Stop the World, I Want to Get Off

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Ican pinpoint the exact moment I became hooked on The Real World. It was halfway through a RW: Seattle marathon, which I underwent to ease a hangover. On that particular episode, David’s girlfriend came to visit him. David, you might recall, was a Boston tough made good, a VMI scholarship kid with a talent for settling bar fights with his fists. But he was also a romantic, and the first half of the episode had been a montage of him cooing and hand-holding with a woman. That is, until the lovebirds tripped into a fight that left them crying and hiding from the camera crew inside a car.
    "David, stop it! Daaavid!" the woman screamed. With the camera stuck filming the darkened windows, you could only imagine what was going on inside: the bulging eyes, the spit.
    "Don’t you get it?’ David yelled, every word scraping his throat. "I fucking love you!"
    I’d spent most of my adult life avoiding conflict. Nasty arguments consisted of strongly worded emails with several exclamation marks. As I sat on my futon watching these two normal-seeming people attack each other like rabid tomcats, it occurred to me that there might be a whole world of people like this — people who punched holes in walls and fucking loved each other. It was fascinating. It was bonkers. It was real.
    That is now increasingly rare. In its fifteenth season, The Real World, never exactly known for its verisimilitude, has become a parody of consumerism and self-made celebrity. The cast look practically cut from plastic. They live in mansions filled with hot tubs, vodka and Swedish furniture. They hold such dream jobs as travel writing (RW: Paris) and assisting rock star Jon Bon Jovi (RW: Philadelphia), and yet they still botch it all up. Theirs is an endless string of tequila shots and pole dances.
    It’s a far cry from the show’s original concept, a snapshot of people at a crossroads, transitioning to adulthood in an unfamiliar environment. In its first seasons, the participants were often musicians and educators and medical students, nice kids struggling to find autonomy and their place in the world. But audiences wanted less personal journeys, more conflict. That’s why Puck, in season three, became the show’s first big breakout star, known to people who didn’t even watch MTV. Shooting snot out his nose and eating peanut butter with his hands, Puck became the apotheosis of the god-awful roommate. He made everyone’s life hell, and he made the season great.
    He also pretty much created the Real World celebrity, which history will surely view with all the disdain a thirteen-year-old skater might show a Catskills comedian. The birth of Real World celebrity is important, though. It meant that RW participants no longer wanted to be doctors or lawyers or musicians; they simply wanted to be on The Real World. It became a career in itself. After your season ended, you could go on the Road Rules/Real World Challenge or Battle of the Sexes. You had earned a lifetime supply of mall and MotoCross appearances.
    Over time, this attracted exactly the kind of people a reality show should avoid: people who play to well-established roles, people who are fake, people who are emotionally shuttered but relentlessly self-promotional. Pointlessly weird people. Dumb people. On one casting special, a devastated reject sat with his head in his hands, wailing: "How will I make it in the real world if I can’t even make it on The Real World?" (It should be noted that this man slept with special warming gloves to keep the skin on his hands baby-soft, and he slathered his bald head with a face mask every night. He couldn’t make it to school without losing his milk money; forget about the rest of it.) These are the kind of people that now populate The Real World: freaks, fools and exhibitionists.
     Sex, once the playful subtext of young people living together, became stunty. On the first episode of RW: Hawaii, Ruthie and Teck stripped naked and jumped in the pool. Not to be outdone, the first episode of RW: Las Vegas included a threesome.
     "Do you think people in this house will hook up?" asked one girl on the first episode of RW: Philadelphia. At the time, the cast was in the hot tub, sipping champagne and ogling each other’s perfect, near-naked bodies.
    "I don’t think the question is if," said Landon, who most resembles a human G.I. Joe doll. "The question is when."
    And the answer? Episode two. Yawn, stretch.
    Gone is any tension, any pleasure of watching a flirtation evolve over time. No build-up, just hook-up. Not since Showgirls has so much sex been such a bore.
    But sex was never what made The Real World great in the first place. Let’s go back to RW: Seattle for a moment. David’s fight, which I still remember so vividly, wasn’t the most famous argument of the season. That title belongs to Stephen, who slapped Irene in the face after she accused him of being gay. It may be the greatest Real World moment ever, simply because it was so unprecedented and insane. And because Stephen probably was gay, or at least may have been struggling with his sexuality, nothing was more revealing than his complete overreaction.
    RW: Seattle was the show’s seventh season — almost its precise midway point — and it gets my vote for the best. It was a perfect balance of the boozy spring break that defines the show now and the sociological experiment that it was at first. Stephen’s struggle — with his sexuality or his anger or whatever — is more fascinating than any Las Vegas peep show. When he comes into the confessional room after a night at a gay bar with friends, mascara streaking his face, crying that he has a terrible secret, I wanted to jump through the television and usher him to the nearest Madonna concert. Irene, whose homely freckles and chubby cheeks couldn’t land her a job as the Real World receptionist these days, is a neighborhood-kinda girl who proves wildly idiosyncratic after being diagnosed with Lyme Disease. She actually appears to lose her mind in front of the camera. This is what’s fascinating about a life lived publicly — not the glamour or the sex, but the struggle with an unfinished, incomplete self.
    But Real World: Philadelphia, like the last few seasons, has been mostly devoid of that kind of spark. Spending time with Landon and MJ is like being at a frat party after the keg runs dry. Sarah is only interesting because she has such an utter lack of self-knowledge: she tosses around her brazen sexuality when all she wants is to do is cuddle. The most fascinating character is Karamo, a gay black male who breaks about a zillion stereotypes at once. But when he gets upset, he retreats to his room and shuts the door. I don’t blame him. He’d have to be insane to open up his most vulnerable self to that kind of scrutiny. But if the cameramen can’t get to him, they’ll just retreat to the hot tub, where a couple of drunk kids are talking dirty and playing footsie so everyone can watch. Everyone, that is, except me.  

Sarah Hepola has been a high-school teacher, a playwright, a film critic, a music editor and a travel columnist. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, Salon, and on NPR. She lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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