One thing MTV's "documentary-style" verisimilitude won't capture is the stench of Elliott Bay that seeps though the plywood floors of the apartment-shaped television set where seven twentysomethings have lived for the past five months as cast members of MTV's hit series The Real World. You won't notice the fruit flies that infest the Technicolor bedrooms, survivors of the week the septet went to Nepal and left food out in the kitchen. And not one viewer in the 42 countries that air the show will see the "Seattle Thinks: The Real World Sucks!" T-shirts that greeted MTV's film crews in the bars, clubs, and other indie-turf frequented by Seattle's jaded MTV generation. The Real World isn't fake, just... cleaned up.
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Seven years ago MTV first picked seven strangers to live together in a New York City loft, documented their lives, and edited two-week bits of real life into 22 minutes of voyeuristic bliss. The series became a hit and has now filmed seven seasons, each with a new cast set in a new city: New York, LA, San Francisco, London, Miami, and Boston. The Seattle-set season premieres this Saturday, with trolley and monorail rides, rain, and steamy scenes from the group's private hot tub!
Seattle Real Worlders—Irene, Janet, Rebecca, Lindsay, Stephen, Nathan, and David—"interned" with radio station KNDD, placated jealous girlfriends back home, nursed rock-star crushes, and developed a slightly inflated sense of their own celebrity.
"Well, we werepicked out of 35,000 applicants for some reason," Nathan said last month during an interview at the Real World pad on Pier 70, a former warehouse converted into a dream over-the-water loft for the show. (Actually they were picked out of 15,000.) Nathan and his co-stars lunched casually with reporters and crew members for the first time; during the five months of filming, the cast and crew are discouraged from even making eye contact. (This is thanks in part to a disastrous affair between one of the cast and a Real World director during the show's first season.)
To add drama to the show, MTV arranged various activities for the cast, from fish throwing at Pike Place Market to hiking the Himalayas, where the cast taped a radio spot for REI as part of their "varied radio station duties." The show's critics condemn this kind of staged "reality," but the cast insisted their interactions were candid responses to their extravagant, albeit temporary, lifestyle. Like Jerry Springer guests, Real Worlders are loathed by their titillated viewers, who challenge the show's authenticity, scream at hated "characters," and above all, keep watching. On television "no one can be 100 percent real," explained Seattle cast member Rebecca, a sophomore at the University of Virginia. "You'd have to be a stupid idiot." According to Real World's 29-year-old producer Matt Kunitz, "The experience and interactions are as real as they come—they live in a fantasy. A month ago I was sitting on the back of an elephant with a Betacam, in Nepal, in the middle of a hailstorm. That was a completely surreal
experience. But there I was."
More than anything else on television, The Real World exposes that maddening expanse between what we say, see, and hear, and how it comes out on television. Part of that disconnect is the nature of a two-dimensional media; part is the unavoidable interference that a television camera has on the scene before it. If Seinfeld's brilliance lies in its absurdist premise to script the mundane, then The Real World is the flip side: It's about the power of television to make ordinary people celebrities and day-to-day reality fit for prime time.
Aside from a few frames where a boom mike accidentally dips into a conversation, The Real World has never acknowledged the camera's meta-presence—until, perhaps, this season. Last month, Irene, a 22-year-old Georgetown student, quit the show because she couldn't stomach the spectacle. According to the other cast members, Irene was the one among them who was most aware of the film crews, which spied on the cast from 12 surveillance cameras in the apartment, recorded every word they said (even off camera), and would stop escapees before they could reach the street.
As the cast talked to reporters last month, MTV producers met in a back room to decide if the show would "cross the line" for the first time and address Irene's problems with the filming or blame the departure on her chronic Lyme disease affliction. "You know about her health, right?" Kunitz, the producer, said when I asked about Irene. "Emotionally, it was not healthy for her to be here," he said. "I think it had to do with the psychological symptoms of Lyme disease."
That's a cop-out. Hopefully the producers will manage the awkward autonomy of their cast with more dignity than the disposable laboratory animals that they unfortunately, gloriously are. "They kept us in this fucking fishbowl," explained David, who says he's relieved that his part is finally over. "Hindsight's a bitch, bro."
Related Links and information:
Sidebar: Real, not real: fact and fiction on MTV
You tell us: Is The Real World good TV or the stupidest thing you've ever seen?
The Real World Sucks site