It’s been years since I watched The Real World. The dull antics on the St. Lucia season tranquilized me sufficiently to keep me away from the show for several seasons. I have no idea what drew me back to it. Fond memories of watching marathons hung over in my townie boyfriend’s parents’ basement during college? Searching for America’s Next Top Model on iTunes and seeing The Real World: Portland suggested in the search results? The latter egged on by the former.
One-star iTunes reviews with names like “So bad” and “Unwatchable” did not deter me from coasting through nearly the entire season of The Real World: Portland in about a week and a half (WARNING: this piece, from here on out, contains spoilers). I think I could grow to love just about any reality cast I lay my eyes upon, but time has endeared me to The Real World: I am now several years older than the show’s stars. Now, they seem so sweet, so hopeful, so full of hormones, so impetuous, so intent on proving themselves to one another, so completely convinced that competitiveness is a more interesting way of life than kindness. It certainly makes for more interesting television. But I once, not that long ago, felt that way about life (now I just watch others feel it from the safety of my bed). I do not think the cast of Portland was urged to drive each other crazy by the producers (and drive each other crazy they do); I think young adults just are that way, whether they’re cohabiting with six other strangers or not.
This isn’t a competition, strictly speaking, so the cattiness and ruffling and displaying of feathers common on so many reality competitions isn’t as prevalent here. In fact, all of the people on Portland seem much older than I acted at the age of 22. About a third of the way through the Portland season, Nia, the tall, beautiful Atlanta-based instigator (who replaces Seattle native Joi after a handful of episodes), talks with Averey, the Arizona-based Hooters waitress who is also beautiful (seriously, all of these people are beautiful) about their messy family lives. Averey explains that she moved out of her house at 15 because her mother was, in her words, “crazy.” Nia says that Averey is only a year older than her but seems so much older because Averey “had to grow up” as a teenager in order to deal with her dysfunctional family. But even Nia, who feels degraded by her housemates’ work at the pizza place, thinks it’s beneath her, and would naively prefer to “live in a loft in New York and write books,” still comes off as remarkably self-assured for a 22-year-old. I am, dare I say it, impressed by most of what this cast does. And I kind of love them.
If anything is frustrating about The Real World it’s not the concept, or the people (though in previous seasons it has been the people), but the format. It seems every season involves much (too much) footage of the cast walking down the street to or from a bar to or from their apartment, usually drunk, often arguing with each other. It can get extremely monotonous. But, well, there’s only so much these people do: they hang out in their large house, they go to bars, they sleep, sometimes with each other, and they work.
But in the midst of the banality there always seems to be something to root for: a romance, an individual, the resolution of a conflict, the escalation of a conflict. Adversity, that tired word, has tended to play a role on The Real World, and most of Portland’s cast members know adversity well. The show is a test of whether each person is going to continue the cycle of adversity they’ve experienced, or rise above it.
This season also rests on the shoulders of the sidelined players, like Anastasia, a.k.a. Bird, who doesn’t get much airtime because she’s usually too diplomatic to make the news. When Bird threatens to leave the show with three weeks to go, pressured by her possessive and insecure boyfriend back home, the house rallies around her, making long-overdue apologies to each other and finally telling Bird how much they appreciate having her around. Bird is the house sounding board, always lending an ear, whether she wants to or not. After a couple of months she explodes, and rightfully so, when she realizes that no one ever bothers to ask her about her life.
In modern television, and arguably in the world at large, the pacifists — the quiet ones — often go unnoticed, and Bird proved how important it is to fill a house (or a company, or a community) with truly different people: black, white, mixed, introvert, extrovert, gay, straight, unsure. When they finally make peace with each other (it doesn’t last for the whole season; in fact, there is horrible and pointless violence near the end of the season, but it’s still significant), the other housemates get a glimpse at how Bird has been trying to treat the Real World experience since day one. As it happens, all Bird wants is for everyone to step into each other’s shoes, even if they don’t fundamentally like or agree with each other prior to doing so.
Compare this season of The Real World to the first few, and it’s hard to think that the world hasn’t gotten smaller. That technology, if it hasn’t connected us as meaningfully as a face-to-face conversation can, has at least bred a generation of people generally more aware, tolerant and open than their forebears. There is still some initial shock when Marlon, the black former football star from Texas Tech, tells everyone early on in the season that he’s had sex with a man. But the shock quickly gives way to admiration and curiosity.
There is no point to The Real World other than to see the world through other people’s eyes. Oddly, this long-standing show has a more pure and more enduring message than many of its imitators (or, it goes without saying, the reality competitions that flood most of the networks now). As people become increasingly isolated from one another (and the technology kingpins continue to argue that we are more connected to one other, because it’s their job to), it’s suddenly become refreshing to see what happens when “seven strangers get picked to live in a house” for no apparent reason other than to be in each other’s physical presence.