In 2008, the Real World/Road Rules Challenge turned the competition on its head when it took the challengers out of the comforts of a luxurious villa and placed them on a remote beach in Panama in hopes of gaining their share of $300,000. To win, contestants had to work together to construct two boats that, once completed, would ferry eight key-holders in a 4-on-4 race across the sea to another island where they would find the grand prize in the form of buried treasure.
The Island was like unlike any previous iteration of the show. Similarly, we have yet to see anything like it since. Aiken to Survivor, stranded contestants - a term used very loosely here - were forced to work together while gathering food and maintaining their shelter. At the beginning of every episode, an air-drop would provide contestants with materials to construct the boats, extra food, and luxury items to make their stay on the island more comfortable.
To gain a key, the challengers nominated three people for a Face-Off, the equivalent of an elimination challenge in a regular season. The winner would receive the key while the two losers would plead their case to the rest of the group as to why they deserve to stay. The individual saved by the group received a key. After all eight keys had been won, Face-Off winners had the opportunity to steal one from any current holder. Tell us TJ, what was your first word you said when you heard about this concept?
I know, mine too! Thanks for playing along. Anyways...
You may be wondering why we haven't mentioned anything about teams or the daily missions the show typically utilizes. That's because The Island didn't feature either. That's right, MTV produced a season of The Challenge without any challenges. On The Island, the 20 challengers relied only on their strategy, jockeying for position on the two boats at the end.
Evelyn vs. The World
The season's overarching narrative focused on Evelyn's quest to take down the alliance, consisting of Kenny, Johnny, Paula, Johanna, Dunbar, and Derrick. Evelyn was friendly with most of the group but espoused a deep hatred toward the arrogant Johnny Bananas that drove a wedge between the two. Due to this divide, Johnny wanted nothing to do with Evelyn, often targeting her for his angry rants.
Throughout the first few weeks on The Island, Kenny and Johnny orchestrated events to allow each member of their alliance to gain a key while simultaneously keeping Evelyn out of every Face-Off. With no more keys to be won, the group controlled five of the eight.
Evelyn, determined to get to compete, volunteered to enter a Face-Off with both Tyrie and Dan. The alliance agreed to let her compete, believing she would lose, subsequently allowing them to vote her out. The TJ dropped the bomb that shifted the season: moving forward, the winner of a Face-Off could steal a key from any current key holder of their choosing.
Well, sure enough, Evelyn won. Despite Kenny and Johnny's attempt to convince her to steal KellyAnne's key, Evelyn could not bring herself to betray her friend and instead took Johnny's.
Taking their first real hit of the season, the alliance immediately strategized how to get Johnny's key back. Enlisting Derrick's help, Johnny returned to a Face-Off to win the right to steal a key. With Derrick throwing the competition, Johnny was able to win, taking back his ticket onto the boat at the end. The alliance once again reverted to keeping Evelyn out of Face-Off to keep her from stealing another key.
Of course, everything changed when only twelve competitors remained. TJ dropped the bomb that the remaining four who do not have keys would compete in one final Face-Off. The winner will streal a key, becoming the eighth and final contestant eligible for the grand prize, while the remaining contestants leave the competition.
Once again, Evelyn pulls out the win over Dan, KellyAnne, and alliance member Johanna, subsequently thwarting the alliances plan to keep her out of the final. Everyone assumes that Evelyn will once again steal Johnny's key as retribution for how he treated her.
In one of the more iconic moments in Challenge history, Kenny and Johnny approach Evelyn with a deal that would change the outcome of The Island. If Evelyn agreed to steal Dunbar's key instead of theirs, they would put Evelyn in their boat instead of Paula. In a shocked the group by honoring the deal, forming an uneasy alliance with Kenny and Bananas.
The rest is history as Evelyn, Johnny, Kenny, and Derrick teamed up together on the red boat, setting sail towards a victory.
The Birth of Johnny Bananas
While featuring some memorable moments, The Island was a bit of a letdown overall, a lackluster iteration of The Challenge. However, the events of the season led to the birth of arguably the show's most famous competitor: Johnny Bananas.
The Island was Johnny Banana's fourth season, though his Challenge record was less than stellar. Early exits in The Duel and The Gauntlet III overshadowed his finals appearance in The Inferno 3. On top of this, his checkered past had earned him a reputation for being egotistical and misogynistic.
The Island cemented Johnny's place as the preeminent villain in franchise history. His reputation continued to sour with the poor treatment of several of his female challengers. Evelyn and KellyAnne were frequent targets of the Banana Man, with constant tirades directed at both any time they did anything to annoy him. The dislike towards him grew to the point Rachel tried to send him home even as Abram, even as Abram pleaded for the group to let him go home.
Despite the negative response from his fellow contestants, Johnny utilized a well-devised strategy and a strong relationship ship with Kenny to help keep him in the game until the very end. The iconic deal between him and bitter rival Evelyn, essentially trading his safety for Paula's position in the boat, propelled Johnny to his first win. Much like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a Banana rose out of the tears from Paula pouring on the beach of Panama as she watched the red boat achieve a victory she long thought she would be hers.
The Island marked the first of seven total victories for Bananas. As I was rewatching this season, I continuously wondered if Johnny Bananas would have become the face of The Challenge if he hadn't won The Island. There is certainly an argument that he wouldn't have. By this season, he had already experienced two early exits in three seasons, sandwiched by a finals appearance. Would a third early exit in his fourth season result in an invite back for future seasons?
Likewise, Banana's next appearance and win came on The Ruins as part of the champions team. Without a victory here, Banana's isn't on the champions team and most likely misses out on his second victory. While he probably gets an invite back in the future due to his divisive personality, there isn't a guarantee he returns for Cutthroat if he loses on The Ruins. If he isn't on Cutthroat, then he doesn't meet Camilla, his partner on the first season of Battle of the Exes, his third victory.
The "what if" game is a slippery slope, of course, but let's be honest, the legend of Johnny Bananas may not exist today, at least as we know it, if had it not been for The Island. This win impacted at least one more victory and possibly two. Who knows what happens from there.
And to think, Johnny only stayed around in Panama because Abram asked his fellow contestants to vote him out. Had Ab not made this request, the group was ready to vote Johnny out second. So I guess we have Abram and The Island to thank for paving the path for the man who likes to make a toast to take his place on the Mount Rushmore of Challenge competitors.