MTV's flagship reality show has moved from aspiration to degradation. But what happens when the cameras stop rolling?
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
"Things are changing around here," intones the voice at the end of the trailer for the newest season of MTV’s The Real World set in Portland, Oregon. The series, which will begin its 28th season on March 27, is a hallmark of young adult hedonism, sending seven strangers on an odyssey of drunkenness, abandoning their camera-free hometowns to seek adventure and riches in the brightly lit playland of urban environment X.
In the beginning it was enough to present these stories as wish-fulfillment, a vicarious bit of life tourism for viewers, in which a few months of magical privilege could be experienced from an over-the-shoulder perspective. But for the actors, living in a state of perpetual tourism—these aren’t their lives, either—eventually degrades into a paranoid awareness of fakery, which is inevitably followed by wild outbursts of mistrust, self-doubt, and sometimes, violence.
The show's currency does not come from resolution, nor the struggle of living with trauma or dysfunction, but the creation of an atmosphere of volatility, where normalcy is fragile and constantly being cracked and reset.
The recent Real World formula has thus evolved from a story of hope for bettering one's material conditions to a haunted record of the moral descent that striving toward better material conditions leads to. The narratives of The Real World are horror stories, starring victims not yet aware of how imperiled they are. The happy moments of drinking, dancing, and fornicating dissolve into a distraught sequence of yelling, slow-motion punches, breaking glass, tears, and stunned reactions to someone's darkest secret, revealed.
Ruination fantasies have been at the heart of teen-focused reality television for years, with Jersey Shore, Catfish, and Buckwild forming a collective generational narrative that favors degradation over success. Paradoxically, each entrant into this trend reveals that telling degradation stories requires the same heightened artifice that went into telling the simpler aspirational tales of self-improvement.
Last year's Real World: St. Thomas was pitched as a nightmare emerging from the sunny warmth of the tropics. "Everything I'm about to be doing is everything I've wanted to do," one cast member says alongside flyover footage of blue water, palm trees, and street festivals. The music propels itself into more and more concussive rhythms as the confessions quickly move from hopeful to disturbed. "I ruin everything I touch, and so I don't want to touch anything," Marie says while the horns begin to wail over the driving drums. A few seconds later, Rob, her lanky red-headed love interest is shown alone punching himself in the face. "Don't tell me something's not really, really wrong with Rob," another roommate says as we see Rob looking at himself in the mirror, chin bloody, pulling back his lips to inspect the wound.
The insinuations always turn out to be overblown, tricks of editing. The yelling matches in the middle of the night end up being nothing more than social shudders, which once the few minutes of shoving and wild half-punches have been released usually reveal the combatants to be like-minded in their hesitancy to actually have the worst-case scenario played out. Perhaps the worst single attack occurred on The Road Rules/Real World Challenge: The Ruins, when a blackout Brad was punched three times by Darrell, leaving a golf-ball-sized lump that completely covered Brad's right eye. The build-up made the conflict seem like a catastrophe that would ruin lives, but the confrontation ended with apologies, regret, and a happy exit montage, with both combatants sharing the lessons they'd learned.
Meanwhile, the list of alleged crimes and abuses that have taken place during filming is long. In 2003 there was a suspected date rape of a woman in the Real World: San Diego house. Last year, MTV reached a settlement for a sexual assault charge brought by Tonya Cooley after cast members put a toothbrush in her vagina while she was passed out after a night of drinking. The Real World: Key West's Paula Meronek had alcohol-induced panic attacks and struggled with bulimia while cameras rolled. The Real World: Hollywood's Joey Kovar seemed to have a psychotic break after drinking and doing cocaine all night, which left him wandering around the set at sunrise drinking wine from the bottle, talking to himself, and making violent threats. He was promptly pulled from the show and sent to rehab, beginning years of public struggle with addiction before finally dying from an overdose in 2012.
There is no place for these post-show stories in The Real World, but the show’s moral depredations depend on the existence of such stories out there in the social murk from which each new cast of characters appear. The show’s conflicts occur in titanic proportion and are processed monolithically, then dismissed for the next week's episode. Once the tension of the reveal has lapsed, there’s no drama left to pull from the scenario, and so it's forgotten. It's exactly this sense of forgetfulness that propels the show forward.
The show's currency does not come from resolution, nor the struggle of living with trauma or dysfunction, but the creation of an atmosphere of volatility, where normalcy is fragile and constantly being cracked and reset. Like the broken bone videos of skateboarders, the charge the viewer experiences comes from a sense of what's at risk in each action, and for the 100 falls that produce no serious injury at all, the trauma of seeing just one where the joint bends against itself is enough to haunt an entire genre. And so The Real World persists, not because the series discovers interesting human stories, but because it creates space for us to imagine outcomes for the actors that are, usually, far worse than the ones that wind up being real. And in the rare cases where the outcomes are worse than what even the audience would have imagined, the cameras have already shut off.