‘The Challenge’ Team on Creating Season 35’s ‘Apt Post-Apocalyptic’ Theme, Red Skull Twist

The Challenge 35 Unit / Gallery
Riccardo Giardina FOR MTV

Fade up on the sound of a helicopter’s rotor blades. It is a dark but clear night. Inside that aircraft sit 28 men and women in two rows, dressed in the uniform of their chosen battle, “The Challenge.” After they descend onto an open expanse, TJ Lavin pulls the doors open and everyone cheers. They may be walking into the unknown, but for most, it is far from the first time they are doing so. This is a landmark 35th season for the MTV reality competition series — the end of a trilogy of seasons that began with “War of the Worlds” in early 2019 — and everyone from veterans, veterans lite (only a few seasons under their belts) and rookies knows they are in for an experience like no other. There is a reason the season is subtitled “Total Madness.”

“We went into this saying, ‘Let’s deliver something awesome.’ The mandate for our challenge development team, generally, is ‘Think big and then think bigger,'” executive producer Emer Harkin tells Variety. “Tanks, explosions and helicopters are kind of the call of the day.”

This time around, it is an individual game with a one-million dollar prize waiting for the winner at the end. The very first challenge the players face sets up how complicated the season will be: Each person must pull a barrel with medical supplies 500 feet across a field and solve a math equation to advance — all while Lavin drives a tank across the field, weaving around players and occasionally destroying their progress.

But that is just the beginning. Back at their home base, the players find themselves in a bunker. Yes, it has a state-of-the-art gym, including a pool, but it is underground and without connection to the outside world.

“This season we knew we were going with this post-apocalyptic, otherworldly theme, which is terribly apt right now,” Harkin notes. “We created this environment that we took really seriously, whereby they never saw the outside world. From the moment we landed in the location, we really took an immersive approach. From blackening out the windows of the bus that the cast traveled on, they never mixed with members of the public, they were in private spaces, there’s very little interaction with our crew.”

And then there are the elimination challenges. For the first time ever, whoever emerges victorious from that experience will receive a red skull on his or her helmet, a symbol of victory and one needed for that person to advance to the final.

“This being the final installment of the trilogy, people — and TJ — were really annoyed with people skating by and going, ‘I don’t want to watch people cruise along and politic their way to a final,'” Harkin says. “‘The Challenge’ is all about athleticism and performance and winning, so we looked at the previous few seasons, which we do every season, and said, ‘What worked? What didn’t?’ The overarching thing we realized was people really have to be forced to perform here.”

Introducing the idea that anyone who wanted to be in the final would first have to prove themselves in an elimination round forced everyone to rethink their strategy for the game, Harkin says. This season, there are veterans who have been a part of more than a dozen previous seasons, including Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio (hitting a record 20th season); CT Tamburello, who is on his 17th challenge; and both Wes Bergmann and Aneesa Ferreira, who are competing in their 13th challenges each.

“Anybody that is not in the tribunal is a loser, so you cannot automatically bank your place in elimination,” says Harkin.

While that combated people’s ability to try to throw challenges to get automatically sent into an elimination, it also twisted their social game.

“It’s this multifaceted political game now because you’re selecting someone to go in, but are you doing them a favor?” says Harkin. “Initially you’ll see the cast played it one way and then they had to turn really heavily because they realized they were playing it totally wrong. Say I send Bananas into elimination and he wins, and then I throw him in again and again, I’m eliminating my own possibility of getting that red skull because there’s a finite opportunities to actually earn it. The cast has no idea of what that number is. It took a beat for them to figure out the game.”

Ensuring that each season is a refresh of even the most recent seasons past is what keeps players coming back, Harkin says, but in order to further switch up dynamics and infuse new drama, there are always a handful of rookies. Although these are players making their “Challenge” debuts, though, they are no strangers to the world of reality television. In “Total Madness” alone, the rookies include five from the global “Big Brother” franchise (including winner Kaycee Clark), one from “Survivor” (Jay Starrett) and one from “The Amazing Race” (Jennifer Lee).

“We see ourselves now as the challenge show,” Harkin says about why they pull new cast members from other reality franchises. “It’s really about marrying the best of the best from those shows with the best of ours.”

It also takes someone who is “uber-competitive” to succeed on “The Challenge,” she notes, a personality trait the producers and casting director Kati Herrera look for when putting together the cast for any season.

“We wanted to bookend what we had started in ‘War of the Worlds,’ so we brought in a new global cast. We wanted to see our strongest, our most competitive faces,” says Harkin. “There was a lot of fallout over the prior two seasons and their entire ‘Challenge’ career, so it was really about the person who had that agenda — who wanted to come back to prove to themselves and to everybody that they were going to deliver the very best of themselves.”

Herrera’s process to find the rookies for the season began well before she knew which veterans producers wanted to bring back. (In fact, she says she is usually done casting rookies before they are calling back the vets.) In looking for “fresh meat,” as they have been previously called throughout the franchise, Herrera notes essential qualities are that they are “athletic, young, entertaining, single.” Additionally, “they can’t just be the hottest guy or the most loved girl, they also have to not die when they come on ‘The Challenge,'” she says. “That, in and of itself, is a challenge to find them. [And] MTV being the home and safe place for the LGBTQ community and keeping casts diverse, people really want to see themselves represented on television. So all of those things mixed together create the unicorn that I am constantly searching for.”

Herrera says part of her research process includes watching as many other reality shows as possible to look for possible players for “The Challenge” — but some franchises are more easily pushed aside than others. Those are the ones that she calls “over-produced,” often setting their contestants up for very specific conversations, let alone events. “The Challenge,” in contrast, she explains, is always looking for “these people to be people — to be really those people that you see.”

In finding those who are unafraid to be unapologetically real, that means actively looking to cast people who are “going to take people out along the way [and] are cutthroat and savage,” Herrera continues. But at the same time, they can’t be “complete jerks” because the shows needs its audiences to get behind the new players and want to watch them for multiple seasons.

“You kind of always want to recreate a Bananas who’s got that longevity and fan following,” Herrera says.

Whether the player has made a career out of being on “The Challenge” or has grown up watching it and coming to it now as a fresher face, the expectation is that they will be kept on their toes while taking part in the experience. This requires clearing every single player both mentally and physically before production begins.

Because “Total Madness” had the added element of bunker-living, which Harkin calls “a real character test for our cast” and notes came with “literally the feeling of the walls closing in,” there was an added test of emotional and emotional strength this season. But whether the cast lives “in a mansion or in a bunker,” she continues, the production team monitors them all of the time and has a “scrupulous security team that is on set all of the time,” as well as a “risk plan,” should someone struggle with the pressure and become a danger to themselves or others.

“It’s not all about brawn. There is a massive brain element to our game: It’s a social game, it’s a mental game. You have to have a very specific, well-rounded set of skills to find victory in ‘The Challenge.’ It is about creating a balance,” says Harkin.

“The Challenge: Total Madness” premieres April 1 at 8 p.m. on MTV.