Like many other viewers who came of voyeuristic age in the era of MTV's "The Real World," I've long since outgrown it. At some point, the exhaustively diverse casts and manufactured drama started to grate rather than amuse (did I say "amuse"? I meant "enlighten me that, like, being different is totally cool, because we're all totally fellow citizens of Planet Universe"). Around that same time, I started to preface my every utterance with a loud, thoughtful clearing of the throat and a rant about these young kids today, with the hair and the skateboards and the texting.
Yet one hour into the show's 21st (!) season, I find myself more invested in the lives of these eight strangers (up from the usual seven) than I am in those of my cousins. Say what you want about "The Real World" -- that it confuses generic early-20s immaturity with something more profound, that any situation monitored by tens of cameras is inherently unreal -- but the show remains one of the few reality offerings that consistently makes the viewer care about its participants.
In most seasons, "The Real World" proves only as entertaining as its cast is chemically dependent and exhibitionistic. So credit MTV for tweaking the formula somewhat and throwing a few curveballs in its casting. At first glance -- and heaven knows this might change during the vacation to whatever tropical hotspot hopes to boost its spring-break cred by affiliation with the show -- the kids come across as a decent and empathetic lot. What happened to the fall-down tarts? The date-rapey muscle heads? Reality-TV moralists won't be able to feel superior to anybody here.
Lack of cliche characters
This isn't to say that the 21st cast is the paragon of socio-sexual-ethnic diversity; one gets the impression that MTV will fold the franchise before it breaks the final remaining casting barrier and imports a fat person. What's interesting about the current batch is that its members don't slide into the show's established roles (angry black dude, bubbly Southern chick). They aren't easily encapsulated in a three-word blurb, unless you already subscribe to stereotypes about gay dolphin trainers.
The cast is mercifully free of sunny gigglepusses and well-intentioned hicks. Yes, there's one blatant set-up for drama – some of the cast have no idea what to make of their transgendered housemate -- but the show doesn't play up the potential clash of sensibilities. The quirky-tattoo girl is defined by her curiosity and kindness rather than her quirk or tattoos; the small-town guy with the fetchingly tousled hair boasts depth, courtesy of a stint in Iraq. Even the flat-ab'd meathead seems to have read a few books with words.
Maybe their antics won't resonate with the audience that tunes in for the drunky-wunky meltdowns and hook-ups. But for the first time in a long while, the "Real World" mix of personalities and backgrounds doesn't feel deliberately incendiary. I'm genuinely interested to see what happens to them ... which is probably as much a commentary on my life as theirs.
I do, however, think "The Real World" has imploded as a marketing vehicle. In seasons past, the show has integrated products in a way that seemed ... well, not natural, but certainly not vulgar or obtrusive. Contrast this with the current season's first episode, in which the usual "No WAY! A FISH TANK!" romp around the house flashes on seven products/brands in about 10 seconds. Only one -- Crunch Fitness, which outfits the gym frequented by Abs Boy -- registers. The show does better by its soundtrack, regularly flashing song and artist names along the bottom of the screen. The "M" in "MTV" stands for "music," I'm told.
So anyway: yeah, I'm teetering towards the back end of my 30s and I still kind of dig "The Real World." I'm okay with this. MTV, long may your unreal reality grace our screens.
I'd initially planned to cover two other MTV offerings, the love-ya-brah pageant "Bromance," and the pretty, vacant "The City," in this epistle as well. But even after stocking up on Cheez Whiz and Ritz crackers for my descent into the land of lowbrow, I could barely slog through a full episode of each.
The former, in which a gaggle of moussed-to-the-gills fraternity rejects battle for a spot in Brody Jenner's posse, offers all the raw intellect of "Jackass" with none of the pain-is-funny uplift. The latter, which chronicles the life and loves of hollow-eyed "Hills" refugee Whitney Port as she attempts to navigate downtown Manhattan on a mere $145,000 per day, is notable mostly for its frank depiction of waxed eyebrows. Neither is worth a share of your guilty-pleasure allowance.