Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle My Life in The Real World Kult

By Adrienne Martini

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Just for the record, I am not a freak. I prefer to be called a complete-ist. Yes, as a teenager my bedroom was plastered with posters of Duran Duran. Yes, I owned every one of their albums, including the imports. Yes, I would still give a major limb for an interview with John Taylor. But I never threw my underwear at the band nor did I fantasize that any of them knew me. It was a quiet, if thorough, obsession. I blame my single-mindedness on my parents. Had they decided to just have one more child, I would have been saved from the only-child experience. With no siblings to distract me, I had a tendency to fall headlong into my own engaging amusements.

At first, it was books. I scoured the public library shelves for anything by Robert Heinlein or Douglas Adams I could get my sweaty little hands on. Then, a miracle occurred. Our neighborhood was finally jacked into the great universe that was cable.

Sure, I'd seen it before. I had a host of friends who had had it for months. But now it was in my very own living room, housed in a shiny box that was full of possibilities and MTV was the king of them all. Hour after hour, I would park in front of the box, with both eyes glued to the set in manic concentration, scanning the screen for the next Duran Duran video or reference, setting up a lifelong affection for all that the network had to offer as well as a frightening ability to remember the lyrics of obscure songs from the Eighties. But MTV and I parted ways when the channel started to ditch the old VJs like Alan Hunter or Nina Blackwood and replace them with inferior goods. I still don't see the merits of Kennedy and miss the old set, which looked like the rec room of a demented teenager. Betrayed by change, siblingless, and in need of a few good diversions, I discovered both boys and cigarettes and my days of absorbing all that MTV fed me ended.

Or so I thought. After my first three TV-free years of college, we used the television simply as a way to watch rented movies. Since you could only receive 13 stations of electronic fuzz in the mountains of Pennsylvania, I decided that I really missed CNN and needed to get cable. At least that was what I told all of my MTV-bashing friends.

Truth be told, I wanted to return to my early teenage nights of blissing out in front of eye-candy videos, a welcome respite from worrying about what I was going to be when I grew up or if I would finish my senior thesis, a major project that students had to complete before they could graduate. Who wouldn't want their MTV after days spent pawing through dusty old tomes about medieval theatre, full of plague and brimstone?

Like an aging whore with a new coat of lipstick, MTV was still selling its peculiar brand of capitalism to a generation too jaded to notice. Sure, the sets and the VJs had changed and there were fewer actual videos, but it was the same welcome presence, the trying-too-hard-to-be-hip older brother that I never had. So my days were full of mind-bending research, my nights spent doing my best impersonation of lawn furniture, stacked in front of the TV watching videos. Then it happened. By accident, I caught the first episode of The Real World, the New York City episodes. Like a junkie after her first dose, I was hooked. Every Thursday night I let Kevin, Julie, Andre, Norm, Heather, Becky, and Eric into my squalid little living room and was amazed by their willingness to expose themselves to that kind of scrutiny, much less to allow their lives to be pieced together by a host of faceless editors. It was also the idea itself that I found so magnetic. Seven strangers, one house, and a swarm of cameras. A long time fan of vérité, this concept struck me as somehow perfect, the ultimate expression of postmodern life. What does that mean? I don't know, but it was my standard answer when teased about my Real World habit.

And it was a habit, in the biggest, baddest way possible. I could watch the exact same episode 30 times -- a possibility given MTV's bewildering rerun schedule -- and still find something new. It became just like having old friends over; however, these friends always did the same things and never, ever asked me about my thesis. Plus, their lives had a great soundtrack, something for which I have always longed. Well, all of that and the fact that I had a significant crush on Andre, who was squeezably cute in that Eighties, big-hair band kind of way.

Then, it ended. My new friends disappeared, as if they had all been simultaneously hit by the same bus. And I graduated, with honors, may I add, and found myself leaving Pennsylvania and moving to Texas, a state where I knew no one. But Real World 2 eased the transition. No, really. I remember watching in a beat-up motel room, which had framed Bible verses on its walls, in Brinkley, Arkansas, praying that no one decided to steal my equally beat-up Ford Escort that was packed to its handy hatchback with all of my worldly possessions. My problems seemed minor compared to the poor schmucks who were stuck in the L.A. house. I'm still amazed that everyone managed to emerge with both life and limb intact. Never a big fan of strife myself, I found it hard to bond with the L.A. cast. Or, perhaps, it was simply the fact that it was set in L.A., the land of facades. No New York grit for these beach lovers.

