Few TV series are less ”real” than The Real World yet this proves to be one of the greatest charms of this so-called reality-based soap opera. The Real World is MTV’s idea of a documentary entertainment experiment: The music-video network rented a big Manhattan loft, offered it to seven real-life young adults who’d never met each other, and let the cameras roll for three months earlier this year.
We watch as the wary gang moves in, orders pizza, sits around getting to know each other, nods out, and straggles off to various places of employment or study the next day. For 13 weeks, The Real World will take the famous 1971 PBS series An American Family — in which a suburban clan lived its life for a year with cameras whirring — and cross it with The Monkees, turning these seven unknowns into personalities at least as vivid as your average MTV VJ.
In theory, it all sounds pretty corny and contrived. In practice, The Real World proves to be by far the most beguiling and involving piece of programming MTV has ever offered. Our real-life, nonscripted nonheroes are a motley crew:
Julie (chummy first-names-only on The Real World), 19, naive, and a dancer, has left behind a conservative Birmingham, Ala., father who tells her to call him ”at 11 in the morning and 11 at night, every day.” By the end of the series’ debut episode, Julie is in the East Village riding on the back of a motorcycle with a biker who asks the camera with a snicker, ”Think she has birth control on her?” Wide-eyed and chatterboxy-articulate, Julie is The Real World’s break-out star.
Eric, 20, is a brooding professional model from New Jersey who speaks for all blissfully self-centered, beautiful young twits when he looks soulfully into the camera and says, ”We’re people too.”
Kevin, 25, is a struggling freelance writer and poet from New Jersey, who walks into the rent-free loft and moans in ecstasy, ”What is this, Fantasy Island?”
Rebecca, 24, from Philadelphia, makes a living as a waitress but spends her nights strumming an acoustic guitar in Greenwich Village nightclubs, purring singer-songwriter sensitivities in the manner of Suzanne Vega, for whom Rebecca is a dead ringer.
Norman, 24, born in Michigan but a longtime New Yorker, has a sad-eyed black Great Dane and a fledgling design firm; both are named Gouda. So far, Norman is the least-developed Real World person, existing primarily as a bisexual contrast to the series’ hormone-bursting heterosexual atmosphere.
Andre, 21, from Detroit, fronts a blaring rock band with a lousy name — Reigndance —and drives his roomies crazy because, as he admits, he ”snores louder than Fred Flintstone.”
Heather, 21, is a Jersey-born rapper who at first seems sullen and angry (she announces that one of her latest compositions is entitled ”The System Sucks”). But she also describes herself as ”lucky, gregarious, easygoing, and generous.”
It is a measure of the filmmakers’ skill that we soon see past Heather’s tough exterior to the qualities she has listed. From her conversation and interaction with her new roommates, it becomes clear she’s as nice a person as she thinks she is. It’s obviously going to take a while for this half-hour show to flesh out all its protagonists, but The Real World quickly succeeds in its soap opera objective: After the first installment, I was hooked, and watching the next two episodes has left me waiting for more.
One of The Real World’s producers, Mary Ellis Bunim, is a veteran of soap operas, having worked on everything from As the World Turns to Santa Barbara. But The Real World doesn’t have any of the soaps’ hokey melodrama, and if The Real World’s subjects are self-conscious about the presence of TV cameras, most of them disguise it better than many soap actors. Eric, in particular, seems unconscious of his Real World status; in the third episode, he starts dating a model with whom he’s recently done a photo session. In a voice-over he confides, ”I’m not really her type; she usually dates rock stars and stuff I don’t know what she sees in me.” You want to shake him and say, ”Maybe it’s that MTV camera crew that’s always following you around, you big lunk!”
The Real World plays shrewdly to the fantasies of the MTV audience — wouldn’t it be a gas to live in a high-tech New York loft with a bunch of cool people, to have cameras recording your silliest actions and most personal thoughts? Then, too, there’s a blithe unreality to The Real World that gives it an attractively dreamy air: Music from the MTV hit parade (R.E.M., Talking Heads, INXS) plays over scenes of subway riding and dog walking, lending these banal activities a sense of heroic purpose; our stars regularly address the camera directly.
The Real World could use a bit more realism. Surely the effervescent Julie has something bad to say about her roommates, and didn’t Becky feel just a bit annoyed when, while she was slaving away in the kitchen cooking a big chicken dinner for the gang (”with potatoes and vegetables and everything!”), Heather was spoiling her appetite by wolfing down bowls of Fruity Pebbles? Still, I’ll keep watching,if only for the inevitable nightmare scene: What will The Real World kids do when their insufferable MTV neighbor Pauly Shore, the dunderhead of dude-speak, drops by for a cup of sugar? Please, you guys-don’t open the door! A