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'The Real World' Trades The Final Eight Percent Of Its Soul For Magic Beans

The cast of <em>The Real World: Portland.</em>
The cast of The Real World: Portland.

It's hard to remember when you look at the last umpteen seasons of MTV's The Real World, but back at the beginning, it was a pretty fascinating show. It once involved people who had actual plans to be musicians or artists or activists, and although there was always conflict, the days before everyone knew the rhythms of Real World editing — which became the rhythms of reality editing in general — it was, I repeat, a pretty fascinating show.

And now, from Entertainment Weekly, comes news that the upcoming 29th season will be called Real World: Ex-Plosion. Instead of a show about seven kids, most of whom are new to a city, moving in together and doing stuff, it will be a gotcha series where they put unsuspecting people in a house with their exes. It looks like an unholy mashup of several other terrible shows, most notably Big Brother, the American version of which has slowly morphed into Sexy Dummy Real World, so now they can both be that, apparently.

You can, of course, see this as evidence of a cultural Great Grotesquening, in which everything seems to get nastier and more attention-seeking and more proudly tacky, and it is that. The truth — the realness — of the Great Grotesquening can be debated, but if it exists at all, it exists in this perverse malformation of a show that once featured the first person a lot of people ever got to see treated on television as both a wonderful, warm, worthwhile, loving person and a man who died of AIDS that he contracted through sex with other men.

But as much as it's a symptom of that, it's also a symptom of the great Defensive Crouchening, in which everybody wants to only make things that are part of other things that already exist — what Lynda Obst calls in her book Sleepless In Hollywood "The New Abnormal," which she uses to describe the movie business. As she explains it, because everything has to have "preawareness" — a soul-chilling word if ever there was one — rather than making anything original, everything is endlessly franchised and extended and adapted and readapted and rebooted, because it's easier than building loyalty to something new.

So instead of doing what they really want to do here and just launching a new proudly vulgar show called ExPlosion in which they stick people in a house with their exes and wait for everyone to fight, they sell it as a bogus extension of The Real World that somehow shares DNA with Pedro Zamora's The Real World, which is true only in the same sense that orange Tums are made from oranges.

Thus did MTV seemingly decide to sell Sexy Dummy Real World back to Real World viewers, boiling the frogs in the apocryphal but appealing metaphorical slowly warmed pot, if the frogs were actual ideas and the pot of water was threesomes and fistfights.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.