By now, The Real World has become as quaintly, reassuringly predictable as a Road Runner cartoon, or a P.G. Wodehouse novel. We know that certain conventions will be observed. Upon arrival at the house in this case, a big stone heap in downtown Philadelphia some participant will comment on the excellence of the living arrangements (''Our bathroom is the coolest thing I've ever seen in my life!''); someone will divulge gratuitous personal information (''I've always been comfortable with my body, especially with my boobs, because they're not really mine''); and someone will become excessively inebriated with remarkable quickness, to the sorrowful disappointment of those around him (''Landon is nuts when he's drunk.... It's starting to get really old''). The Real World has become comfort food for people who can remember vividly the last time they got loaded and barfed up their comfort food.
After last season's descent into the crude, alcoholic tedium otherwise known as The Real World: San Diego, this new Real World: Philadelphia located in the City of Brotherly Love has gotten off to a gentler, more endearing start. The setting is spiffy: A converted old bank, with massive granite columns out front and a leafy tree growing inside, makes for a most appealing place to eat, sleep, and compare chests. This ''Old City'' Philly location is also within walking distance of the city's busiest social scene of bars and stores, which means a lot less of previous seasons' endless taxi rides. Plus, with any luck, the hallowed ''seven strangers'' will encounter lots of good old Philadelphia attitude, which is, broadly speaking, of a ''Yo, whatchoo lookin' at?'' sort.
Philadelphia's innate pugnaciousness is necessary, because the participants err, so far, on the side of politeness. MJ, 23, all rippling musculature from Nashville, plays the Southern good ol' boy to the point of drawling dullness. On the other hand, Willie, 23, from Manhattan, came out and invited the group to go with him to a gay bar within the first episode. Of course, Willie also told 22-year-old Tampa native Sarah that she was ''mad cool'' within minutes of meeting her, and we already know that this is dead wrong. Sarah may be the first clinical nymphomaniac I've ever observed; ceaseless comments like ''I think my biggest adjustment will be not walking around naked'' and (as she said of MJ) ''Am I being too obvious about that I wanna hit that?'' come off as repetitive and rather sad.
To be sure, Sarah has her tender side, as when she told MJ in the second episode that she felt emotional distress as only she can: ''It hurts me, like, to see you, like, wanting to get ass in another place'' i.e., with someone other than herself. The red-haired minx has already precipitated the breakup-by-phone of MJ with his girlfriend back home, Ashley. Evidently Ashley cannot compete with someone who doffs her bra within the first 15 minutes of the season premiere.
As always, it's going to take some time for other housemates to show their colors, but so far 24-year-old Landon, from River Falls, Wis., who drinks himself incoherent and says things like ''I'm hoping for a roommate... who is ready to blow,'' which I think means ''party,'' seems the person most likely to engage in unnecessary fisticuffs. (Rather than picking on a housemate, I hope he chooses a beefy cheese-steak eater on nearby South Street, who'll pummel this Jheri-curled twerp into the ground.)
The most interesting Real Worlder in some time may be Karamo, a 23-year-old gay black man from Houston, whose parents hail from Jamaica. To all appearances as macho and goofy as Landon and MJ, Karamo confided to the camera that he was there partly to show that gays ''are not all the same,'' and that the house he's living in can contain ''one who's a little bit more effeminate [and] one who's masculine.'' I think he's the one Willie should find ''mad cool.'' Then again, Willie is a former regular on the PBS kids' show Ghostwriter (he played a young sleuth), which is pretty mad cool: He's already like a one-man Surreal Life, and given Ghostwriter's emphasis on literacy, I'm going to be listening for his grammatical errors. Hey, it beats listening for Sarah's latest invitation to feel her ''fake boobs.''