Once upon a time, they were anonymous wannabes with ambitions far beyond those of most mortals. Would-be rappers and movie stars, ballerinas and rock journalists, they would sell their souls and privacy to MTV for a boot-kick up the Hollywood ladder.
After three seasons of whining, flirting and pouting conspicuously in front of a sea of TV cameras, the only thing real about MTV's The Real World anymore is that the idea has really run its course.
Intended as a documentary series about young people "living together and pursuing their dreams," the show should have been like televised dorm life. Instead, it has become an insincere stepping stone into show business, a way for the young people to use, and be used by, MTV. Short of the moving account of cast member Pedro Zamora's losing battle with AIDS last year, every scene seems acted, every outburst scripted. The line between entertainment and documentary filmmaking rarely has been more intentionally trampled.
Sadly, that appears to be what viewers crave. The series is one of MTV's highest-rated, second only to Beavis & Butt-Head. A spinoff called Road Rules will debut in July, featuring young people traveling across the country.
For television, that's a letdown. Fictional series like the short-lived My So-Called Life show more realism in an hour than The Real World's choreographed pillow fight does in a season. Filling The Real World with hopeful performers has cost it the very reality it's supposed to portray.
Tonight, the gang goes international. Their new home is in London. Half of the roommates come from England, Germany and Australia.
Once again, MTV producers shamelessly cast the series with the battle lines already drawn. Like a 1990s Breakfast Club, they've found the punker (Neil), the athlete (Mike), the personality (Sharon), the eccentric (Lars), the geek (Jay), the princess (Jacinda) and the innocent (Kat).
Instead of getting to know the characters as fans might on a fictional TV series, The Real World presents one-name monoliths who champion an image. Puck, the scumball. Corey, the cry-baby.
This season appears to be no exception: Sharon will mediate battles between Mike and Lars, while Jacinda will console Kat over misplaced feelings for Neil, the one with the pierced nipples. Somehow, somewhere, we've heard those sobs before.
There was a time when the idea of letting viewers play Peeping Tom made The Real World one of the most inviting, if self-serving, series on television. Far juicier than anything the soaps could serve up.
But that was before the rise of nasty Melrose Place showed viewers what catfights are really all about, before smart sitcoms like Friends reminded television that even self-absorbed young people can laugh at themselves. That's something The Real World-ers are too cool to do. Maybe that's why series like All-American Girl and Beverly Hills, 90210, among others, have spoofed The Real World on network TV.
There also was a time after the first season when MTV pledged to seek out more well-rounded candidates to give the show more bite, more truth. But instead of mechanics or grocery store clerks or school teachers, the producers continue to recruit beautiful poets and artists and singers. This year, there's even an international fashion model.
The fact that all seven housemates from the first year now work in the entertainment industry is too telling of the "real" nature behind The Real World. (One even hosts his own show on MTV. How coincidental.)
Of the subsequent casts, several have landed record deals. One has a talk show and clothing store in the works. Another _ the gross caricature called Puck _ has appeared on prime-time TV shows and a feature film, and has commercial endorsements and a TV series of his own on the way. The guy's a walking stopwatch reveling in his 15 minutes of fame.
And all for just being himself week after week in a San Francisco apartment? That's The Real World for you.
_ To reach Monica Yant, call 893-8521. To send e-mail: monicayantaol.com