Now, it may seem like this is not a distinction to be proud of. This is probably the point where I need to defend watching a show that is ostensibly all about young people drinking and having sex with each other. Clearly, that’s what most people are watching for; that is, after all, why MTV set the show’s newest iteration in Cancun.
I think, and I am not alone, that The Real World often offers a revealing insight into modern social dynamics. On the one hand, it illustrates what a large role circumstances and environment play on personalities: Year after year, season after season, the same plots and issues repeat with different people due to the shared experience of cameras and closed-quarters. People are consistently boiled down to similar stereotypes, despite varying backgrounds and agendas. The confessionals illustrate conflicts of internal and interpersonal sincerity, as you, the viewer get to know things that close friends and roommates do not, while simultaneously not actually knowing what is going on behind the lens of cameras and editing rooms. On a very basic level, it also shows what issues tend to unite and divide people, and what people perceive as slights or offenses.
Of course, all this stuff is presented through a lifestyle of drinking, clubbing, fornicating, yelling, gossiping, and basically doing nothing at all that could be rationally classified as “productive.” And, in the immortal words of Lester Freamon, “If you have a problem with this, I understand completely.” Oftentimes, particularly when the show recruits people who are only using it as a stepping-stone to something else, that’s really all the show is: a chance to get famous by being “outrageous.” When it does transcend that, however, and get into something deeper in the cultural psyche, it is very good television.
Recently, however, as a result of competition from the likes of Survivor, Dancing with the Stars and, of course, The Hills, the show has undergone a bit of an identity crisis. Starting with The Real World: Sydney (2007) MTV started letting fans vote online for one of the housemates. The next season, Hollywood, stretched episodes out to an hour and featured a cast entirely of people trying to break into the entertainment industry (how different this was from previous seasons is debatable, but this time they were explicit about it). Last season, in Brooklyn, expanded the number of housemates to eight and featured the shows first transgender housemate in a pretty transparent attempt to be “controversial.” The changes, however, have resulted in largely forgettable seasons, with a few bright-spot episodes (i.e. Joey’s break-up letter to cocaine, Ryan getting recalled to Iraq).
The newest season, Cancun, premiered Wednesday night, and The Real World still seems unsure of itself. There is only one reason to set a season in Cancun, and it’s not getting in touch with rich Mexican culture—MTV is clearly hoping that this season is one extended version of Spring Break.
MTV is also trying something new by having two housemates who know each other from home (as well as having additional roommates who are, apparently, Facebook friends). This is a move I have been in favor of for a while. It could potentially lead to cliques in the house, but it also adds an established rapport and cuts down on the getting-to-know-each-other time. Jonna and Derek worked together in Arizona and are friends; Jonna calls Derek “the best gay guy ever” when introducing him. Jonna is also in a relationship with someone back home and she insists that she is “not worried about” losing it. Apparently, Jonna is not familiar with this show at all, because relationships from back home have a worse mortality rate than swine flu.
Other housemates include C.J., an NFL punter who describes his status as a free agent as “not being tied down to any one team,” Bronne (pronounced Brawny “like the paper towel”) and Joey, who is trying very hard to be Puck. On the girls’ side, we have two Hooters’ waitresses in Emilee and Ayiiia, this year’s online winner, and Jasmine, who is certainly NOT this season’s black stereotype even though she describes herself as “blunt,” “loud” and “not afraid to speak (her) mind” within five minutes.
The first episode featured most of the traditional first episode fare: the girls picking the hottest guy (CJ), the guys picking the hottest girl (Jonna), two roommates overdrinking (Joey and Bronne), one housemate taking charge and looking after them (CJ), two roommates declaring themselves “BFF” unnaturally quickly (Ayiiia and Jasmine), and the first housemate to end his relationship (CJ).
Of course, Cancun has its share of uniqueness, as the group hits up Senor Frogs (I wonder if any of them had a margarita made in their mouth), and Bronne and Joey “successfully” pull off the first mother-daughter hook-up in Real World history (to the best of my knowledge).
Based on the first episode, it’s hard to tell if Cancun is going to be about more than just trying to create more hot tub threesomes. I’m not incredibly optimistic, but I’ve been wrong before: My hopes for Brooklyn were high after the first episode, but aside from the election/Iraq episode, the most interesting thing about that season was a boys vs. girls prank war. I’ll keep watching, though, if only to scout performers for The Inferno IV.