Trial and Trial Again
As a bonafide Real World junkie, even I had to admit that the formula grew stale a few seasons back. Every year, the same thing: stick seven painfully earnest and egotistical strangers of differing character “types” (The Country Bumpkin; The Angry Black Wo/man; The Mediocre Musician; The Halfwit Virgin) in a fabulously un-real loft and watch the feathers fly.
I trace the show’s descent from back when it went to London (Season 4). Sure, that season had its moments—there was the time a crazed fan bit off the tip of Neil’s tongue during an on-stage confrontation; and the impaled pig’s heart he received from a jealous girlfriend on Valentine’s Day didn’t lack for drama. But mainly, there were just too many scenes of Sharon searching for work, Mike lamenting London’s lack of ranch dressing, and playwright Jay procrastinating. (If I wanted to watch that kind of behavior, I’d have to look no further than my own office!)
And so, after London, MTV did away with the in-house television, began to force cast members to work together at a pre-selected job, and brought on a host of wholly unpleasant characters for seasons 5 through 7 (Miami, Boston, Seattle). The result was as deadly as Season 4 was boring: There may have been more drama, but it was impossible to sympathize with such self-involved terminal adolescents.
But something magical happened with the Hawaii cast (Season 8), something MTV swore, in press coverage following the first few episodes, was unforeseen. They accidentally cast an alcoholic (Watch as Ruthie downs another tequila shot! Thrill as Amaya calls the ambulance! Shudder as Matt stages an intervention! Beam as Ruthie realizes the error of her ways!). Finally the show had something more at stake than confrontations over dirty bathrooms and tearful reunions with back-home lovers. Of course, it didn’t hurt that many of the cast members bared all in the house pool, repeatedly.
This is not to suggest that the Hawaii cast was any less self-involved than previous Real Worlders; after all, the show’s format (with its compulsory “confessional,” to-the-camera interviews) requires such navel-gazing. But now, it seems that no cast is complete without an unstable roommate or two, viewers waiting with bated breath for them to self-destruct. Somewhere along the line, MTV must have realized that in order to change, or at least keep up with the times, the show needed greater variety, a potent combination of urgent “real life” traumas, same-sex hook-ups, and something increasingly rare in early seasons of The Real World—humor.
MTV even has started parodying its own show in promotional spots this season, featuring a straight-laced schoolmarm at the blackboard lecturing her students on the standard dramas of each season (homophobia, racism, etc.). And in the show’s preview special, former clashing New York roomies Mike and Coral (Season 10) display a warm, self-deprecating sense of perspective while serving up “The Real World Guide to Being the Perfect Roommate,” in the form of a Top Ten list, complete with embarrassing clips from each season. Naturally, the Chicago cast is shown breaking every rule.
“Chicago. I think it’s going to be a real trial.”—Tonya
Sure enough, this season promises to be full of nudity, sexual tension between roommates, and Big Issues. Previews for future episodes titillate the viewer with many familiar trials—roommates threatening to leave (Tonya), making trouble in the workplace (Cara), flirting with each other (Kyle and Keri), stumbling home drunk (Keri), and bringing strange women home to the Jacuzzi (Theo).
Unfortunately, the predominant trial appears to be the viewer’s, as the experience of watching the season’s first few episodes was strangely uneasy. For instance, the one-hour season premiere features the bisexual-Muslim-Jewish-exhibitionist Aneesa rooming and showering with a male cast member (Theo) who has openly expressed interest in her. In another excruciating scene, Chris—the show’s formerly homophobic, gay, recovering alcoholic—casually reveals that he lost his virginity at the age of 12 to his babysitter. In moments like this, when something “too real” is revealed, the show’s quick-cut format and peppy top 40 alternative score seem somewhat callous.
Not that The Real World‘s formula has changed drastically over the years, but the introduction of more serious social problems necessitates treating them with some amount of tact and depth. Surely such complicated issues deserve more screen time, even if it means leaving out a pat resolution. In his own clumsy way, All-American Ivy-leaguer Kyle offers up one of the show’s most honest moments when he admits to Chris that he felt anxious drinking around him, and wondered if Chris was tempted to drink. Hopefully, future episodes will focus more on these quiet exchanges rather than the usual catfights.
“I don’t mind lesbians. That’s sexy as hell. But dudes is disgusting.”—Theo
Undoubtedly, this season will include plenty of same-sex coupling and a range of homophobic reactions. The first episode features an intriguing juxtaposition of two different approaches to “coming out”; while Aneesa immediately reveals her sexual orientation to the roommates, Chris chooses to wait until the situation arises “naturally.” Of course, even Chris’ apparent shyness comes off as somewhat performative, since no one goes on The Real World seeking privacy.
Not surprisingly, the two roommates form a bond from the beginning, and attend a gay club together during the first episode. But Chris clearly is the more evolved of the two (he is the oldest member of the cast, while Aneesa is the youngest), and is able to articulate his concerns about being labeled and fears about his roommates’ reactions to his sexuality. Aneesa, on the other hand, is content simply to “be real.”
