The Death of Diem Brown
I first started watching The Challenge to make fun of it.
Sure, it got to be more than that. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t become legitimately invested in the winners and losers – in the minutiae of the constant house drama. I’d be lying if I denied I hate Johnny Bananas almost as much as I love him. I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t cut off a non-essential toe (pinky?) in order to hang out with CT.
But at the root of it, I’ve always just been here to make fun of the spectacle, at least until now.
For those of you who don’t know, this was the last Challenge season for Diem Brown, a consistent Challenger since 2005. She had survived a previous bout with ovarian cancer, but it returned during this season of The Challenge, forcing her disqualification and eventual hospitalization. She passed away on November 14th, 2014.
I’ve been struggling to express how this makes me feel, and wondering whether I should broach the topic in the context of my reality TV recaps, which could serve as a dictionary definition for “frivolous.” I ultimately decided I had to, because the presence of Diem and CT at the beginning of The Challenge: Battle of the Exes II is legitimately powerful. They’ve been on the show so long we’ve seen them make the transition from 20-something reality TV personalities to being real adults. Their relationship is sweet, and forgiving, and mature – it’s basically everything you don’t expect to see in a relationship formed on one of MTV’s drama factories. They exist in such stark contrast to everyone around them that it’s almost impossible not to get invested in their romance, even if we all know the tragic ending.
The whole thing reveals that there can be something more to reality TV than the base, guilt-inducing entertainment that it typically provides. It’s not something that can be easily replicated, or scripted. It’s not something that a show can use as a crutch to boost ratings. It’s two real people who found each other and grew up together over nearly a decade. It’s moving in a way that works of fiction can never be, as it involves real happiness, real misery, and real people. It’s more moving than most celebrity deaths because after watching her be herself for so many years, you can feel the loss of a person rather than some abstract loss of talent. It’s something sad and special that I’ve never seen before. It’s not good TV as much as it’s a lesson in empathy and a reminder of mortality.
I won’t belabor my point, because you hopefully either know what I’m talking about or you still need to watch The Challenge, but I guess what I really want to say is this: MTV is usually cheap voyeurism, but in between the drinking and fighting they managed to capture fragments of a life that was beautiful and complicated and inspiring. I’m far from the first person to write about Diem Brown, and my contribution comes months after her death, but I didn’t realize how much I cared until I got to see her for the final time. Goodbye Diem, you will be missed.