I still cry like a baby, however, anytime I see the episode where Dom, cast as an Irish hack, travels to Ireland for a sickbed sort of visit with his father, and it was more than just my blind desire to travel across the pond. There's a moment when Dom is in the airport, waving good-bye to the family. He disappears through the gate and his father presses his face up against the glass partition, trying for one last glimpse of his son. I remember sitting in my squalid little apartment in West Campus bawling my eyes out, for hours after the episode ended, having recently seen my own family's faces as I pulled out of the driveway in my overstuffed Ford for what seemed like the last time. Then, of course, came RW3. And, of course, it was just about the time when I had had one friend too many die from AIDS. There also was Puck, the multiple-personality poster boy, and Rachel, the tattooed and pierced Republican. A strange but colorful bunch of people who did have a vague idea how to live in some sort of loose harmony, perhaps a tribute to the San Francisco air more than anything else.

Real World 4 was, and is, my favorite. The city itself, London, was like the seventh character in this particular morality play, a fine replacement for Jay, the young American who never seemed to leave his bed. While the city was certainly entrancing, Neil was more fascinating. An Oxford-bred, dyed-in-the-wool Englishman, Neil was more colorful than a box full of Crayolas and cute as a box full of puppies, even after his tongue was severed in a bizarre, crowd-baiting instance. I learned a very important lesson from Neil: Never stick your tongue in the mouth of a drunk and angry stranger. Words to live by. Real World 5 was a waste of tape. Given $50,000 by MTV to start a business, this group of slackers never managed to get out of their Miami beach mansion and Flora, the Boston-bred Russian, was Puck's soul-mate.

Which brings us to Real World 6, the Boston episodes. So far, it looks promising: Genesis, a lesbian with a thing for drag queens who doesn't seem to realize that the word bisexual exists for a reason; Elka, the Brownsville, Texas-born virgin (and currently enrolled at UT); Syrus, the player; Montana, the too-hip-to-live New Yorker; Kameelah, the little girl with a great big chip on her shoulder; Jason, the journalist; and Sean, the lumberjack lawyer, are living in this wonderful converted firehouse in the heart of Boston. Granted, while this series is chock-full of shots of blowing snow, it is also replete with Real Worlders forced to volunteer their time at an after-school program and, seemingly, having a great time. While conflict, I'm sure, lurks around every corner, thus far this bunch is ready to deal with it. Until, of course, someone forgets to pick up her nasty underwear.

And still I watch. I'm now largely out of MTV's target demographic and have already dealt with most of the issues that each series is destined to re-hash. But I watch. It has to be more than all of the cute boys and snappy dialogue. If that were the only perk, I probably wouldn't find myself at Bonnie Burton's wonderful webpage (http://www.grrl.com/realrules.html), reading the newsgroup, buying the books, or Neil's band Unilever's CD, which does have a hysterical cover of Madonna's "Justify My Love."

Believe it or not, I can no longer handle watching the episodes more than a few times, I might add, although I do get really cranky if anyone dares call me after 9pm on a Wednesday night, and am I starting to tire of the constant problems these people seem to have, problems that exist due to Burnin/Murray's editing more than reality. Admittedly, I haven't purchased any of the videos, largely because I have heard that they are truly awful -- as were the books, if the truth be told -- and have no desire to see any of the footage that was deemed unworthy for the series itself. So, I suppose, the complete-ist is a complete-ist no more. A sign of impeding maturity, perhaps, or a great indication that age and exhaustion can kick the ass of any obsession. But I did get a great Iain Banks book the other day and promptly added it to my rapidly growing collection. Now I just have to get Song of Stone, his most recent, and I'll have them all. I wonder when teen magazine will publish a poster of this sexy Scottish writer....


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