Boston's "Real World" has one fatal flaw: it's not bad enough.
By Michael Crowley
DECEMBER 1, 1997: Never had our little town been so excited about TV. During the six months that MTV filmed its Boston season of The Real World, the city took on a strangely charged atmosphere. You never knew when you might turn a corner, stroll into a restaurant, hop on the T, and suddenly encounter a throng of cameras and boom mikes and Gapped-out MTV kids.
People trafficked in stories and rumors about cast members they'd encountered, and evaluated their chances of winding up on-screen (I was convinced, for instance, that my fooseball heroics one January night would go down in pop culture history). Local gossip columns tittered about the cast's foibles. The Beacon Hill establishment railed at its new punk neighbors and interloping gawkers.
And finally, on the eve of the show's debut, MTV blasted us with hype. Granted access at last, the Globe, the Herald, and all the usual national suspects printed breathless previews, as if a new family of cultural royals were being crowned: There's a lipstick lesbian named Genesis! Jason is the new Puck!
Well, 18 weeks later -- and with about a month to go before the season finale -- the reviews are . . . not in. After all that Sturm und Drang, nobody seems to be paying any attention to this, the sixth season of MTV's now-ubiquitous soap opera/docudrama.
Oh, sure, the first hourlong episode was something of a minor cultural event here in Boston, spawning a flurry of Real World parties and Thursday-morning quarterbacking.
But as the Boston season winds down, it's difficult to find anybody who knows what happened in that Charles Street firehouse since the new gang of seven first unpacked and bickered over bedrooms. The show has been a bore. The cast is neither pathetic enough to provide comic satisfaction, nor complex enough to intrigue us (not that any of its predecessors were).
Where are the exaggerated characters of old -- the Pucks, the Dominics, the Heather B.'s who entered our lowbrow lexicon? Where are the sordid plot lines? The radioactive hostility and banishments? Even onetime junkies who weathered the tedium of 1995's London season appear to have abandoned the listing RW ship.
How did this happen? For one thing, the Real World formula itself groans with age. (MTV years, after all, are wildly accelerated like dog years.) And the show has never been the same since the days of Puck, the scabby bike messenger wannabe and quintessential 15-minute celebrity who set a standard for vulgarity, hostility, and sheer entropy, leaving in his wake only the possibility of letdown.
But partly because of its dull chemistry -- as well as MTV's foolish design -- the Boston Real World caves in to, and doesn't challenge, the show's inherent liabilities.
The first problem lies with the cast itself: too balanced, too self-aware, too bland. For this, we can thank what appears to be the network's desire to make the show a little less vapid. Big mistake. Vapid is good.
So we get a law student in Sean, the grinning Wisconsin lumberjack. Montana, a noisy New Yorker, has political opinions that don't sound as if they came from advertising slogans. Kameelah is a Stanford student. Jason is a spoken-word poet. No total dimwits here, no maniacs.
But nobody is watching this program for intellectual stimulation. What made the old shows so damn funny was the assortment of hapless nitwits like Los Angeles Real World's John Brennan, the country-music singer from Kentucky who drank Kool-Aid and slept on the couch all day; or his roommate Tammi, who wired her jaw shut as a way to lose weight; or the preposterous Eric Nies of the 1992 New York season, who went on to host the MTV dance show The Grind.
The Boston characters have their oddball quirks, but not one is engaging or appalling enough to root for or against every week. Genesis, whose hot-chick lesbianism was the focus of the pre-show hype, is a robotic and alienated figure who spends most of her time on the Internet (there's TV in the '90s: watching someone type away in a chat room). Texas-born Elka is the Christian princess who wages a boring battle against big-city vice. Jason, whose boho-white homeboy schtick seemed to have the most potential for either outrage or ridicule, lingers quietly and uninterestingly on the sidelines. Kameelah meets a couple of nice boys and goes out with them. Syrus, a black, shaven-headed egomaniac, seemed to promise gender battles, especially after the revelation that he was once accused of rape; and the parade of random women he brings home from bars approaches a burlesque. But in the end, he never goes overboard.
Even more than in its choice of cast, MTV goofed badly in trying to lend the show an air of social responsibility. Sensing that its basic formula had gone stale -- and finding that young people given a rent-free house tend to watch TV and sleep a lot -- the network threw the Beantown cast into part-time gigs at an East Boston after-school program.
