January 30, 2009

Transgender, Mormon find The Real World

Everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure, The Real World, is back for its 188th season.

Just kidding. It’s “only” been 21 seasons. And this time the cast members—there are eight, rather than the usual seven—are living in Brooklyn.

The first episode takes us down the usual Real World path. At first, everyone is nice to each other, and most of the cast members reveal their two selves—the dark and the light. Ryan is funny and easy-going, but he’s also an Iraq vet and a writer; Katelyn is banal and highly sexualized, but she’s also transgender and deeply insecure. You get the idea.

What happens next is exactly what the voice-over during opening credits tells us: “People stop being polite, and start getting real.” In this case, “real” often means “prejudiced.”

Bias battle lines are quickly drawn. On the one side is Sarah, a former lesbian who now has a boyfriend she plans on marrying; JD, who’s gay; and Katelyn. On the other is Chet, a devout (but metrosexual) Mormon, and Ryan, who once refers to Katelyn as an “it.”

But wait. There’s an intricate web of prejudice to sort through. JD goes on a drunken tirade against an immigrant who can’t speak English. Chet calls him on it—as if to say, “I may be homophobic, but you’re a xenophobe”—to which JD cleverly responds, “My parents are immigrants!” Unsurprisingly, the supposed prejudices seem very contrived, coming from a combination of too much alcohol and too much editing.

Meanwhile, when the housemates aren’t debating who’s more of a bigot, they’re either trying to stay faithful to their boyfriend/girlfriend back home or trying to seduce the ones who are taken. This is hardly remarkable; what is remarkable is that, at least through the first four episodes, the faithful have largely succeeded and the seducers have largely failed.

Eight house members are too many, by the way. Among the most superfluous are Devyn—who proves herself a bimbo by declaring at the beginning of the show, “People with boobs are not bimbos”—and Scott, a colorless personal trainer from New Hampshire. They carry on an exceedingly uninteresting flirtation that I just don’t care about. (Devyn: “I’m a very good reader of body language. I feel at this point Scott sends very mixed signals.”) Then there’s Baya, who to my knowledge has no personality. That may not be her fault, because the obvious truth is the more characters there are, the more watered-down each one becomes.

What’s always been compelling about The Real World is how earnestly dysfunctional everyone is. Here, at least, the 21st season does not come up short. After Chet’s Mormon mom comes to visit, she tells him before leaving to stop wearing eye shadow, as if that were the riskiest thing one could do in New York City. As she does this, she’s crying. And we realize that in her own special, slightly demented way, she’s saying, “I love you.” My personal favorite, though, is what Katelyn says about her boyfriend: “Part of our relationship is based on the fact that we can’t talk about how we feel.”

But then sometimes there are moments in The Real World that are so stunningly profound you feel as if you’ve been transported from a trashy, contrived reality show into, well, real life. Like when Sarah is called by her father who molested her and responds not by falling apart but by going to volunteer at an arts program for underprivileged kids. Or how Ryan—who, along with Sarah, is the most interesting cast member—finds out that he likely doesn’t have a future as a professional musician, and has to pretend not to be disappointed to Baya, who has been his biggest supporter. It’s in these moments that you feel not as if the show’s producers have succeeded, but that they’ve failed.

One of the most compelling things about the series is that it makes you feel superior—superior that you don’t make those types of stupid decisions that the housemates do, that you don’t get wasted every night of the week, that you’re not a complete idiot. Yet it’s a hollow feeling, a short-term pleasure that is wiped away when you turn off the TV and go off into your own life. It’s then that you realize that you’re actually about as bumbling and clueless as the eight people who submit their bumbling, clueless selves to your scrutiny.