A 'World' unto itself Long redundant and increasingly bizarre, MTV's 'Real World' still has a hold on its core audience

Popular culture.

October 11, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

It started with a simple premise that long-ago first season in New York: Take seven twentysomethings with diverse backgrounds, put them in a well-accoutered apartment in a cosmopolitan city, videotape their lives in pseudo-documentary style and condense the experience into 10 hours of TV programming. Call it "The Real World," set it to a slick soundtrack and broadcast it on MTV as a "true" Gen-X soap opera.

For about three years, the idea worked. "The Real World" had drama. It had kids with real dreams and talent. It had them living in cities that kids with dreams and talent would gravitate toward: New York, L.A., San Francisco.

Then the magic was over. It became increasingly apparent that the same kinds of young people were being cast every season. Plus, each new cast was so familiar with the show, it made it hard to distinguish whether they were being "real" or simply echoing past antics.

But somehow, seven years into its run, "The Real World's" ratings continue to rise. And the show continues to represent a state of televised nirvana for the MTV generation, many of whom have what they believe to be compelling reasons for getting there. The show's co-creator, Jonathan Murray, says nearly 15,000 applicants aged 18 to 24 will try this year for a slot in the eighth season in Hawaii.

Which brings us to "The Real World" open casting call, Baltimore, where some 700 young people came recently to find their place in "The Real World."

Carla Lochiatto, 21, is one of them. She traveled from Chevy Chase to stand in line at Planet Hollywood at the Inner Harbor, though even she admits that the fake-umentary has grown tiresome.

"It's losing its appeal a little bit," Lochiatto says. Still, she and others have their reasons for trying out.

"It gives you good exposure if that's what you're looking for," she says.

David Factor, a 21-year-old from Columbia says: "It would put my name with my face."

Corinne Meier, a 19-year-old from Washington, says: "I could live in this phat house."

OK, those are great reasons, kids. But you have to wonder if they know what they are getting into. Not only has "The Real World" become dangerously cliched, it's just plain dangerous. This season's Seattle cast was harassed constantly by locals.

Perhaps a little reading and viewing material might wake them up to its risks:

* "Livin' in Joe's World": This "memoir" by stumpy salesguy Joe Patane from the fifth-season Miami cast gives a bitter taste of what it's like to live constantly under the glare of cameras, microphones and unbalanced housemates.

* The annual "Real World" casting specials: In recent years, the show has offered a look at the grueling casting process, in which even those who don't make the cut undergo POW-style interrogation about every nook and cranny of their personal lives.

* The Sept. 29 episode of the current season: This bizarre half-hour suggests that the show has gone completely off the deep end. A recap: The cast breaks through the fourth wall and is filmed talking about being on the show. For the first time, the cameras show us the floodlights and microphones in the house. Hostile roommate Steven smacks taunting roommate Irene across the face. "Real World" directors come out from behind the cameras to play a video of the assault for the other housemates. Steven is forced into therapy, to which viewers tag along. It's the first official "Real World" intervention!

Is this what the kids at the Inner Harbor cattle call want?

For most, of course, it won't matter. Only five of them will be invited to the next stage of tryouts. And though every cast so far has proven to be a minor variation on a theme, the show's creators deny having an agenda.

"The only blueprint we have is to put a diverse cast together," says "Real World's" Murray. "We're not just going to cast someone to fill a token spot."

Maybe not, but the Baltimore "Real World" applicants clearly see a pattern in characters past, and know precisely which niches they could fill.

"I could be the innocent person who's getting a whole new outlook on life," says Lochiatto. Or just another incarnation of the show's previous wide-eyed innocents: Julie (New York), Corey (San Francisco), Cynthia (Miami) and Elka (Boston).

Scott Terry, 18, from Northern Virginia, knows his place. "I'm the All-American guy," he says, eager to join the ranks of bland babes Aaron (L.A.), Mike (London), Mike II (Miami), Sean (Boston) and Nathan (Seattle).

Corinne Meier knows what she's got to offer. "I'm the wacky, different girl who's kind of obnoxious." Been there, done that with Sarah (Miami), Montana (Boston), Becky (New York) and Irene (Seattle).

The Baltimore crowd also has noticed that it seems to help if you have a strange disease, compulsion or family history.

"I don't have a chance in hell," Ellie Hunter, 21, complains before her interview. "I'm normal, there's nothing unique about me."

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