“Nia,” Anastasia trilled, “don’t put that dick in your mouth!”
This is the way The Real World begins—not with a bang but with whimsy. When last we left our seven strangers, the long-publicized appearance of replacement cast member “Hurricane” Nia had taken a unexpectedly dark turn, and, for lack of a better phrase, shit was about to get real. Rather like breathless news coverage of gale force winds that die out before ever hitting land, we’d spent nearly an hour waiting in vain for the promised explosion of crazy while the striking Southerner made introductions. Absent her continual self-identification as inside agitator, she’d have seemed nothing more than a nice (if obviously troubled) young woman trying to find her path within the established roommate dynamic even as tempers simmered, and, honestly, this sensibility persisted even through her climactic request to suck the skin off provocateur No. 1 Jordan.
Alas, between the motion and the act falls the shadow, and there’s a reason such programs so rarely exploit the cliffhanger. With crazy antics endlessly foretold, there was a certain narrative tension attached to Nia’s movements—call a movie The Perfect Storm and every sudden breeze carries menace—but, just as we’d previously been guaranteed a memorable performance, the laws of reality TV precluded immediate blows. Accordingly, the editors embraced the anticlimactic inevitabilities by laughing off whatever seriousness the moment still held, and, from Nielsen overnights, many of the viewers who’d spiked ratings never returned.
If not quite tragedy becoming farce, it took only seven days for a looming aura of horror to be replaced by a kicky, quick-cut he-said/she-said musical-comedy framing device. This recast the sexual aggression as either (to the guys) an understandable but nonetheless jibe-worthy failure-to-launch, or (to the girls) a triumphant reveal of Jordan’s teapot short and stout. For all their sins, Real World producers don’t so much flirt with controversy as drunkenly grope around areas of disagreement—fumbling over hot-button issues without the stuff of genuine scandal ever spilling out to embarrass the network. Whatever value clings to MTV: The Brand has far less to do with perceived edginess of programming than an intimated shallowness of content and approachably salacious fodder. While teasing the possibility of oral sex on camera may be safely prime-time these days, the network would never let the gambit come to a head.
Of course, feinting and parrying expectations carries diminishing returns for entertainment, and we shan’t pretend the absent viewers missed all that much. This episode’s plot, should we so honor the tangentially-related scenes of a relationship of convenience, detailed the troubles developing between strangers-in-paradise Averey and Johnny. Formerly concerned over only potential health concerns after fucking him ragged, the gorgeous Hooters vet had started thinking her round-faced paramour might somehow take their coupling for granted. Upon Averey reading a purloined email sent to Johnny from a gal back home and realizing their love may not be forever, the wronged partners began venting theatrically. While doubts about inauthenticity aren’t really pertinent with participants so shameless and self-aware, there was a falsity that flattened the effects as each drank themselves through bitch-fests and pants-optional bar-hopping. To no one’s surprise, our favorite couple was back together by show’s end—has a sloughed-off explanation of “she’s just a friend” ever soothed tensions so quickly and completely?—and, as long as the only other targets-in-residence for Averey’s inexhaustible needs remain Marlon (probably too gay, certainly too assertive) and Jordan (gigantic dick, small penis), we shan’t imagine any further issues breaking their union asunder, save freedom and anonymity.
However dubious the motives driving the pair to act out, at least they made an attempt at spectacle. The romantic exploits of Jessica and her over-tall, pierced admirer arrived as such dead air that roomie questions about her reluctance to let him sleep over seemed rhetorical to the point of abstraction.
Only one interest lay unrequited, and, for those Portlanders yet hoping The Real World was merely playing hard-to-get, the unkindest cut of all was still to come. A day trip to Mt. Hood went well enough, though documentarians equipped to capture nightclub conversations shouldn’t be expected to render grand natural vistas at their most inspirational. But locals inexplicably still hate-watching took to social media with a fiery vengeance once Johnny and Averey strode past any number of worthy establishments for a quick bite at Subway. Leaving aside the doubtful proposition of clumsy product placement for a program that always before thrilled to moments of regional color, this means the roommates ignored our most vibrant cultural asset (foodie hype), and that was one insult too far.
While the continual insistence that a real Portlander would never deign to enter a franchise restaurant feels more than a little self-congratulatory, the essential point remains valid. We would never be filmed doing so, and such concerns would never even occur to our guests. Therein lies the crux of why relations between city and show never quite worked out during filming, and that’s why cast members so rarely ventured outside their loft-adjacent comfort zone. Much as commenters across the river would like to pretend otherwise, the Pearl is an inextricable part of our town. It’s not a Portland we do particularly well—as condos ’n’ couture districts go, ours more resembles Boise than San Francisco—but it’s the only one these accidental tourists would in any way understand.
The cast members are all of a type—athletic and engaging extroverts boasting streamlined backstory, the predator’s contempt for distraction, finely-etched everyman good looks bordering on caricature, and a weirdly plasticine physicality (Jordan’s fingerless left hand seems less congenital deformity than editorial decision). They desire only an undefined-yet-mutually-understood level of success, they respect only those tangible attributes most likely to further their pursuit, and they’ve every reason to believe those lapses of character we find most objectionable (wide-ranging perspective, impulse control, intellectual curiosity) notably help their chances.
They are real people, the very embodiment of the raw-boned, unpretentious, salt-of-the-earth sorts talked up by politicians during election season, but they are still not what you would call realistic, and, since their ambitions evidently extend only so far as appearing on television, we shouldn’t wonder why drama suddenly seems in such short supply. Peopled by unrecognizable specimens of a humanity both heightened and diminished by their single-minded drive toward all-too-easily-fulfilled dreams, this will be the way The Real World ends, and none too soon.