The Challenge Hall of Fame: Ashley Mitchell

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.

Back in 2016 Paula Meronek and Sarah Rice were the only two women to ever win two seasons of The Challenge. Since then, winning The Challenge has become increasingly difficult. So, it’s amazing that undersized, unassuming Ashley Mitchell is the third female two-time champion (and the richest by far).

Ashley is a volatile competitor, either winning big or flaming out in dramatic fashion. Her elimination record of 3-3 reflects that perfectly. She shocked Camila Nakagawa by beating her on Invasion of the Champions. She walked off Dirty 30 after the airline lost her luggage. She won Final Reckoning and stole Hunter Barfield’s money to become the first millionaire winner. Most recently, she lost in a Total Madness elimination after being called out as a snake.

I don’t think of Ashley as a snake. She’s more of a chameleon. When surrounded by her friends on Final Reckoning she immediately assumed the leadership role (despite joining the competition late), staying clear of late game eliminations before playing a cutthroat game in the final. On War of the Worlds 2 she recognized her weak position and aligned herself with the dominant alliance. She played the role of loyal follower and almost pulled off another win using a smart strategy.

Ashley is a political powerhouse. She can be a figurehead or an afterthought, whichever suits her. She’s also smarter than most competitors, solving puzzles with time to spare. And when it’s time to run a final, she has a winner’s mentality. During one final Ashley damn near killed Hunter by helping him fall off a helicopter ladder, and during another final she berated Cara Maria Sorbello for crying while trying to eat a worm. When money is on the line, Ashely has no sympathy.

It would be remiss of me to not also mention that Ashley “Millionaire” Mitchell is downright entertaining. She hooks up, she steals money, she’s loud, she’s funny, and she sums herself up best with a quote from the Total Madness reunion: “Some people like to make a storyline before they walk in the door, and honey, I am a storyline. I don’t need to make one up.”

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Book Review: Brian K. Vaughan – Ex Machina

Brian K. Vaughan is my favorite comic book writer, and that’s saying something when writers like Alan Moore exist. BKV has received lots of positive attention for books like Y: The Last Man and Saga, but Ex Machina doesn’t get talked about much. Let’s change that right now by diving into the story of Mitchell Hundred, aka “The Great Machine.”

Ex Machina has one of the best comic book hooks I’ve ever heard – the world’s only superhero saves the second tower on 9/11 and thereafter becomes the mayor of New York City. Before the story proper begins, a mysterious object explodes in Hundred’s face, and he becomes a bumbling superhero who can speak to machines and control them to a certain extent. Though he’s a pitiful superhero, the publicity of 9/11 is enough to win him the mayor job (unless he rigged the election… it’s one of the lingering and intriguing questions of the story). Ex Machina follows Mitchell’s time in office, and it’s interspliced with flashbacks of his jetpack misadventures.

Tony Harris’s art is fantastic when depicting action scenes, and it makes the political conversations – of which there are many – much more interesting. More so than the art, the origin of Hundred’s powers and the reckoning they foreshadow are my favorite part of the book. Despite how often he uses them, Hundred is completely disinterested in his powers, but the more we learn about them, the more frightening they become. The flashbacks to 9/11 are also quite affecting. The tragedy of 2001 was a personal event for BKV, and the references to Hundred’s PTSD are haunting. Seeing a panicked Hundred trying his best to catch people falling from a crumbling building, knowing he will surely fail in catching everyone, are the kind of comic panels that stick with a reader.

The politics aren’t my favorite part of Ex Machina, but that doesn’t mean they’re not appealing in their own way. Sure, some of the political debates may seem dated now (e.g. gay marriage). But without the politics, we wouldn’t witness the political machine grinding Mayor Hundred into a worse version of himself throughout his time in office. I won’t spoil the ending here; suffice to say Hundred’s best friends are not campaign contributors by the closing issue.

Science fiction is one of my favorite genres, and the way it bleeds its way into Ex Machina is fascinating. I won’t say it’s “realistic” (that’s a bridge too far when a man flies around like the Rocketeer); the build up is gradual though, so the wild revelations make sense within the context of the story. There’s no Twilight Zone quick twist, more like gradual waves of uneasiness and nightmares preceding the demons. Ex Machina isn’t as fun of a romp as Y: The Last Man, and it’s not as addicting as Saga, but its well deserving of a read.

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The Challenge Hall of Fame: Darrell Taylor

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.

Darrell Taylor is the OG Challenge champion. He’s the only player in the history of the show to win four seasons in a row, and longtime viewers still show him his due respect. Darrell is also a Golden Gloves champion (more on that in a bit) and is more fit at 40 year old than many of the individuals chasing a challenge championship today.

The two qualities that propelled Darrell to his four championships are endurance and his ability to fly under the radar politically. Darrell is a competent competitor, but he’s never dominated a season (like Mike “The Miz” Mizanin or Landon Lueck), so he’s often able to slide to a final without making himself a target. That may not sound too impressive, but remaining out of elimination is most definitely an admirable skill. And when Darrell does find himself in a final, he pushes his team to win because he knows second place doesn’t count for anything. Darrell should have won five finals in a row, but when confronted by a drunk Brad Fiorenza on The Ruins, Darrell put his boxing training to use by beating the hell out of Brad. Production kicked them both off the show and Darrell lost his chance at an easy victory.

After The Ruins, the secret on Darrell was out. Wes and Kenny booted him off Fresh Meat II in the first elimination, and Cory Wharton purged him from Dirty 30 right when the game started. Darrell came close to a final again with Invasion of the Champions when he manhandled Zach Nichols and eliminated Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio, but Chris “CT” Tamburello got the better of him in the final elimination.