The two most likely to have problems living with gay roommates are Theo and Tonya, the most sheltered and traditional members of the group. Believing that the gay lifestyle is filled with “a lot of drugs, a lot of sin,” Tonya also expresses concern when meeting Theo for the first time. “Black people intimidate me,” she says. Cara seems naïve as well, incorrectly pegging Chris as the “house virgin” and predicting that, “If he’s gay, he doesn’t know it.” One can hardly blame them for their reactions, however misguided, since the show’s casting and inherent situation is constructed to invite conflict and speculation about anyone who isn’t immediately open both physically and emotionally.
But it is Theo who is the most obviously hostile toward gayness. Though he tells Aneesa that he’s not homophobic in one scene, he claims that it’s impossible to be “tastefully gay” in another. Even his language while describing his strategy to bag Aneesa demonstrates his misunderstanding of bisexuality: “If she’s gay, I’ll let her be gay ... If she turns around and wants to be straight, I’ll be right there ready and willing,” he says.
“I know I have to make it clear to [Theo] that I’m not interested at all. So I choose to be his roommate. It’s kind of stupid.”—Aneesa
The majority of drama in the first episode centers on Aneesa’s decision to room with a smitten Theo (similarly, Kyle and Keri choose to room together, with Chris, tempting their attraction to one another.). But Aneesa is not satisfied merely to share the space they’ve dubbed “the sex room”; she also invites him to share a bed—platonically, of course—clad only in a pair of booty-hugging hot pants. Like Kaia from the Hawaii cast, she insists on parading around the house with an open robe because, she says, “Growing up, my whole family was naked.” But when Theo becomes a little frisky in their double-headed shower, Aneesa feels “uncomfortable” that he “takes it too far.” With increasing frequency these days, MTV is more than happy to underscore the irony of situations it encouraged; asking their guinea pigs to bare all, MTV then edits the episode to drive home the roommates’ hypocrisy.
Based on the first two episodes, I’d say that Aneesa is one willfully ignorant young woman. She fails to realize that, while nudity may be natural to her, a house full of strangers may not view it the same way. (Kyle, for one, says he’s bothered by it.) But her behavior toward Theo is not just inappropriate; it borders on manipulative and dangerous, inviting sexual attention only to deny it and blame the victim (if someone so openly libidinous as Theo can be considered a victim, that is).
So far, Theo and Aneesa appear to be drawn as two more of MTV’s larger-than-life ethnic stereotypes: The Unstable Diva and The Hapless Playa. Once again, the cast includes just two black members, placed there presumably to reflect a multicultural society. Ultimately, The Real World is just as conservative as any network sitcom, selecting characters for their exemplary “blackness” (or “gayness,” or “hayseed-ness”), rather than presenting anything approximating diversity. What would happen if the show had five black and two white cast members? Would the show still be peppered with such seemingly one-dimensional minorities?
This kind of superficiality made the first regular episode was extremely difficult to watch, as if MTV chose the cast for its dysfunctions rather than personalities. After all, the group includes not just an exhibitionist, but also a recovering alcoholic, a woman who has been drinking since she was 15 (or 13, depending on which of her accounts you believe), and a woman who grew up in foster care. It isn’t the first time that MTV has made exploitative casting choices. In the Boston series, the producers selected Elka, whose mother had died just months before. Since then, each season of The Real World (and Road Rules, for that matter) has had at least one or two ticking time bombs. Instead of the harmless sociological experiment of the first few seasons, the show has evolved into a calculated therapy session waiting to happen.
“I’ve never been single, so I figured I’d give it a whirl.”—Cara
One refreshing aspect of the Chicago season is the casting of two multi-dimensional “man-izers,” Cara and Keri. Although we’ve had little opportunity to witness Keri’s antics in the first few episodes, her audition tape interviews suggest that she may prove to be MTV’s first likeable playgirl. Dubbed “Miss Independent” by her grandfather, Keri boasts in an enticing southern drawl that she’s dating five men at once.
But thus far, she doesn’t hold a candle to Cara, who manages to go out with three men in one week and spend the night with two of the three… and all this takes place just weeks after breaking off a long-term relationship with her bitter hometown honey. Her biggest coup, though, is making out with an anonymous rock star (frustratingly, his face is obscured to protect his identity) she picks up at an outdoor concert. After the inevitable gloating, her take on the experience is surprisingly conflicted and down-to-earth. “It’s kind of thrilling to hook up with a rock star, and yet at the same time, I feel like such a loser and a groupie even admitting that,” she says in the confessional.
My own reaction to these scenes was mixed as well. On the one hand, it’s a nice change to see a female cast member treating men as conquests; on the other hand, Cara herself admits that her behavior is a result of low self-esteem and a need to be noticed. And so once again, we’re back to the crux of the problem with this season of The Real World: when roommates are chosen for their problems, it’s disconcerting to observe them make humiliating choices on camera—choices, we are constantly reminded, that are “real.” Then again, it is the desire both to watch and perform that draws viewers and cast members to the show in the first place.
With her brash manner and honest self-awareness, Cara seems a perfect (and perhaps unique) choice for The Real World—unpredictable enough to be intriguing, but tough enough to handle the scrutiny. “It feels lonely… and empowering,” she admits about her newly single status. MTV may have chosen Cara for her self-proclaimed promiscuity, but in the first episodes of season 11, she offers a glimpse of what the show can be, at its best: a window on a real young person, contradictions and all, wrestling with the trials of becoming an adult.