Last season, the first edition of The Real World (MTV, Thursdays, 10-10:30 p.m.) held our interest because of its novelty (seven young people selected to live in a New York City loft monitored by TV cameras and microphones) as well as its generous amount of spontaneous combustion (volcanic arguments, fits of giggly hysteria, generally snarky behavior). Central to the success of the series was the idea that, at least a few times each episode, we had to be able to think, Well, maybe this is really happening maybe it's not just a manufactured media event. For a channel on which the most human presences in recent months have been not its veejays but the cartoon sniggerers Beavis and Butt-Head, this was quite an achievement.
The new version of The Real World, which premiered June 24, is altogether more self-conscious on every level, and its notion of reality is that much more convoluted. For one thing, the site of the documentary has shifted to Los Angeles, so the concept of ''real world'' is pretty much called into question right from the start anything the protagonists do is automatically seen in the indulgent context of sunny, wacky La-La Land. Then too, the batch of human lab rats this time around seem to have been selected first and foremost for their potential to nibble one another to death. All of which combines to make this World pretty dandy.
Thus, in the no-last-names style of the show, we have:
· Jon, 18, a country singer from Kentucky, a fundamentalist Christian who cheerfully admits to being a virgin and who is, therefore, in MTV terms, a much bigger weirdo than, say, Pauly Shore.
· Dominic, 24, a doughty Irishman who likes to drink heavily and smoke incessantly, thus making him a despised curiosity in health-obsessed L.A.
· Tami, 23, an aspiring singer who makes her living handling insurance claims for people with AIDS. An African-American Muslim, Tami's religious beliefs were met with this reaction from Jon: ''Are you serious?''
· Irene, 25, a deputy marshal for L.A. County. In the framework of this predominantly white, laid-back unreal world, Irene's distinguishing characteristics are that she is Hispanic, she packs heat, and she gets up at 5 a.m. to go to work.
· David, 22, from Washington, D.C., a chatterbox stand-up comic who has yet to make me laugh once.
· Aaron, 22, a SoCal surfer who admires George Bush, thus making him the Real World person most likely to date MTV's outed Republican veejay Kennedy.
· Beth S., 24, an Ohio State graduate who is using her trip to the West Coast to pursue an acting career; is unnaturally attached to her vicious little cat, Toonces, a possible future meal for Dominic's large dog, George; and is by far the most annoying member of the new crew.
So far, my favorite Real World moment has been when a lonely Jon phoned home on Super Bowl Sunday (taping for the new season began last January), only to be told by his father, ''Garth is singin' the national anthem!'' You could tell from his exasperated tone that Dad was peeved at the interruption and Jon was appropriately abashed. In Kentucky, they take their football, their Garth Brooks, and their ''Star-Spangled Banner'' very seriously.
All these folks are being housed in a chichi three-story Venice Beach house that includes a ''confessional'' a little room with sky-blue wallpaper to which any Real Worlder can retreat to face a camera and confide his or her Real Feelings. This can lead to a lot of self-pitying blather, but it also inspires truly touching moments, such as Irene's tearful admission that this TV project she agreed to is preventing her from seeing much of her fiance. (Later, we see a considerably more cheerful Irene, giving her hunky intended a massage that would send shivers down Axl Rose's spine.)
Sure, the new Real World is beating the dead horse of the old one, but its derivativeness carries a fresh sting. ''This ain't Melrose Place,'' says Dominic at one point. ''We don't have to love each other.'' How true; I'm hooked. A-