There’s no way Darrell will ever catch up to Bananas’s seven championships (I wish he had the chance, but the casting department ignores too many old timers). If we’re fortunate, we’ll see Darrell kick ass in a final one last time. During Invasion of the Champions TJ Lavin asked Darrell about his motivation. Some people would say they’re fighting for their family or trying hard to be the best. Darrell said, “I’m here to win the money… ’cause I like winning money.” Did I also mention the dude is funny?

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Treasured Track: blink-182 – “What’s My Age Again?”

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to a bygone era in 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.

“What’s My Age Again?” changed my life, and I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way. I’d enjoyed plenty of music before blink-182, but true music infatuation didn’t exist for me until I first heard “What’s My Age Again?” on the radio. Mark Hoppus’s song about a self-sabotaging man-child is such an easy story for a teenage boy to relate to, and the song is catchy as all hell. It sounds like pop music with an edge and rock music that hits with quick jabs. It’s pop punk, and blink-182 introduced me to it.

The song bubbles up with Tom DeLonge’s clean guitar picking, but it isn’t long until the distortion kicks in while Mark shows us what a bad boyfriend he is. The chorus is easy to sing along to, and it’s made better by Tom emphasizing the back half of lyrics. It’s also nice how Mark changes the chorus up depending on the preceding verse (making a simple song a bit more complex) as the story continues. I have a preference for the third chorus though, probably because of my grade level when I first heard it:

“And that’s about the time she walked away from me.
Nobody likes you when you’re 23
And you still act like you’re in freshman year.
What the hell is wrong with me?
My friends say I should act my age,
What’s my age again?
What’s my age again?”

I must have listened to this song thousands of times. During those formative years of my life I was more of a Mark fan (though I loved Tom too), and I wonder if that’s due to my first favorite blink song. “What’s My Age Again?” and Enema of the State helped me through the rough times of high school, and I’ll always appreciate blink-182 for that. I have a prediction that I’ll be writing another Treasured Track article about blink, because there are so many that had an impact on me. Alright, time to watch some naked men running.

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TV Review: Nathan for You

Nathan for You is ostensibly about a business school graduate (Nathan Fielder) who helps struggling businesses with inventive, “out-of-the-box” ideas. What it’s really about is Nathan creating weird and awkward scenarios with real people, often at the cost of Nathan’s dignity. Nathan for You is part scripted TV show, part documentary, and Nathan plays a more socially stunted version of himself. When it works (and it usually does), it is absolutely hilarious.

I’ll use one of my favorite episodes – “The Movement” – as an example of the show’s template. A moving company spends most of its budget on paying its employees, so Nathan’s plan is to create a fitness craze around moving household objects. The show’s producers find a fitness gem named Jack. Nathan stages a photoshoot to sell the idea that Jack’s physical transformation from overweight to extremely fit came about by simply moving objects around, and Nathan also hires a writer to create a fake memoir about Jack. Along the way Jack is invited on TV morning shows and he bullshits like a champion when questioned about his volunteer work with jungle children. It’s brilliant.

TV host: “Jungle child is what?”
Jack: “Jungle child are children that live in the jungle… A while ago I was working with a jungle child, his name was Dende, he was a great inspiration for me, and unfortunately, tragically he died when baboons kidnapped and ate him.”
TV host: *stares at camera with mouth agape*

The episode culminates with Nathan finding people who volunteer to move boxes for the moving company with the goal of getting fit. It’s a short-term solution to a larger problem, but Nathan pats himself on the back just the same.

One of my favorite parts of the show is its expanded cast of Craigslist characters, bounty hunters, security guards, celebrity impersonators, and other random, odd, and very real people who help provide much of the show’s humor. They blur the barrier between scripted TV and documentary, and Nathan actually bonds with some of them in surprising ways. The series finale is over an hour long, and it’s all about a Bill Gates impersonator searching for his long-lost love. That’s not what you’d expect from a Comedy Central show, but Nathan for You is not regular TV. It’s a circus, and laughing at the show’s participants is like laughing at ourselves in a fun house mirror. We all have a weird side to us; Nathan Fielder just hasn’t exposed it yet.

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Music Review: Bright Eyes and Neva Dinova – One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels

I’m not surprised One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels was my most played album of 2019. Conor Oberst is extremely talented, and Bright Eyes is one of my favorite musical acts. What does surprise me is I’m pretty sure I replayed Neva Dinova’s songs more than Conor’s. Neva Dinova is a band based out of Omaha, Nebraska (same as Conor), and even though they can’t turn a phrase quite like Conor, they more than hold their own on the album.

One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels is good folk music made better by supplemental instruments (saxophone, trumpet, keys) and a small-town issues sort of vibe. The songs cover the usual subjects of depression, looking for love, cocaine, and hanging onto someone who’s clearly looking for an escape route. I can’t say I’ve really connected with the songs emotionally, and I wouldn’t rank any of the Bright Eyes songs among Conor’s best creations. But Conor has gone on record saying being in studio with Neva Dinova has been his favorite album recording experience. That must shine through on the album, because I just like hanging out with the songs. I don’t get tired of Neva Dinova sympathizing with a bar patron (“You just want someone’s love to take you down”) or asking what the fuck is the point of destroying yourself.

Remember when I said Neva Dinova still has something to learn from Conor about lyrics writing? I’ll end by quoting one of my favorite parts of the album with imagery that only Bright Eyes could bring to life:

“And you talk when you’re drunk
Like you’re standing in front of a microphone.
And each night it repeats, and you fall into me
Like a domino.

And you talk when you’re drunk
Like you’re writing it up for an article.
And you think that I lie when I tell you, ‘Goodbye,
And I’ve got to go,’
‘Cause I’ve got to go…”

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