We saw trees of green. Red roses, too. We saw, wonder of wonders, friends shaking hands midst halls painted all the colors of the rainbow and then some. As a matter of fact, this bright blessed day—“New roommate day!” Anastasia trilled—didn’t half-suggest a group willing and eager to take their adopted city by storm. What an oddly affectionate Real World to have emerged following Joi’s departure. It’s always the responsible ones, eh? Faced with the unrelenting negativity of a recent graduate determined to begin her career and earn a living wage, our heroes turned on one another, and poor hothouse flower Jordan nearly went blood simple. Absent the wearying presence of clearly defined ambitions, the loft of vipers settled into hapless bonhomie in time with the sleepily content rhythms of Averey’s post-coital languor. Goddamn Joi. A little education can be a dangerous thing.

Any ordinary Real World season, we’d be virtually assured a rollicking episode of tweener wish fulfillment that slowly deepens existing subplots in preparation for the next dramatic spike. To its undying credit, the franchise had always resisted the poorly manufactured arcs of wholly complicit (and more or less fictional) characters peopling, say, The Hills. We’re meant to bond with the roommates and vicariously suffer through their afflictions, thrill to their victories, wait out their ceaseless yammering, etc.

Traditionally, that’s what made The Real World special, but this is a very different season. There are no subplots, beyond unanswered questions of just what’s being done to Johnny (he spends an awfully long time voiding, to general amusement of the roommates). Of Anastasia’s tall, sweet, possibly scurvy-ridden beau, there’s nary a mention. For that matter, all the roommates seem to have either lost their jobs or simply forgotten about them, and the producers have apparently burned through all regionally appropriate outings. Beyond a supposed trip to the farmer’s market, Portland exists only as Splash Bar and bike trails with views of Mt. Hood. More to the point, given the numbing absence of leisure pursuits among our civic guests, where else to suggest? You can lead Jordan to Powell’s, but he’ll still want a drink.

Couldn’t producers have found a wakeboarding foodie or a Hooters gal thrifter? Do we really offer so few trademark tourist traps? Did a sudden budget crunch curtail plans? I’d assumed last week’s glimmers of a recognizable cityscape meant to set the stage for upcoming adventures, but, for all intents and purposes, we were given a “bottle episode.” Still, compared to anywhere the roomies would choose, the loft carries at least a whiff of Puddletown brio—by which I mean the aggressive quirks and monied dorm aesthetic of New York’s imagined Portland; by which I guess I mean the Ace Hotel. Further, aimless strangers trading vividly defined origin stories approximates local sociability all too well.

For snarkily dismissive bloggers, an extended discourse on racism, assault, molestation, parental abuse and sexual identity is scorched earth, and I can’t quite imagine even our stars would find the first 55 minutes of this show entertaining. (As sociocultural snapshot illustrating how the language of therapy has pervaded even our most profoundly inarticulate and unreflective twentysomethings, it’s worth a gander.) The singular bit of narrative tension depended upon audience awareness of “Hurricane" Nia, the replacement cast member whose game-changing powers of crazy had been explicitly hyped since day one.

Certainly, that’s how Nia was introduced on last week’s cliffhanger—suddenly affecting southern drawl and white/Native American ancestry (she’s black and rather urbane) upon first call to her new roomies as the camera slowly pans up to reveal rictal grin—and the crew continued the horror movie perspectives for much of this episode. Filming her entrance from behind and below might be a cheap stunt, but it’s surprisingly effective within the usually rigid confines of MTV visuals. Between ominous camera angles, dog Daisy’s instantaneous and virulent dislike, and a tendency to indulge others’ worst stereotypes via quotably terse confessional-bytes, Nia at first fulfills the wildest expectations of the blogosphere, but so much Nia complicates the effect. Whenever teasing the allure of crazy, less is more.

She may well be batshit crazy, she might just be damaged in fascinating ways, but, as the episode strung together one interaction after another (pertinent questions of how family background influenced misbehavior; perhaps the only non-anal questions ever raised), the femme-fatale tag seemed more and more a network invention. There’s an evident desperation and pulsating loneliness, but, if Nia brings an air of menace to proceedings, she just seems fundamentally more capable than the others. Anastasia, still searching for her place, gibbered early on about a potential antagonism with Nia and the glorious fights they could share—chilling at face value, but Anastasia shouldn’t really be allowed to cross the street unaided.

We should never believe any aspect of reality programming to be real, I know, and it’s somewhat condescending to assume the producers are exploiting the on-air talent when the opposite’s as likely to be true. I only know how Nia’s face appeared to tighten when Jordan started screaming at Jessica and how her eyes glazed over while attempting to intervene. I know the confrontation between Nia and Jordan felt uncomfortable even before she offered to suck him off, and, however ruthlessly staged, I know the roommates’ howling encouragements carried a darker edge.

Daisy started barking, then—she sees much more than we’ll ever know—the screen went black, and we were left to think for ourselves. What a horrible world.