After a two-hour drive into a Thailand jungle, the action on the set of MTV’s The Challenge is about to begin. But it doesn’t exactly start with a foghorn and a bunch of competitors clashing. The moment production-van doors open to reveal lush green surroundings, the skies open and the wind picks up, taking a tent with it and sending this season’s 32 reality stars scrambling for cover in craft services with the crew. The producers and cameramen are unfazed and laughing off the incident. This is nothing, they say. Last season, the entire elimination set washed away in a flash flood just four days before the first face-off. Moments later, the rain stops and, after a few adjustments to the freshly muddied obstacle course, the first challenge of season 34 — dubbed War of the Worlds 2, pitting teams of new and returning American and British players against each other and premiering Wednesday — is underway.
EW is the first publication to witness that fun firsthand — and here’s what we learned.
Everyone gets paid
“It’s a tiered system where people who’ve been on [before] are paid more money than people who are just starting the franchise, but everybody receives a weekly stipend,” says showrunner Justin Booth, who has been with the reality competition for almost 25 seasons. Of course, this is in addition to any possible end-of-the-season prize money, which has been as high as $1 million in recent years. For some of the more experienced players, it’s that massive prize purse that keeps them coming back.
Alcohol consumption is regulated
Years before the 2017 booze-fueled Bachelor in Paradise scandal, Booth began limiting the players’ choices to beer, white wine, or vodka and had the liquids dyed so production could tell when they were imbibing. “When I first started some 15 years ago, the cast was allowed to drink as much as they wanted,” he recalls. “But after one too many fights, we did away with tequila shots, and brown liquor was eradicated.”
“I’m probably one of the main reasons we can’t have whiskey in the house,” says Chris “CT” Tamburello, 39, who was once famous for getting into those fights but is calmer in his 16th season. “The Challenge in the past was more about a party. Now, it’s evolved to an action movie. You can’t screw around or someone could get seriously hurt.”
Everyone is a little stir-crazy
Throughout the season, several days can go by without a challenge, deliberation, or elimination in order to make time for strategy sessions around the house and to schedule individual confessional interviews. But with nowhere to go and nothing to read or watch — nor alcohol being served at all hours — the players are left to come up with their own entertainment. During the day, the contestant activity can be quiet: Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio, Zach Nichols, and Stephen Bear often take refuge from the heat in the pool (and Devenanzio, back for his 19th season, is prone to mooning the camera crew); “Ninja” Natalie Duran curls up solo, jotting observations into a journal she thinks may inform her strategy in the game; Nany González gives Laurel Stucky a facial; Wes Bergmann complains to field producers about how desperate he is for a Coca-Cola instead of “boring” water. “But when the sun goes down and the moon comes out, people transform,” says contestant Jordan Wiseley, 28. “Everyone gets dressed — it doesn’t matter if we’re going anywhere. And the Brits bring a whole new level of crazy.”
Reentry into real life can be rough
After weeks spent with a laser focus on the game and away from phone and email, the players can struggle for a bit. “You get thrown back into this sensory overload of the world and you’re still in a state of almost-paranoia,” explains Wiseley, who has returned for a fifth time. “It usually takes a good week or two to get back into a routine, talk to normal people, and not talk about the game.”
The new season is more eco-friendly
For War of the Worlds 2, Booth encouraged cast and crew to think a bit more green, and everyone walked around with sleek monogrammed Under Armour water bottles in order to avoid using single-use plastic bottles. “I’m trying to get the message out that that stuff is possible and people can do it,” he says. “Everyone embraced it. The hotel where we were staying even wrote me a letter saying that they were inspired by it.”
TJ Lavin really is the best
The BMX rider and Challenge host, 42, revels in making friends — and an impact — all over the world. “When we were in Africa for Final Reckoning[season 32], TJ made friends with the entire local community,” Devenanzio, 37, recalls. “In the grocery store, he found this woman with her two kids and said, ‘I want you to fill up your shopping cart with everything you can.’ He told the kids, ‘Let’s go to the toy section and pick out whatever you want.’ ” On set, he also inspires the competitors. “A hug from TJ is like 400 hugs from other people,” says Bergmann, back for his 12th season. “And a ‘You could have tried harder’ cuts like 1,000 swords.”
A version of this story appears in the September issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.