The Real World, MTV’s most enduring gift to television, is about to begin its ninth season, with the latest gang of seven deposited in a Greek Revival mansion smack on St. Charles in New Orleans’ upscale Garden District. (“That’s Tara!” says one upon arrival. “Who’s Tara?” asks one of his new roomies.) More so than even music videos — which, though they have left their Godzilla footprint upon the visual culture, can’t really survive outside the few stations tailored to display them — Real World–style “reality” shows have overrun the tube like kudzu, with CBS’ just-premiered stressful-cohabitation series Survivor and next month’s Big Brother (based on European models that took their own cues from The Real World) the most conspicuous among recent entries. In the first, as you probably already know, 18 people — or contestants, since the last one standing wins a million bucks — are “marooned” on a tropical island, alone but for a medical team and a huge TV crew, to eat rats and watch out for snakes and get hairy and dirty and smelly; in the second, which also promises big money at the end, 10 people are locked in a house in Studio City for 100 days, with cameras and microphones recording their every burp and fart. And just last night a friend who had a friend involved in it told me about a show called Fear, upcoming from MTV, that applies a twist of Blair Witch to the formula: A group of people are left in a really scary place to be frightened out of their wits. The longer they last, the more they’re paid. I would be interested to see the contracts.
Of course, what’s on view here, while unscripted, is not exactly reality — these are dramas, improvised within the limits and subject to the stresses imposed by the producers, shaped by selective editing into semi-suspenseful narratives, and driven by the participants’ own desire to make hay while the floodlights shine. The kids of The Real World know what’s what: They come to the series having grown up on it, versed in its history and aware of both the opportunities it will afford and what’s expected of them. (“When I first saw Matt, I was like, ‘Okay, that’s probably the one I would hook up with if it’s going to happen.’”) Lodged in a big house expensively decorated much like the eight before it — less as a living space than as the set for a postmodern game show — and followed around town by cameras and lights, these kids have not embarked on the fresh journey of self-reliance the show’s title implies, but have rather extended their collegiate twilight in a glamorous burst of sponsored privilege. (Indeed, the secret key to the show may be read in the end-credit acknowledgments, including Nextel, Apple, Everlast, Kohler, Krups, Bed Bath & Beyond, and the wonderful “Books provided by Simon & Schuster.”) As ambassadors of the fantasy of jiggy young adulthood that MTV exists to sell, they have been chosen at least in part for their looks: All are attractive, some strikingly so, within the very latest standards of attractiveness; none is fat, or even pleasingly plump, or afflicted with a weak chin or frizzy hair, bad teeth, Coke-bottle glasses, acne, boils, warts, moles, a hump, a club foot or a missing limb. They dress well, are well-groomed.
But beautiful, well-dressed people have problems, too — is that not the subtext of every soap opera that’s ever been made, and as well the comic raison d'etre of Friends, which entered the world a couple of seasons after The Real World and which it resembles in several respects? There will be conflict: You can’t put seven people in one place without sides being taken, gossip traded, opinions formed, lines drawn, love (of some sort) made; not every cast member has survived The Real World. If I were going to keep up with this latest edition — which I don’t expect I will, as paternally amusing as I find statements like “I’m all about design and art and stuff” — I would focus with greatest sympathy upon Julie the sensitive songwriting Mormon from Milwaukee, who really is trying to change her life in some way too big for her even to say. But even the most apparently shallow may (if watched long enough, listened to closely enough) surprise the viewer with unsuspected depth, complexity, double-jointedness. Which is what makes The Real World interesting beyond the product placement and the, well, the sex. But I will leave those discoveries to you.
If the kids of The Real World inhabit an artificial paradise (which they are free, like Adam and Eve, to fuck up), the people of The 1900 House, who signed up to live for three months as Victorians in an immaculately primitivized turn-of-the-century townhouse in southeast London, find in what seemed to promise heaven a little bit of hell. Who has not felt the crushing weight of our gadgety age and yearned for a less complicated one? If all these modern appliances don’t make us happy, might not having them make us happy? The truth, as evidenced here, seems to be that it will make us happy to get them back.
Compounded as it is of bits of This Old House, Antiques Roadshow and Upstairs, Downstairs, The 1900 House has public-TV sensation written all over it, and was already a phenomenon back in England; it’s no surprise that PBS is developing an American variation, Frontier House. It is presented as an “experiment,” laced with experts and facts and figures and conducted to “altruistic” ends. (Self-knowledge is the only payoff awaiting the Bowler family at the end of their tenancy — that and their comfortable underwear.) The history lesson’s interesting and entertaining, though very much, of course, depends upon the Bowlers — Joyce (44), Paul (39), Kathryn (17), twins Hilary and Ruth (11), and Joseph (9) — who, because they are intelligent and articulate and don’t mind speaking their frequently distressed minds to the video-diary cameras that are the house’s one anachronism, do make splendid company.
Not surprisingly for a series about a house, it winds up being mostly about the women who were charged with the care of it. (Dad just goes off to work each day, albeit in a funny costume, while little Joseph, after conspicuously refusing to eat, pretty much disappears; when we do see him he mostly looks embarrassed.) Though the twins flourish, Joyce and Kathryn (and Elizabeth, the maid) can’t help but chafe against their “Victorian, boring, mind-numbing existence” and to want things — not just material things but outlets, occupations — that by the standards of 1900 would have made them provocative and strange. And so we learn about women’s suffrage.
Inevitably, the Bowlers have a difficult time, and we learn how much nicer it is to be who we are when we are; but had they actually lived 100 years ago, they would naturally have been practiced in keeping coal fires lit and making their own sanitary napkins, and would have been used to chamber pots and wouldn’t have missed computer games or decent shampoo. It is the fate of every age that time will make it look backward and comical — our cell phones and SUVs, our manners, our music, our dress, our speech, our quaint ideas about the composition of the universe, the role of government and the dumbness of animals will seem similarly medieval when the Robot Overlords of Holovision revive this concept for the viewers of 2100. The corset may have been a physically unhealthful instrument of female oppression, but, come on — breast implants? How far have we really come? Underneath the changing cladding, the basic human stuff (the need for power, acceptance, security, meaningful activity, a shapely figure) goes on.
Which is the ultimate source of this show’s appeal: the basic human stuff. Like The Real World, it lets you see other people up close and personal. Really close. Really personal. Isolated as we are in our own skin, we’re ravenously curious about the inner lives of others; yet we’re trained from childhood not to pry, not to look too long or hard at anyone. And so we focus that desire, that attention, upon celebrities, whose private lives are public property. That ordinary people would consent to such scrutiny, would let it all hang out (and so, ha ha, become celebrities), is one of the great show-business discoveries of the end of the 20th century. (We havecome a long way!)
© Robert Lloyd 2000 and 2011