It's hard to believe that someone looked at today's MTV and said, "More action at community centers." But clearly, this was an idea that made the network's corporate breast swell with pride. Speaking at a post-production party at the Lansdowne Street Playhouse this summer, the show's producers were almost tearful as they described how "we really made a difference" during their six months working with the kids. Although the assembled crowd was dying to see previews of the show, a television wheeled to center stage showed only sappy footage of the cast playing with tots. The disappointment in the room was palpable.
Despite MTV's feel-good talk, however, The Real World's presence at the daycare center has been a fiasco. Few of the cast members seem to give much of a damn about the children. They don't even refrain from acidic fighting at work: a roomful of baffled tots once watched Kameelah defend her, uh, chastity, and then threaten to punch out Elka. Amazingly, Syrus actually dates one of the kids' moms. On a trip to a volunteerism summit in Philly, Montana gets fired after two 11-year-olds report that she let them have sips of wine. And when the kids fill out evaluations of the cast, they hand back dismal marks. (Is this what it means to make a "difference"?)
And so the result was a double whammy: a failed bid at social responsibility, and wickedly boring television.
We might forgive all the after-school fluff if there had been some good brawling back at the firehouse. But no cast, except for the drearily chummy London gang of 1995, has had fewer tensions than the Boston cohort. They've had their flare-ups, but not many. Perhaps the biggest involved Genesis plastering the house with dozens of strange aphorisms ("Genesisisms") directed at her antagonists (e.g., Syrus, who promptly tore them all down). But most of the tension has been this sort of blandly passive-aggressive stuff -- not funny, but simply a downer. It just can't compare to the feuding and shrieking that made you feel good about your comparative sanity in years past.
Instead, the show has too often been an airing of personal horrors that makes for rather depressing and uncomfortable viewing: Genesis breaks down when her alcoholic mother lands in the hospital from a wicked drinking binge. Montana suggests that it would have been best if she had been aborted. Elka struggles with the recent death of her mother, weeping at her grave and sharing the detailed story of their last moments together. Kameelah reveals that her stepfather went to prison for shooting her mother.
Finally, there was the mutual dislike between the cast and the city. While Boston's bars teemed on weekend nights with sycophants dying to make it on camera or into Syrus's bed, at least as many people resented those ridiculous camera crews turning their relaxed nights out into sudden drama.
We know what the cast thought thanks to MTV's newly published The Real World: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, in which five of the seven members slam Beantown.
Jason: "Everywhere I looked, people seemed pissed off and in a hurry. Maybe it was the cold winter, but I never saw anyone really happy in Boston."
Kameelah: "I didn't like Boston that much. I thought I'd have a lot of fun there because it's a college town. But all there was to do in Boston was drink, smoke, and hang out in bars."
And Sean: "I didn't think the people in Boston were very friendly."
For good measure, Montana adds that Boston "just doesn't pack the same punch" as New York City.
(My favorite tidbit from the book: the crew began shredding "vital documents" in the mistaken belief that Phoenix reporter Tom Scocca had gotten details about the cast -- which MTV fervently shielded -- from their garbage.)
Actually, the show tends to make Boston look pretty good. Despite the bitching, the nightlife -- seen mostly through mainstream spots like Emily's and Mercury Bar (although Genesis does discover the gay scene at Axis) -- seems to leave everyone drunk and happy. And the opening credits provide a quick tour of popular landmarks -- such as the State House dome and a shimmering Charles River -- that would do a tourism bureau proud.
But the question is whether anybody noticed. Once the gang started getting along and playing with little kids, one suspects, people stopped tuning in. Nobody watches The Real World to be uplifted by social work, or to confront "issues." They want fighting and moronic behavior. In Boston, they didn't get it.
So might MTV's visit to our city kill off The Real World once and for all? Is it finally time to put this spawn of the early 1990s out of its misery?
Apparently not. The series remains a cultural juggernaut. Three spinoff books have made the New York Times bestseller list: The Real World Diaries, The Real Real World, and the brand-new The Real World: The Ultimate Insider's Guide. For hardened obsessives, there's even a video, The Real World You Never Saw.
And MTV is forging ahead. The casting hot line is up and running for 1998's Real World Hawaii. Some 10,000 people are expected to apply.
Michael Crowley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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