Billed as a reality-based soap opera, MTV's "The Real World" is real largely by accident, and its seven principal players are far too independent to be stuffed into a tidy little soap opera. Yet this force-fed documentary series, reaching the 9th of its 13 half-hour episodes on tonight at 10 p.m., has been steadily evolving into the year's most riveting television, a compelling portrait of twentysomethings grappling with the '90s.
In the beginning, the executive producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray (she comes out of network daytime drama, he from news and documentary production) set out to put an MTV spin on a traditional soap-opera format. But even on the drawing board, it looked too expensive. So, taking a cue from commercial television, the producers turned to a "reality" concept requiring no expensive actors or writers. Find some telegenic young people, turn on the cameras and let the editors go to work.
After looking at more than 500 candidates, MTV settled, quite demographically, on the seven who seemed to promise the right chemistry: Julie, just a year short of 20, comes from Alabama, would like to be a dancer, and is still friendly and sincere; Eric, 21 and hailing from New Jersey, is a trim muscle-sculpted model who has trouble keeping a shirt on; Rebecca, 24, comes out of Philadelphia looking like Suzanne Vega, which can't hurt her singing and songwriting aspirations; Heather, 21 and also from New Jersey, is a rap singer who, despite her song "The System Sucks," is warmly caring; Andre, 21, comes from Detroit with his rock trio Reigndance; Kevin, 25, from Harlem by way of Jersey City, is a poet and free-lance journalist; and Norman, 24, an artist and designer, is cool, goofy and gay.
Next step: Get a great Manhattan loft on lower Broadway that's )) big enough to house not only the "cast" but also a dozen or so video technicians and walls of electrical equipment kept in a separate sealed-off space. The apartment was then outfitted with 14 stationary and discreetly concealed microphones (the tenants wear wireless body mikes) plus $30,000 of furniture, including a pool table.
This is hardly the most typical environment for young people struggling to make it in New York. As Kevin put it on first seeing the place, "What is this, Fantasy Island?"
Beginning in February, taping went on for three months. Early on, not surprisingly, there is a pronounced awkwardness in the episodes as the new roommates feel each other out and get used to cameras being constantly aimed at them. The first shows are noticeably fond of Eric who, cocky and bare chested, is obviously the least inhibited in front of a camera. The production itself seems nervous as the directors, eager to have something happen, keep using 45-degree camera angles and quick edits to create at least the illusion of action.
Gradually, however, personalities and alliances come into sharper focus. Eric admits that he is a mama's boy and is on probation because of some relatively minor drug charge. Behind his winning facade lurks uncertainty. "Logically," he says, "any parent in the world wouldn't want their child to go out with a guy like me."
He and his roommate, Kevin, get into an intense squabble that prompts Kevin to write in a letter that "the black and white thing is always in effect no matter how hard we wish it would go away." Like Kevin, Rebecca is very much her own person and her relationships with the group, particularly with Kevin, can be abrasive.
But try as it might, "The Real World" cannot be soap opera. There are no writers here who can manipulate incidents with a flip of a word processor. The producers would no doubt have been delighted to get an affair started between any two of the seven roommates, but these are people whose lives are not scripted, who refuse to be stuffed into neat story lines.
Last week's episode, flirting on the edges of pimping, found the three women, Heather, Rebecca and Julie, being sent to Jamaica with the express purpose of finding some men. But the only sexual connection turned out to be between Rebecca and one of the directors, who was then dropped from the series for breaking contractual rules.
On Thursday night, in one of the best segments to date, "The Real World" is put in the broader context of the real world as political and social issues are given an opportunity to enter the picture. Several of the roommates work in support of Jerry Brown in the New York primary. A few pile into Norman's car and head for the big pro-choice demonstration in Washington.
Julie befriends and spends an entire evening with a homeless woman named Darlene, only to find her good intentions are not enough.
Most viewers of this series will find themselves caring more than they expected.