The decline of MTV’s flagship reality series The Real World was almost immediate. The shrill superficiality of the second, Los Angeles-set season was a stark contrast to the premiere season’s multi-culti New York experiment, which carefully yet boldly explored race, sexuality, and other social taboos in a way that reflected the mood of both its then-gritty locale as well as its network, MTV, which hit a peak of cultural relevance in the early ’90s. The series quickly rebounded when, in 1994, it introduced us to the colorful, flawed, and profoundly human characters of The Real World: San Francisco, including Pedro Zamora, an HIV-positive sex educator, and David “Puck” Rainey, Pedro’s coarse but shrewd antagonist-roommate. Subsequent seasons, however, failed to strike such a delicate balance, instead opting for stock types and celeb-wannabe exhibitionists.
It wasn’t until shortly before executive producer Mary-Ellis Bunim lost her battle with breast cancer and MTV amped up production of the show, churning out twice as many seasons per year, that The Real World completed its transformation from valuable social study to sexed-up freak show. The tipping point came when the entire cast of The Real World: Las Vegas almost immediately tore their clothes off and jumped into the hot tub, proving that what happens in Vegas is sometimes broadcast on national TV. In its defense, the series has always managed to tap into the zeitgeist and the second wave of Real Worlders grew up on reality-TV exhibitionism and body shots, but the last time The Real World truly felt important was when, in a rare meta-reality TV moment, we watched the cast of the Chicago season watch the World Trade Center collapse.
It’s fitting, then, that the show returns to the Big Apple (for the second time) for a reboot of sorts. The producers have nixed the silly group job assignments that have plagued the show since its fifth season, instead allowing the cast to fend for itself in the big city, and bumping up the number of housemates from seven to eight. The chief difference, however, is the cast of characters itself: there’s Chet, the sexually-charged but virginal Mormon from Utah whose goal had been to host the now-defunct TRL (that dream might be dashed but there’s no doubt another MTV gig in his immediate future); Baya, the non-Mormon booty-shaker from Utah; Sarah, the house mediator with an edge and a heart of gold; JD, the gay marine-life trainer and resident caretaker; Scott, who’s got abs of steel and a secret girlfriend back home but not much else to offer; and Devyn, the token black girl with fake breasts who wants to fuck him.
What makes this more than just a semi-interesting cast, though, is Katelynn, a 24-year-old, recently post-op transgendered woman from West Palm Beach, Florida, and Ryan, a straight boy from Pennsylvania with a secret of his own (he’s an Iraq War vet). Ryan’s gaydar is keen, albeit hit or miss (he immediately questions Katelynn’s gender and calls JD “a little metro,” but also mistakenly pegs Chet as gay), and he’s a fascinating mix of suburban naïvete (he speculates that Chelsea, the area in Manhattan which he refers to as “the gay district,” is filled with “assless chaps”) and internalized homophobia (he washes his mouth out with soap after being kissed by a drag queen). Of course, he is the quintessential Real World character: seemingly sheltered when it comes to social issues but armed with surprising depth (he’s a musician and is writing a book about his experiences in the Middle East) and the potential to finish his 13 weeks in Red Hook, Brooklyn with a new perspective.
Tolerance and empathy are the primary themes of The Real World: Brooklyn, from the superficial (“Well, that’s why he’s so nice,” Chet’s mother says after finding out that JD is gay) to the internalized (JD, whose parents were immigrants, goes on a drunken rant after a convenience store cashier doesn’t understand him). Even when Ryan quizzically refers to Katelynn as “it,” there’s a hint of genuine curiosity and a desire to understand her. When the storylines focus on the flirty non-romance between Scott and Devyn, things get downright vapid, and as always, the soundtrack choices are often too literal, but the producers’ instinct to follow Katelynn’s evolution, from dealing with her deadbeat boyfriend back home to coping with how and when to come out to new people she meets, as well as how her new “family” deals with those hot-button issues, has given her an opportunity to be an advocate in the same way Pedro Zamora was more than a decade ago.