Dinner couldn’t be more depressing. The kids are sulking at the table, poking their forks languidly at their melon and prosciutto. ”It’s our last supper,” sniffles one. ”Our last night together. It’s sooo sad!” Somebody grabs for a napkin. Somebody else belches.
For three months these seven young trendies, all between the ages of 19 and 26, have been roommates in a huge, dreamy loft in New York’s downtown SoHo district, sharing their lives not only with each other but with an almost- round-the-clock camera crew that has videotaped their every move since they first walked through the doors as strangers. It all constitutes a fantastic MTV experiment called The Real World, a strange hybrid of documentary and soap opera that looks a bit like An American Family (that old PBS cinema vérité series about the beleaguered Loud family) as it might be written by 90210’s Shannen Doherty and directed by that Truth or Dare guy, Alek Keshishian.
For 13 half-hour episodes, the first two of which debuted on May 21, we get to witness these telegenic urbanites live out their ”real” lives. We watch as they feud with each other (over everything from telephone manners to race relations), flirt with each other, rush off to work or school, chat with their moms on the phone (the ubiquitous microphones eavesdrop on both ends of the conversation), schmooze about sex, get drunk, pass out, and do all the other things twentysomethings do so well, all of it spliced together as slickly as a Paula Abdul video and set to an in-your-face soundtrack of Guns N’ Roses and R.E.M. Voyeurism has never been so cool.
MTV is broadcasting the series at 10 p.m. on Thursdays — right after 90210, not coincidentally — and so far the scheduling appears to be working. The show is already one of the highest-rated nonmusical programs MTV has ever put on the air, with three million viewers tuning in for the first two nights’ episodes. If fans stick around all through the summer, The Real World’s stars could become the best-known members of the MTV generation.
Right now, though, they’re bumming big time, contemplating the next morning, when the cameras finally stop rolling and they all move out of the loft and back to their other real worlds. ”They don’t have a clue how famous they’re about to become,” says coproducer Mary-Ellis Bunim as she watches their last supper from The Real World’s ”Land of Oz,” a dark, tiny control room built into the back of the loft, where walls of TV screens and state-of-the-art sound equipment monitor the action. ”This show is going to change people’s perception of MTV. This is the first MTV show that viewers will actually set their alarm clocks to see.”
Bunim’s partner, Jon Murray, 38, is sitting in Oz too. ”The main point of the series is to tell the story of this group of kids,” he says. ”It’s to show them getting involved with each other, learning from each other, sharing fears and dreams. That’s what we originally intended.”
Actually, what MTV originally intended was more of an old-fashioned soap, the kind with paid writers and actors, set to a rock & roll beat. The network initially hired Bunim (a veteran producer of As the World Turns and Santa Barbara) to develop a scripted MTV soap called St. Mark’s Place. ”It was going to be set in the East Village, with lots of music and comic books,” explains Lauren Corrao, MTV’s vice president for development. ”We wanted to do to soap operas what Remote Control did to game shows. We wanted to give an MTV spin to a traditional TV format.” Estimated costs for St. Mark’s Place, however, came in at $500,000 per episode, way out of MTV’s league. So when Bunim and Murray (who has worked as producer mostly in TV newsrooms) came up with Real World’s vérité approach as a cheaper ($100,000 per episode) alternative, the network jumped at the idea. ”Easiest sale we ever made,” says Murray.
The next step, choosing the cast, was much more challenging. Murray and Bunim spent a couple of months screening more than 500 potential loftsters, culled from on-air cattle calls, campus visits, and on-the-street interviews, searching for just the right chemistry. ”We were looking for people who were open to the camera,” says Murray. ”People with interesting lives, who hadn’t worked out all their problems. We didn’t want anybody too well adjusted. That would have been too boring.”
The lucky winners: Julie Oliver, a sweetly naive 19-year-old dancer from Alabama whose last trip to New York had been in the seventh grade (”I saw the Statue of Liberty, Cats, and every bit of my hotel”); Eric Neis, a cocky 21- year-old model from New Jersey who can’t resist swaggering shirtless in front of the camera; Heather B, 21, a rapper from Jersey with big hopes for her composition ”The System Sucks”; Norman Korpi, 25, a bisexual graphic designer from Michigan who ”outs” himself in the show’s third episode; Kevin Powell, 26, a feisty Jersey-born freelance writer who fights with everyone; Andre Comeau, a 21-year-old grunge guitarist from Detroit with a Kirstie Alley ‘do; and Becky Blasband, 24, a singer-songwriter and sometime waitress from the Philadelphia area who caused a scandal by breaking the ultimate Real World taboo — sleeping with one of the off-limits crew members. There are also appearances by Norm’s dog, Gouda, and Heather’s cat, Smokey.
Choosing the loft was almost as difficult as selecting the kids. Not only did it have to accommodate seven people, there also had to be room for tons of electrical equipment, scads of wiring, and a crew of up to 13 video technicians. Eventually, the producers found two adjacent lofts in a building on lower Broadway and tore down some walls. They bugged the apartment with 14 microphones (in addition to the wireless ones the cast wore, even in bed), planted lights on the ceilings, and built Oz, which the lofters were absolutely forbidden to enter, so as not to tarnish the ”reality” of the experiment (the crew bolted its door just in case). Then they filled the place with $30,000 worth of funky new furniture, including a pool table, leopard-spot throw pillows, and a 60-gallon fish tank. The new tenants, delighted by the rent-free luxury digs, dubbed the place ”Fantasy Island.”
By February, Loftland was ready for action. The question was, Would the kids provide any? ”This was the big risk,” says MTV’s Corrao. ”What if we filmed for 13 weeks and they didn’t do anything?”