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.
With the coming of the New Depression, many eyes in flyover states turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the powers of celebrity. Los Angeles became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Los Angeles directly, and so, a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up. The fortunate ones, through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit strategies and scurry away from The Real World. But the others wait in Portland, and wait and wait and wait...
"What in heaven's name brought you to Portland?” Averey asked the rakish stranger.
"My health. I came to Portland for the sun."
"The sun? What sun? There's no sun in Portland." She couldn't have been more intrigued, edging closer along the Pizza Schmizza bar, grasping vainly for some sign of romance still aglow for all the hardboiled patter.
"I was misinformed."
Or, y'know, words to that effect. Within this relentlessly real world, any suggestion of studio-era repartee blossoms upon reflection. Truth be told, the actual exchange only slightly (and, then, accidentally, we'd wager) referenced Casablanca—that business about the sun most probably intended as zany-intensive flirtation—but we've grown so accustomed to the rhythms of our guides through Portland that even a limp non-sequitur held Hollywood magic.
Not that the cast members are anything less than well-spoken. Given obvious educational deficiencies and the undercurrent of constant tension presumably accompanying the 24/7 threat of posterity, the roomies have proven themselves remarkably articulate given the circumstances, but they've a way of talking—more aggressive, more pointed, a blithely combative approach chockablock with defiant insights and exclamatory confessions—that harks to a rather different tradition. (Odd that none of them appear at all interested in parlaying their slight fame toward an actor's life, and it's a damned shame that the producers didn't shove the idlers toward the stage; a guerrilla theater rendition of Strange Interlude at Splash Bar would've justified everything). Never tongue-tied or stumble-prone, they give each passing notion full voice with enviable clarity, and, though wearyingly set upon defending each nuance midst forceful stare (ever bound to calibrate respect; ever quick to avenge its reverse), the effect's immeasurably softened by a continual and unconscious incorporation of the therapeutic lexicon and guiding theories of psychoanalysis. The roommates sound, in other words, like television. They sound like reality programming, or, rather, they sound like the voice of authority commanding reality programs: a surprisingly clear through-line of adrenalized sincerity connecting Charles Barkley to Jim Cramer to Dr. Phil.
Put another way, their natural patterns of speech couldn't be more diametrically opposed to the wryly dissembling affectation pitched just this side of facetious that we'll call the Portland accent, and, not for the first time, we wish a true scion of Puddletown had entered the fray. Imagine the post-hate-fuck badinage slung back and forth between Jordan and alpha-sex-worker-fetishizing-handless wakeboarders. Envision Jessica trying to wrap her mind around the vegan beardo art-punk's passive-aggressive parry of her own priggish power play. There are so many relatively slight maneuvers, tweaking location by just a block or arranging for some restaurant off the beaten path to subsidize cast meals, that could've won grand narrative dividends—Subway's inescapable presence the result not of corporate product placement, as traditionally understood, but free vouchers given roommates within exceptionally-downmarket swag bags—because, otherwise, it's still the same old story.
Pretty to think Averey saw something new and alluring behind the dopey gaze of her new admirer, but, by this point, we're well enough acquainted with the gang to recognize habitual behaviors. Averey's always going to respond favorably to male attention and (reasonably, we suppose) dismiss complaints about her part in an altogether harmless interaction as nothing more than jealousy. Johnny's always going to seethe murderous while watching his girlfriend reward the advances of another and (reasonably, we suppose) insist that she respect his feelings. Far from the first time such troubles have come between our lovebirds, lord knows this won't be the last, and, indeed, it's already become the sort of insoluble shared burden serious couples suffer through. They've begun talking over just what will happen once filming ends, Averey weakly struggling against the seemingly fated relocation to Johnny's thickly-accented Massachusetts enclave, and, from talk with her apparently likeminded grandma, this wouldn't be the first time she's shifted time zones for a bed-partner.
Any gal as desperate for constant attention as Averey must recognize the dangers of pinning her wagon to the dimming star of a borderline alcoholic with control issues who is returning to the bosom of extended Irish-American family, but the utter absence of any clearly formed alternative removes the element of risk… as well as hope. We know their lives together won't end well—stark inevitabilities ringing like so many late night apologies called from county lock-up—but we hadn't before thought through the dismal immensity of withered futures awaiting all of our new friends.
The one loftmate to have prepared any sort of life for herself opted out at the start. For the rest of them, where should they go? What should they do?
For that matter, once again, why would someone move to Portland? The question may not have been wholly rhetorical. Why, absent the slightest semblance of artistic drive or career focus or social ambition, would anyone move anywhere, save the subsidized marching orders of basic cable? Our heroes haven't even the dimmed capacity that allow libertine triggers or animal instincts to lead them toward casinos or beaches. For all their bad behavior and impressive thirsts, the cast members are haunted—crippled, one would say—by the specter of familial authorities past. Marlon, whose introductory bombshell reveal of guy-on-guy anal seems by now not just willfully ignored but perhaps always misunderstood (was it the lead-in to an abandoned joke? A bet lost to fraternity brothers? Did he muddle the cheerleader's gender midst initial telling and, not wishing to appear homophobic, let things stand?), carries the week's central storyline as he undergoes a crisis of conscience after bringing home an admirer from the bar. Now, we well understand Marlon's preternatural ability to compartmentalize difficult truths—and, should be said, we appreciate the value of a mutable psyche; if not for Marlon's tireless efforts as intermediary, Portland would've almost certainly achieved the ignoble distinction of ending the franchise through intra-loft race war—but the religious awakening to follow a moment's pleasures between the sheets still seems a bit over the top. Not to say Marlon's protestations of penitence are manufactured for camera-time, entirely, but we may have too quickly anointed our relatively-selfless Good Samaritan as ambassador of the sane. The gal whose presence in his bed awoke such moral flagellation might not deem him nice or normal, and, somehow, we doubt the cheerleader received much cuddling afterwards.
