The Real World: Portland: TV Review
10 p.m. Wednesday, March 27 (MTV)
MTV's benchmark series, once of cultural interest, has now taken its alcohol-soaked hookup party to a violent level.
"Here youth, unchanging, blooms and smiles, here dwells eternal spring, and warm from Hope's elysian isles, the winds their perfume bring." That was Oliver Wendell Holmes regarding the mythical Fountain of Youth, from which MTV draws a new group of attractive young folk each year, soaks them in alcohol and then sets the cameras rolling. It might not be exactly what Holmes envisioned, but it's worked out well for the network. Now in its 28th season,The Real World, the grandfather of the current docu-soap reality movement, continues to churn out familiar content that, in its immortal words, "finds out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real."
This year the show is in Portland, where the cast's trendy loft is located in the Pearl District. But whether here or when the show leaves the country (as it has for London, Paris, Cancun and elsewhere), the location rarely matters. The bright-eyed bunch -- those seven strangers -- whose average age is a tender 21, come from all over. A relative elder this season, 24-year-old Joi, seems a little beyond the drama at first, but then again, her nipples are pierced with diamonds and she's posed in Playboy, so her reservations are relatively few.
In the past the cast often included the backwards-thinking or the innocent to try and stir up confrontation. But now there are hardly any innocents; certainly not in the Portland cast (who start showing T&A, and everything else, almost immediately). As for confrontations, alcohol does most of the work there. One wonders what became of the days of, say, the 1994 San Francisco cast, which featured medical student Pam, Ivy League applicant Rachel, safe-sex crusader Pedro (who had AIDS) and Judd, who hustled to get a job at a newspaper to publish his comics, while simultaneously falling in the love with Pam (they are still together). Portland's cast includes one member who actually seems to have a job -- Averey works at Hooters.
Averey seems to be one of the more level-headed of the bunch, though, and takes pride in supporting herself while the others mumble about parental help (most of them live at home). Though all of the cast members (sweet, southern Jessica, former college football player Marlon, model Anastasia, goofy Johnny and hot-headed Jordan) seem optimistic and normal to begin with, a few begin exhibiting typical melt-down behavior fairly quickly, i.e. fighting and drama over nothing.
A few episodes into the season, things calm down as the roommates take deep breaths and begin to really bond and talk about things from their past, while along the way learning how to deal with difficult roommates and budding romances. Then a new female roommate Nia (replacing a departed one who just didn't want to be there anymore -- for spoiler reasons I'll keep it vague) says to Jordan, "I want to suck the skin off of your dick," before turning to the other roommates and continuing, "where are you guys going? I want an audience!"
MTV has said that this is the most outrageous Real World season yet, but I think that distinction lies solely in the hands of the new cast member. Nia seems out to make a name for herself by being as crazy, violent and manipulative as possible (that violence might not stand though -- producers have kicked cast mates out and into anger management classes in the past). Though almost everyone behaves badly at the start, it's not anything unusual. Nia, however, takes things to a new level.
Is it fun to watch? Not really. It's strange and embarrassing and a distraction from any actual bonding the other cast mates might do, as has happened in a few more recent seasons (like with 2004's well-received, relatively normal and relatable San Diego cast).
The Real World has been around for a long time, but is it time for them to pack things up? The series no longer seems able to find the right balance between boring and crazy, though some loyal viewers and the network's core demographic will always tune in. But what service is the show doing for that audience? It's the face that launched a thousand reality docu-soaps, but until it returns to its roots and gets away from the drunken shenanigans it's become known for exclusively since the 2002 Vegas cast (more or less), it has lost its position as worthwhile television. It might actually be interesting for once to see a show about youths who, as Holmes says in his poem, represent "our future's dream, the hope of times unborn!" Unless The Real World really is it, in which case, hand me that liquor bottle please.