On View : The Real World Spins West

Steve Weinstein writes frequently for Calendar and TV Times

MTV calls it “The Real World.” Cynics--who note that most 20-year-olds don’t get to live rent-free with six ethnically diverse pals in a three-story, designer-decorated beach house with video cameras chronicling their every thought and hiccup--claim that “surreal world” is more like it.

For example, in the first season of the series, shot mostly in a loft in New York’s Greenwich Village, one of the participants actually wondered why a gorgeous model, usually found in the company of rock stars, would want to hang out with him. Gee, dude, could it have anything to do with the fact that you have a TV camera following you everywhere and if she sticks close enough, she’ll get her mug on screen too?

But as artificial as the setting and some of the behavior might be, the MTV audience does find something fascinating in this kind of real-life soap opera--a voyeuristic peek at some hyper-cool people that they’d like to be.

The first season of 13 episodes that premiered last year drew substantial media attention for the sheer novelty of sticking seven kids in the same fish bowl, er, house, and taping their every move. It also grabbed a loyal following of close to 1 million viewers per episode--double MTV’s usual audience for the time period. When MTV put out a casting call for a new group to cohabitate for six months in Los Angeles, about 5,000 people applied for the seven spots.


“People in the audience sit around watching this series with their friends and they see people who are just like them,” said Lauren Corrao, MTV’s vice president of series development. “These characters are very identifiable, and the language they use is their own. It sounds real. It’s not written for them by some 50-year-old writer and the situations themselves are not contrived like on ‘Melrose Place’ or ‘90210.’ ”

Since February, MTV has been videotaping the interaction of the seven 18- to 24-year-olds who made it through the elaborate casting process. The cameras are there at their Venice house as they eat, play, argue, brush their teeth, date, surf, ride Harleys, work, go to school and chase the big Hollywood dream around the streets of L.A. The crew shoots 60 hours of tape each week, which is edited down to 22 minutes. The first of the 22-episode second season airs Thursday after a reunion of the cast of the first season.

In the New York version, just about all of the cast were performers--singers, actors, dancers--and all of them were politically liberal. Some road-tripped to the pro-choice march in Washington, for example, and one befriended and stayed overnight on the street with a homeless woman.

“We were pleased with the first cast but it was atypically liberal,” said Jon Murray, who created the show with partner Mary-Ellis Bunim. “We received some mail from people who didn’t see themselves represented, especially people who worked 9 to 5 jobs.”


Several of the Los Angeles cast are performers as well, but one R&B; hopeful also works by day in an AIDS clinic. And, in perhaps the most unusual bit of casting for MTV, one of the young men is a country singer and devout pontificator of the word of Jesus Christ. Another woman has a full-time career as a sheriff’s deputy for Los Angeles County. And to lend some political balance, one of the guys is a UCLA economics major from Orange County who voted for George Bush. He is also an accomplished surfer.

“The thing that makes this show very interesting is that in life, most of us tend to surround ourselves with people who are very much like us,” said Bunim. “Here we throw people together from all kinds of backgrounds--some were homeless as children and some were from wealthy families, one is from a family of nine and another is an only child--and generally, by the time it’s over, they have bonded and found much that is similar in each other’s lives.”

The biggest adjustment the producers had to make shooting in Venice was dealing with the bright and sunny weather compared to the dark and rainy look of New York. They also had to learn real quick about shooting in cars. The first episode opens with three of the cast on a ride from Nashville to Venice. When one young man has to return to his native Ireland to visit his ill father, MTV followed him there. The entire cast also vacationed together in Joshua Tree and Cancun, Mexico.

But in crafting most ordinary episodes, the producers simply look for drama and conflict. They deliberately cast one woman who was planning to get married half-way through the five-month shoot. This allowed them to videotape a wedding, and also provided a hot topic for discussion: marriage.


Another far more serious drama evolved when six of the original seven housemates decided they could no longer live with the seventh. With the blessing of the producers, they banded together and kicked him out.

Corrao said that no decision has been made yet on whether the series will continue beyond the Venice beach house. But she is optimistic that “The Real World” will move on--most likely to a flat in London with Americans, Brits and English-speaking youths from the continent.

“The Real World” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on MTV.