Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Goodbye, cruel Real World

I will not be watching tonight's second episode of The Real World's 16th season, filmed in Austin, Texas. After watching last week's season premiere, I finally had to step back and break the cycle. I have been watching this show for half of my life. Although I lapsed a little bit in the 10th season (Back to New York), I have seen virtually every episode, of which there are 342 at the moment. I would guess that I have seen over 300 episodes of The Real World, far more than of any other show I've ever watched. I remember watching early seasons and thinking in a strange way that it would be interesting to be on The Real World, back when people sort of like me were actually on the show, and then dismissing the thought because there was no way that the show would still be on the air when I was old enough (18) to be a cast member. I'm now too old to be a cast member (the maximum age is 24) and the damn thing is still on the air.

I hate the thought of reminiscing about the good old days - and it's not like The Real World was ever particularly brilliant in the first place - but the show has seriously declined in recent years, thanks to a number of factors. The cast members on the show are now of a generation who (like me) grew up watching The Real World. They know what is expected of them and how best to maximize their airtime. MTV, in turn, has encouraged the attention-grabbing antics by putting them all on-air. It's a vicious cycle. Where the show once cast a mix of superficial and thoughtful young people, people with their own independent lives and goals in life, it now casts almost exclusively hard-partying, empty-headed, sexually predatory people who look like models. The show quarantines the cast, not allowing them access to TV or most outside sources of information, and having them all work together in the same place rather than pursue their own interests. The Real World was, most likely, never strictly "real," but it has become less and less so as time has passed.

The sameness is only emphasized by MTV's greed in producing more than the standard 22 episodes per season, and, in recent years, airing two seasons of the show in one year. This is the show's 16th season but only its 13th year on the air. The last few installments have increasingly focused on the cast members going out every night and getting drunk, hooking up with each other and fighting excessively. The Austin season premiere was a microcosm of the last few seasons, with the roommates getting drunk at bars, getting into fights, hooking up and having a run-in with the cops, all in a single episode. The shallow nature of recent cast members and the show's own fame have worked to create an atmosphere in which residents of whatever city the show invades constantly harass cast members whenever they're in public, and security has to follow roommates whenever they're out on the town.

The days are long gone when former Real World-ers went on to become cultural critics (New York's Kevin Powell), comic book creators (San Francisco's Judd Winick) or even respectable actresses (London's Jacinda Barrett). Nowadays the most common career for a Real World alum is as a professional reality show participant, appearing over and over on the endless Real World/Road Rules challenges or, like Las Vegas's Trishelle, on various other demeaning reality show ventures. It may have been a product of MTV, but The Real World was once a genuine reflection of the lives and struggles of college and post-college age young people in America. These days it's only a distorted reflection of itself, and it's time for me to finally look away.

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