May 29th, 2013 | by JAY HORTON Movies & Television | Posted In: The Real World: Portland

The Real World Portland, Ep. 9: MTV Knows Why The Caged Bird Sings

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We know, you don't even have a TV. But WW correspondent Jay Horton is enduring and recapping each installment to assess just how real—and how Portland-y—the housemates get.

Not to flirt with apostasy, dear readers, but the episode under review raises a rather central question about our creators' intent.

In the beginning, when an easily reproducible dramatic template was brought forth from documentaries without form and void, why did The Real World allow its participants to receive friends and family? After struggling so mightily to preserve the illusion of seven strangers persevering through more or less recognizable travails, it seems more than a trifle careless to let dad or sis or sweet old Joe keep shining spotlight upon the elephant in the loft: the easily forgotten truth that troubled cast members could (and, really, really, should) just leave whenever they wish. Choosing sides between boorish psychopaths locked in perpetual quasi-verbal combat isn't easy, and the powers-that-be must have anticipated how sharply suspension of disbelief would dip once viewers were forced to acknowledge either party could walk out the door at any point and lose nothing besides the argument.

Producers may have assumed, in those halcyon days before Survivor, thatcontestants wouldn't agree to be cut off from their nearest and dearest for months at a time, we suppose, and they surely couldn't have anticipated how starkly different average Americans would appear set against their hyper-real archetypes. Whatever the cause, mysterious ways and all that, the notion clearly worked. However initially unnerving that first flush of reasonableness, there are few more dependably rewarding moments than the appearance of figures able to command our heroes' attention while defiantly spurning franchise directives (the first rule of The Real World is: You do not talk about The Real World), and so much the better when a paramour rides into town.

As happens, our current show-runners appear so very confident of the explosive potentialities accompanying the significant other's cameo that clips promoting this week's episode focus wholly upon the fireworks to follow a visit from Anastasia's serious boyfriend, though his existence has been wholly ignored thus far. We know, we know. The producers haven't time to show everything. They don't include each time a cast member sits on the toilet…well, save Johnny, but fans should assume the recurring footage (B-rolls?) of his bathroom visits must foreshadow some future story arc. Some awful, awful future story arc. With Anastasia, and by this stage your correspondent fancies himself an authority on this woman they call “bird,” there wasn't the slightest hint of a simmering long distance romance.

Oddly enough, as we return to the aftermath of last week's cat-fight, this very subject is addressed directly when Anastasia begins talking about someone named Mark to the hapless confusion and, cue sobbing, deadened shame of Marlon. His role within the loft dynamic seems increasingly constrained to agent of exposition (he's the only one to ask questions absent larger stratagems) and target of melancholic rants (he's the only one to not answer delirious bouts of self-pity with more of the same), but, aside from a few breezily produced snippets of roomie interaction meant to serve as sorely-needed if not altogether comforting comic relief—Nia concertedly fattening dog Daisy; Nia idly opening door on Averey and Johnny mid-act and deciding to carry on the conversation regardless—everyone played extra amidst Anastasia's very special episode. Mark, you see, not only existed but was on his way, and that never ends well.

Hometown guests have but three possible reactions upon entering the loft. Family, saddened but not at all surprised and perhaps even somewhat relieved, betrays the same dutiful weariness of visitors to the institution where a loved one has been newly committed. Friends, already predisposed to treat participants as if they'd been drafted into service by a shadowy arm of the military-basic cable complex, gaze about in wonderment at their bro/BFF's secret headquarters/fuckpad. (The same rules of conduct seem to apply for both: Avoid eye contact, keep the conversation breezily vague, and, for god's sake, don't touch anything.) Partners, though…the very best of partners barely try to disguise a corrosive mix of jealously and resentment evidently brewing since first they realized their squeeze was seriously considering the venture. Given how quickly and aggressively our lovebirds leaned into the fray, we'd wager the pair hated one another long before MTV came a'calling.

Still, the loftmates couldn't have helped matters by tagging along on the reunited couple's first outing, and, while we might like to think l'amour could overcome any obstacle, First Thursday's a tough date regardless of circumstances. Mark didn't have to drink quite that much, true, nor act so petulant when Bird outlined her frustrations. At the same time, ‘tis poor form to banish yon swain only to fall apart as soon as the demand was honored, and something worse to track him down (with Nia's eager assistance, natch), bumrush the mysteriously-unnamed downtown hotel, and scream bloody murder till security tore the two asunder.

Once sober and properly chastened, Bird was granted one final audience with what seemed sure to be her now-former beau, and Mark took full advantage of the opportunity. Holding her accountable for the past night's emotional outbursts, he issued an ultimatum—stay with the show or stay with him—and, back in lover's arms after having tested and evidently exceeded boundaries, our Bird agrees to slough off her gilded cage and return home at once, tailfeathers between legs, never again to trouble her soulmate with such flights of fancy.

If this all sounds like the first two acts of an especially overwrought ‘60s-era passion play, summaries necessarily undersell the heights of Anastasia's hysteria upon realizing the full ramifications of what had transpired—her blithe certainty that a boyfriend would stick around despite orders to the contrary speaks volumes—but, from this showing, the creep deserves every single women's studies thesis dedicated in his honor a decade hence.

In any event, MTV is not in the business of dispatching heroines to surrender all freedoms for the attentions of any suitor already condemned by a thousand cross-cuts. As with any decent feminist fable, it's up to Anastasia's friends to intervene and wax inspirational about her heretofore-unseen reserves of inner strength and self-reliance while not-so-subtly inserting themselves as co-dependency methadone. Nevertheless, however preening the apologies or awkward the oaths sworn promising roommate peace in our time, ‘tis a hard heart indeed that wouldn't thrill to the unspoken immediacy of communal efforts to deter Bird's flight by any means necessary. One ploy after another tried by masters of the craft until, at wit's end, Jordan hit paydirt by challenging her commitment to the program.

Well, not technically the show. In point of fact, the contestants maintain enough respect for the rules of Real World to avoid any outward suggestion that they know they're on television. At the least, they're too smart to compromise a golden moment of emotional intimacy via literal-bloody-minded description of the actual scenario guiding their imminent destiny. While encouraging Bird along the death march these last few weeks, the cast members inevitably replace all references to "the show" with "Portland.” Mark couldn't handle all that came with Portland, you see? Bird owes it to herself to follow through with Portland. After a while, the eventual effect casts Portland as sadistic prison guard or impassable stretch of enemy terrain—a daunting hurdle whose dangers need no elaboration and, once endured, shan't ever be revisited.

In other words, the cast's usage of “Portland” runs precisely opposite how anyone else has ever described the city of rose colored pince-nez, and the sheer wrongness feels increasingly macabre. The better we get to know each one of these characters, after all, the more plainly fated tragedy lurks. What on earth did Mark imagine he'd accomplish? Anastasia was, no doubt, unhappy and did seem to miss her boyfriend. Considering recent glimpses into a paralyzing emotional fragility, immersion within the manipulative master class could do irreparable harm, even without transferring cavernous dependency issues onto seven strangers incapable of comprehending empathy. Still, after she'd tasted the spotlight, did Mark think a normal job and relationship would tempt her away from the viper's den? "What,” to paraphrase the old joke, "and leave Portland?"
 
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