The Challenge Hall of Fame: Rachel Robinson

To succeed on The Challenge a competitor must be smart, strong, politically savvy, or at the very least, lucky. Most competitors are average talents, and an unfortunate few perform poorly enough to earn a dubious honor (enter the Hall of Shame). But these competitors, the Hall of Fame class, have conquered The Challenge in one form or another, and they all share the most important quality: they know how to win.

I’m somewhat surprised by Rachel Robinson’s Challenge resume, because on paper her dominance isn’t well documented. She has a 1-2 elimination record (counting a three-way “face-off” on The Island), and she found herself voted off early in both Battle of the Sexes seasons. Most competitors had an easier time winning on earlier seasons that featured teams. Rachel, meanwhile, seemed to be waiting for an opportunity to go solo and win it all herself.

Before moving onto her best season, Rachel became infamous for her relationship with Veronica Portilla, her best buddy and threesome partner. The two formed a strong bond, so it’s no surprise they won The Gauntlet together and made it to The Inferno II final. I wouldn’t say Rachel ever had the best political skills, but befriending someone like Veronica – a friend you can trust wholeheartedly – is a somewhat rare feat on The Challenge.

Forget about that Gauntlet win though. Rachel earns her place in the Hall of Fame based on The Duel II alone. Landon Lueck’s performance on The Duel II is often referenced, but people seem to forget Rachel’s superiority during the same season. Rachel and Mark “The Godfather” Long earned first or second place in almost all of the daily challenges, and no one dared to call Rachel out to battle in an elimination. Unlike other competitors who were carried by their male partners, Rachel was arguably a stronger partner than The Godfather. Not only did she win first place amongst her female competition during the final challenge, she beat every male competitor. No one expected that to happen.

Rachel didn’t come close to the final on her last season, Battle of the Exes, but with a partner like Aneesa, you can’t expect too much. It’s unfortunate that Rachel didn’t compete in another solo season, because I would have liked to see her in a physical elimination against a top tier competitor like Laurel or Evelyn. Even after seven seasons we didn’t get enough footage of Rachel showing us exactly why phrases like “send the girls home early ‘cause they’ll hold us back in the final” are complete bullshit.

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Key Character: Jack Wilson

We all have favorite fictional characters. They can be inspirational, sagacious, heroic… or they can be relentless villains who are just so damn charismatic. In this feature I celebrate fictional characters who make their worlds much fuller.

Shane is a classic of western cinema. Its titular hero is a quiet and highly skilled gunfighter who finds a new home with the Starrett family. But this article isn’t about Shane. It’s about his dark reflection, the sinister Jack Wilson of Cheyenne.

Wilson isn’t the main antagonist of the film. Rather, he’s a hired gun recruited by the powerful cattleman Rufus Ryker. In some ways Wilson and Shane are quite similar. They’re both highly trained, stoic, and they carry dangerous reputations. But Shane has heart and a desire to become a better man. Wilson is an unscrupulous mercenary working for a tyrant.

Before Wilson’s introduction halfway through the film, Shane’s dialogue foreshadows the villain’s appearance. Shane mentions men who carry two guns (like Wilson), saying, “Some like two guns. But one’s all you need if you can use it.” Shane goes on to say, “A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.” Wilson is the bad to Shane’s good, the two guns to Shane’s one.

Wilson shows his true nature when he confronts Frank “Stonewall” Torrey and goads him into drawing his weapon. After absorbing insults, Torrey calls Wilson a “lowdown, lying Yankee.” Wilson smiles and challenges Torrey by asking him to “prove it” (a great bit of line reading from actor Jack Palance). All the while Wilson wears a sinister smile. And he continues smiling as he guns Torrey down in the mud.

We never learn much about Wilson. Like Shane, we know little to nothing of his history. He doesn’t even spend much time onscreen. And in this case, less is more. All we know is he is what Shane could have been. Or worse, he’s what Shane used to be. And by outdrawing Wilson and shooting him dead, Shane reaffirms himself as a killer who may not deserve the home he thought he’d found.

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Brand New Post Mortem

It’s been two years since sexual misconduct allegations against Brand New frontman Jesse Lacey became widely known. The news came as a shock to some, while others pointed out that the accusations weren’t new, people were just finally listening. I’d long considered Brand New to be my favorite band, and for all I knew about them, I was stunned by the stories. Jesse had written dark lyrics before, but I never would have suspected him of grooming children for sexual gratification.

