By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
|Photo by Jimmy Malecki|
The Real World, MTV’s most enduring gift to television, is about to begin its ninth season, with the latest gang of seven deposited in a Greek Revival mansion smack on St. Charles in New Orleans’ upscale Garden District. (“That’s Tara!” says one upon arrival. “Who’s Tara?” asks one of his new roomies.) More so than even music videos — which, though they have left their Godzilla footprint upon the visual culture, can’t really survive outside the few stations tailored to display them — Real World–style “reality” shows have overrun the tube like kudzu, with CBS’ just-premiered stressful-cohabitation series Survivor and next month’s Big Brother (based on European models that took their own cues from The Real World) the most conspicuous among recent entries. In the first, as you probably already know, 18 people — or contestants, since the last one standing wins a million bucks — are “marooned” on a tropical island, alone but for a medical team and a huge TV crew, to eat rats and watch out for snakes and get hairy and dirty and smelly; in the second, which also promises big money at the end, 10 people are locked in a house in Studio City for 100 days, with cameras and microphones recording their every burp and fart. And just last night a friend who had a friend involved in it told me about a show called Fear, upcoming from MTV, that applies a twist of Blair Witch to the formula: A group of people are left in a really scary place to be frightened out of their wits. The longer they last, the more they’re paid. I would be interested to see the contracts.
Of course, what’s on view here, while unscripted, is not exactly reality — these are dramas, improvised within the limits and subject to the stresses imposed by the producers, shaped by selective editing into semi-suspenseful narratives, and driven by the participants’ own desire to make hay while the floodlights shine. The kids of The Real World 9know what’s what: They come to the series having grown up on it, versed in its history and aware of both the opportunities it will afford and what’s expected of them. (“When I first saw Matt, I was like, ‘Okay, that’s probably the one I would hook up with if it’s going to happen.’”) Lodged in a big house expensively decorated much like the eight before it — less as a living space than as the set for a postmodern game show — and followed around town by cameras and lights, these kids have not embarked on the fresh journey of self-reliance the show’s title implies, but have rather extended their collegiate twilight in a glamorous burst of sponsored privilege. (Indeed, the secret key to the show may be read in the end-credit acknowledgments, including Nextel, Apple, Everlast, Kohler, Krups, Bed Bath & Beyond, and the wonderful “Books provided by Simon & Schuster.”) As ambassadors of the fantasy of jiggy young adulthood that MTV exists to sell, they have been chosen at least in part for their looks: All are attractive, some strikingly so, within the very latest standards of attractiveness; none is fat, or even pleasingly plump, or afflicted with a weak chin or frizzy hair, bad teeth, Coke-bottle glasses, acne, boils, warts, moles, a hump, a club foot or a missing limb. They dress well, are well-groomed.
But beautiful, well-dressed people have problems, too — is that not the subtext of every soap opera that’s ever been made, and as well the comic raison d’être of Friends, which entered the world a couple of seasons after The Real Worldand which it resembles in several respects? There will be conflict: You can’t put seven people in one place without sides being taken, gossip traded, opinions formed, lines drawn, love (of some sort) made; not every cast member has survived The Real World. If I were going to keep up with this latest edition — which I don’t expect I will, as paternally amusing as I find statements like “I’m all about design and art and stuff” — I would focus with greatest sympathy upon Julie the sensitive songwriting Mormon from Milwaukee, who really is trying to change her life in some way too big for her even to say. But even the most apparently shallow may (if watched long enough, listened to closely enough) surprise the viewer with unsuspected depth, complexity, double-jointedness. Which is what makes The Real World interesting beyond the product placement and the, well, the sex. But I will leave those discoveries to you.
If the kids of The Real World inhabit an artificial paradise (which they are free, like Adam and Eve, to fuck up), the people of The 1900 House, who signed up to live for three months as Victorians in an immaculately primitivized turn-of-the-century townhouse in southeast London, find in what seemed to promise heaven a little bit of hell. Who has not felt the crushing weight of our gadgety age and yearned for a less complicated one? If all these modern appliances don’t make us happy, might not having them make us happy? The truth, as evidenced here, seems to be that it will make us happy to get them back.
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