For better or worse, his father's stentorian edicts resonate menacingly within his head at all times, and, then, artfully, through ours, as vocal snippet laid down to anchor backing track for Marlon's heretofore undisclosed rapping ambitions. Yes, our local music scene does finally make an appearance, albeit via rather different avenues than one could've ever predicted. Portland! Come for the frat bars and franchise sandwich shops, stay for the vibrant hip-hop community. What's saddest of all? Owing to the nature of mass media, sheer exposure will inevitably drive resettlement patterns of a certain swath of culturally underserved Red State misfits over the next few years—a looming migration of fey idiots. Thank heavens they've all been assured jobs for life at Pizza Schmizza.
Jessica, accompanying Marlon to the studio and by now relegated to dark comic relief by the editors, gamely delivers a line of her own ("them bitches all thirsty and junk") endlessly repeated for the roommates' amusement and only slightly less embarrassing than what proves to be her final call to that uncommonly tall and improbably persistent suitor she relegated to the couch week ago. However awkward her self-consciously chaste insistence early on, the eventual crumbling of all dignity turns out to be somewhat worse. As Jessica fills her room with downloaded prints of the happy couple, orders matching photographic key-rings, and proceeds along with the clingiest, cringe-worthiest call of shame to blindside any reality series—girls, if a potential boyfriend's at home watching a movie, don't phone out of the blue to announce plans to move to town, don't admit that nothing else matters but being by his side, and, if the movie's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, don't say you want to lick his face—the cumulative effect held the nauseating allure of slow-mo collision footage (cars licking faces, really), and his immediate e-dump seemed a relief even to her.
What with Jessica mourning lost love, Marlon reclaiming celibacy, newly single Anastasia getting on with her life/exhibiting first signs of psychotic break (testing make-up durability by slathering on cosmetics for extended walks in unseasonable temperatures; stealing traffic cones to hide in her room), and Nia force-feeding ham to dog Daisy for reasons we don't care to think about, there were only three roomies joining this episode's adventure: post-apocalyptic battle techniques midst zombie strewn wilderness, which we weren't aware Portland offered but probably would've guessed, had the subject come up. Tell the truth, so long as we sidestep further outrage over the ever-more-repellent portrait of our fair city as ground zero for the ugliest sorts of nerddom (and, frankly, that ship has sailed), there was something charming about the entire enterprise. We were happy to see Jordan alive, for one. With any other new Portlander trailing substance abuse problems and unspeakable inner torment, unexplained disappearances and suddenly calmed demeanor would bring about certain questions. With Jordan, we can't be the only ones to guess heroin, but he seems so much more tolerable these days. In any event, the thought of massacring the undead brought him back to life quickly enough, and, for the first time in ages, neither Averey nor Johnny seemed about to cry. Indeed, their off-handed adoration, romance swelling with every burst of staged violence, inspired first glimpse into one way the pair might survive the end of the Real World.
It doesn't take much to see that the problems of seven crazy, mixed-up strangers picked to live in a house won't amount to a hill of beans. Fame is fleeting, celebrity drawn from reality programming exponentially so, and the peculiar endurance of MTV as perennial arbiter of the safely cutting-edge demands continual sacrifice of the newly enthroned. All pop culture presumes a certain amount of planned obsolescence, but the House That Jacko Built guarantees any societal renown shall turn to ashes, and we rather doubt this current crop would enjoy or even fully comprehend their ephemeral cachet anyways. All the same, it's near impossible to plot out some future accomplishments or lasting happiness by which our headstrong dreamers of inchoate purpose wouldn't view their time in the loft as their lives' signal moments. While past casts' appeared to write off experiences as equivalent to a gap-year lark or internship stepping stone, this bedraggled septet seems destined to be shipped back from whence they came no closer to understanding themselves or how they might make their mark upon society. Still, if there's anything to be learned from our town, success is a movable feast.
For all the compounded small tragedies of frustrated passions on display this season, the pageant of loveless sociopathy only ever brightened those few moments of genuine delight awakened between Johnny and Averey when their relationship became something more than convenient, and, while we'd ordinarily dismiss any chances of a golden anniversary due to each partner's intractable selfishness, all that's truly needed would be just the slightest effort on both sides. Under normal circumstances, some combination of unfettered impulses and self-destructive tendencies would surely lead the couple down darkened paths, but, on some level, Johnny and Averey must realize that their only opportunity to look back at this season with fondness—to, for want of a better term, win the Real World—lies with the promise of a long and lasting love affair. If they can manage to do what it takes to stay together and find within one another that last desperate connection to a sense of illusory importance, there might be a happy ending yet. In the weirdest way, they'll always have Portland.