People loved Brand New and still do. For those outside the club, it’s difficult to describe the relationship people of my age group have with the band. Jesse spoke to us and for us. His lyrics became a soundtrack for so much of our young lives, from high school pop punk fun to college frustration and adult retrospection. Jesse helped us feel like a part of something. We were in it together with Brand New.

I hadn’t been following Brand New closely in late 2017 (their newer music didn’t appeal to me as much as their earlier stuff), so reading the horror stories about Jesse was like finding out something terrible about a good friend you had lost touch with. After that the question for fans became: what do we do now? Burn all our Brand New memorabilia? Scrub our memories clean of the band? Like I said, the music is so intertwined with my coming-of-age that it’s a part of me like other pieces of pop culture aren’t. I didn’t want to stop listening to the band, but reading about a woman getting “physically sick” listening to the songs is tough to square.

I haven’t deleted Brand New’s music from my computer. I don’t tell people to stop playing Brand New if I’m in the room. Rather, I’m drawn to the music. I still love it. But I don’t listen to the band much at all anymore. And I know I’m lucky. I once hung out with Brand New on their tour bus after winning a street team contest. My buddies and I had driven four hours to see them open for Dashboard Confessional. We didn’t care much about Dashboard, but we thought Brand New’s abbreviated setlist was worth the drive. It’s a cherished experience. Two girls were there because they’d won the same contest. And I can’t help but wonder if they had the same positive experience we did.

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The Challenge Hall of Fame: Dan Setzler

To succeed on The Challenge a competitor must be smart, strong, politically savvy, or at the very least, lucky. Most competitors are average talents, and an unfortunate few perform poorly enough to earn a dubious honor (enter the Hall of Shame). But these competitors, the Hall of Fame class, have conquered The Challenge in one form or another, and they all share the most important quality: they know how to win.

Dan Setzler is perhaps the most unassuming leader The Challenge has ever seen. He’s got a runner’s frame, he’s drama-free, and he’s never chased camera time. Even if he would be out of place with the current generation of challengers, people rallied around Dan, and for good reason.

Challenge 2000, Dan’s introduction to the series, didn’t feature any eliminations and felt more like a Road Rules season with the Real World and Road Rules teams competing out of their own RVs. Dan became the de facto head of the Road Rules team, and they trounced the Real World team throughout Challenge 2000 and won the final. It’s somewhat surprising that Dan even made it past elimination on his next season, Battle of the Seasons. His partner Tara McDaniel was an average if not below-average competitor in most regards, but Dan used positive encouragement to get the best performance out of her (similar to Landon Lueck’s treatment of Carley Johnson on Fresh Meat II). Dan’s best moment of the season came in an early episode when he stood against the dominant alliance and voted off Chadwick Pelletier. Chadwick instigated a voting system in which the top three teams eliminated any team threatening to break into the top three, and Dan used the same system against a bitter Chadwick. Poetic justice rarely pays off so well on The Challenge.

Dan’s last season, Battle of the Sexes II, is his most impressive. Dan outlasted legends like Abram Boise, Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, and Brad Fiorenza in a truly stacked cast of male challengers. Though the voting did come down to popularity and politics in some cases, Dan played a nearly flawless game, avoiding disqualifications and helping the men win just about every single daily challenge. During the final Dan took charge of the GPS and helped navigate his team to victory, leading from the front once again.

All told Dan competed in three seasons, won two, and never felt the sensation of leaving a game early. Dan’s role in Challenge history is mostly forgotten now, but it shouldn’t be. He represents a fun era of The Challenge, and he proved that good guys can finish first.

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Treasured Track: Foo Fighters – “Everlong”

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to bygone eras of our lives. Some of them helped us through heart wrenching breakups while others remind us of late nights spent with best friends. In this feature I reflect on the tracks that I’ve obsessed over in the past and always welcome back to my headphones in the present.

Once someone asked me what my favorite song was. I thought it over before answering “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters. This was about fifteen years ago, and although I don’t have a single favorite song now (more like dozens or hundreds of them), I still like that answer.

