Anyone who’s ever wanted to take a swing at a reality show cast member gets their twisted wish fulfilled in the opening episode of the 16th incarnation of MTV’s "The Real World." While filming of the popular program, in which a group of young adults share living quarters for four months, has long been plagued by harassment- a hurled barstool barely missed the kids in Philadelphia last season – this time, fist meets skin.
In the long-running series’ first visit to the Lone Star State – the requisite "seven strangers, picked to live in a house" are put up in a remodeled industrial space in Austin – Danny, from Boston, is the victim of a vicious, unprovoked beatdown on the 6th Street club crawl that nearly costs him an eye. Welcome to Texas.
Much of the backlash against the pioneering "The Real World" is fueled by, among other things, concern about MTV’s presumed dominance over youth culture, the network’s dilution of the original "Real World’s" appeal into reheat-and-eat predictability, and the elevation of reality-TV no-talents to star status, fostering an endless supply of witless wannabes – drunk on entitlement and dreams of easy riches – for the next generation of programming. More locally, the frustration from season to season has to do with the way the cast and its sprawling camera crew take over each city’s cool hangouts.
Still, those who don’t like the show have an easy option: Don’t watch it. That’s certainly preferable to accosting, and almost permanently crippling, a complete stranger. Although their faces are obscured in the Tuesday night debut episode, the Austin attackers are as guilty as any "Real World" castmate of craving camera time, and any moral high ground they might have stood on as mere cranky onlookers rapidly turns to quicksand.
But the incident throws into stark relief "The Real World’s" basic problem these days: One season blends into the next in a haze of boring boozing and bedhopping. Danny’s troubles provide an unpredictable, random X-factor in what has become rote formula. When he’s taken to the emergency room and is told the seriousness of his situation, "The Real World" hasn’t been this real since Pedro fought his battle with AIDS way back in season three.
The rest of the debut is far less memorable. In addition to Danny, who seems to be this season’s hunk, there’s the beautiful and troubled Johanna, who turns into a stumbling nightmare of obstinacy and incoherence when drunk (her situation sets off the chain of events leading to Danny’s assault); the beautiful and predatory Melinda (who wants Danny all to herself, angering Johanna); jock Wes; virgin Lacey; party-hearty Rachel; and friendly Nehemiah (who’s crushing big time on Johanna).
All of them fall into the standard-issue "Real World" personality and cultural slots. And, as usual, the roomies show absolutely no curiosity about their new city, beyond the bar scene. As a result, viewers learn nothing about what makes Austin unique.
Things should pick up in subsequent episodes, when the cast members are put to work. Their job this season is to help make a documentary about a band playing South by Southwest. No doubt, what will emerge for all of them by season’s end is gratification for having "grown."
That’s all well and good, but something more is needed to shake up this calcified "World." Granted, with ratings reportedly on the rise with each season, the show’s producers are probably reluctant to tamper with success, but at some point even the most diehard fans will tire of a TV diet of six-packs and sexaholics.
MTV shouldn’t have to depend on street thugs to make "The Real World" real.
THE REAL WORLD
10 p.m. EDT Tuesdays
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