How Real World Gets Housebroken

Real World, granddaddy of all House Reality shows (not to mention most Docusoaps), returns to Las Vegas on March 17, 2016 (at 10 pm EST on MTV). Entitled The Real World: Go Big or Go Home, this time around cast members will not only engage in the usual fighting and fuckery, but they’ll also compete in Fear Factor-type challenges that, if they aren’t completed, will result in elimination.  The one thing that emphatically will not change in this outing (or any other version creators Bunim-Murray can magic up) is the role the House itself (or apartment or condo) plays in producing Story for the series.

The House, the (ostensibly neutral) container within which the Real World melange of oversexed crazy is mixed, is a desirable property in a sexy locale (Vegas! New York! Hollywood!) and shot in a style referred to in the industry as “house porn” (tracking wides of the various – as yet uninhabited – spaces like swimming pools, jacuzzis, and designer lounges, that probably took at least two days to shoot). In the extremely unlikely event that you missed how desirable the place is, cast members will woodenly inform you of its charms in interview. You should want to fuck the house (or, at the very least, fuck IN it).

But all this *fabulousness* is mere distraction.

The House actually functions as a kind of (not so) benign torture device through which character is extracted. Because, while the House looks great, it doesn’t have enough single rooms for cast members. Rooms are usually shares (some have two or three or, in competition shows, up to seven beds a room). And the quality of the beds differ vastly: some are comfortable, others are little more than a cot. There are even bunk beds, fer fuck’s sake.

The purpose of this shitty versus acceptable dichotomy is to place cast in a position of revealing who they are as people. Shelter and sleep are pretty primal needs, and producers are deliberately making cast choose between what they want (the single – duh!) and what makes them look good. A primal desire versus an acceptable appearance. Some House Reality shows unload all the cast members at once and pretty much let them loose in the House to record what happens: will the Frat Boy muscle his way past the Hippy Chick into the best digs? Will the Hippy Chick seem to accept a back-wrenching cot, while secretly nursing a grudge that will bloom into full-throated resentment somewhere down the line? It’s all about the drama, people. However, cast members generally aren’t always given equal opportunity to choose lodgings. On some seasons of Bad Girls Club producers don’t even attempt the appearance of parity, simply assigning rooms with a view to potential conflict.

Real World, by contrast, engages in a more subtle social experiment, staggering arrivals and choosing who will arrive when and with whom. Well before they get to the House, cast members have already come into Production’s custody, to use the industry lingo, and are following direction. So X and Y don’t just walk up to the cast House on their own steam: Production pairs cast members they think might conflict or form an attraction; i.e. produce story right from the start, and then release these pairings into the House with a view to creating drama. This planned conflict (read: early guesswork) seldom pays off. For instance in Season Twelve of RW: Vegas, small-town, churchy Trishelle was paired with sexy Steven the straight-gay bartender, likely because Production assumed she would find him shocking.Turns out, though, that she was attracted to him and they ended up shagging (putting paid to the small-town, Christian girl  fabulation in the process).

The staggered arrival means that the people who arrive first get to chose the best rooms/beds if they want to. If they assert that right, however, what does that say about their character? On The Surreal Life: Season 3 New Kids on the Block’s Jordan Knight immediately seizes the single, coming off in the process like a Selfish Asshole (the archetype he’ll inhabit for the rest of the season). On Season Twelve of RW, by contrast, one of the early arrivals suggests they wait for the others to get there before pulling straws, effectively shaming the others into adopting the same position. Even so, the process exposes character: when lone-girl Irulan ends up stuck in a 3-bed with 2 guys, Gentlemanly Alton offers The Damsel in Distress his bed in a room with another woman. (This in turn spawned a romance between Alton and Irulan that would span the season and continue on to several other Reality programs.)

So, don’t get distracted by the shiny House and all its accoutrements (and secretly harbor a desire to live there yourself) when you tune into Real World: Go Big or Go Home this week. Instead, view it as a means through which the ostensibly (but not really) documentarians behind the scenes provoke reactions (usually quite primal) and, in so doing, fashion character archetypes from those reactions in the edit bay. Room selection not only indicates who these characters are at the inception (e.g. Selfish Asshole) but also indicates what conflicts may be brewing in the future (for instance, how will the incipient conflict between the Frat Boy and the Hippy Chick play out through the season?). And keep in mind, since Reality adheres to character arcs as much as Scripted does, you can’t just assume that the Selfish Asshole will remain that way.


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