The dreamy guitar riff that introduces “Everlong” is simple and unforgettable. It’s so simple a novice guitarist can learn it and play it back within minutes, but that doesn’t take anything away from it. Likewise, the introductory lyrics are not complex, but Dave Grohl delivers them with a smooth kind of conviction: “Hello. / I’ve waited here for you… / Everlong.” By this point in the song the dreamy guitar has been met by a second distorted guitar that somehow doesn’t sound dated (with “Everlong” being released in 1997) and drumming that’s never too far away from excitable drumrolls. I suspect “Everlong” wouldn’t be half as good as it is if not for the bridge which abruptly reintroduces the opening riff backed by Grohl’s mysterious whisperings.

I was surprised to find the song’s runtime is over four minutes. Really, “Everlong” is so good it always seems like it ends too soon. It wouldn’t feel right to call “Everlong” a love song, but it’s passionate and sincere, and it still rocks. Grohl didn’t have to pen a soft ballad to work through his emotions; that being said I’ve always preferred the full band version to acoustic renditions. “Everlong” is best when washing over you with full force.

Side note: I liked watching AMV videos years back (they’re anime clips spliced together with popular music), and the Tenchi “Everlong” video is one of the best. It inspired me to watch the Tenchi anime recently – I recommend doing the same if you like weird, funny anime.

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TV Review: Beast Wars: Transformers

I loved many cartoons when I was a kid. Spider-Man, TMNT, X-Men, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, Ducktales, Recess, and the list goes on. There was no other feeling in the world like waking up on Saturday and being excited to have some cereal and absorb quality animation. I loved many, but there was only one that I awoke before dawn to watch – Beast Wars: Transformers. Don’t ask me why, but Fox pushed Beast Wars to an early morning slot (5:30am or 6:00am), television purgatory. I’ve never been a morning person, so the fact that pre-teen Adrian set an alarm on the weekend (much earlier than his normal wake-up time for school) just to watch a half-hour cartoon speaks volumes.

Beast Wars begins with the Maximals and Predicons, descendants of the Autobots and Decepticons, respectively, crash landing on an uninhabited planet. Rather than transforming into vehicles, the Maximals and Predicons adopt beast modes ranging from a rhino to a pterodactyl. The two sides spend the series fighting for survival, and eventually, for the future of the universe. The full CGI animation was groundbreaking for the time, even if it looks dated today. But creators Bob Forward and Larry DiTillio never used the cutting edge animation as a crutch for storytelling. Not only did Beast Wars reinvigorate the Transformers mythology, it introduced us to distinct and interesting characters.

Within the first few episodes we see the smallest, mouthiest Maximal Rattrap openly disrespecting his leader Optimus Primal, at one point calling him a “chicken.” The youngest and most impulsive Maximal, Cheetor, regularly disobeys orders. And about half of the Predacons openly express their desire to overthrow Megatron and take control of their side. These conflicts help the characters feel real, with individual personalities, histories, and agendas. As an inexperienced battle commander, Optimus must earn respect from his crew, and he sums himself up in the pilot episode: “I will not give an order I would not be willing to do myself.” In a later episode he leaps headlong from an exploding island, and when Rattrap calls him crazy, Optimus responds, “Eh, sometimes crazy works.” He really does live up to the Prime name. But the stand out character would probably have to be Dinobot. He is a Predicon who joins the Maximals in their battle against Megatron, and he is Shakespearean in his desire to retain his honor while fighting for the winning side.

There’s a lot to like when watching Beast Wars. Many of the beast and robot forms still look super cool (like the half wolf, half eagle Silverbolt). The voice acting is excellent. The direction is better than I remember, with the camera emphasizing the action and violence of war as well as the natural world. Whereas Spidey couldn’t even throw a punch in his 90s TV series (due to silly restrictions), the transformers are shot, blown up, and some are ultimately destroyed in important episodes. I won’t spoil anything here, but the setting is also an integral character. Even with their advanced technology, the transformers are perplexed by the mysteries of their new planet, including alien constructs that defy gravity and foreshadow an even greater threat.

Sadly, the overall quality declines after season one. Season one is the longest season, which gives it room to breathe and develop its characters gradually. Season two is still good, while the truncated final season and its big climax feel rushed. Worse still, the sequel series Beast Machines is a huge disappointment. But none of that takes away from the fun and excitement to be found on Beast Wars: Megatron spending time in a rejuvenation hottub with his rubber ducky; Rattrap constantly bickering with Dinobot; a gorilla flying on a hoverboard; infamous Decepticons returning to the battlefield. Sincerely, Beast Wars is the best. I just wish I hadn’t lost my transforming toys years ago. Well, that’s just prime.

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