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‘Real World’ actually gets real

Special to The Times

Last month, when MTV announced that the 21st installment of “The Real World” would be filmed in Brooklyn, it seemed like a statement of renewed purpose. Even though Brooklyn boasts a population of more than 2 million, this would be the first time the show has been filmed in a locale known largely as a satellite to another major location, or more to the point, where people who can’t afford to live in the city (read: Manhattan, where the show has been filmed twice before) actually live.

Though it is unlikely that housemates will spend much time in Crown Heights, Canarsie, Bay Ridge or Sheepshead Bay (where, it should be said, I was born and raised), the mere imprimatur of Brooklyn is enough to connote a sort of creative and cultural authenticity that the show has assiduously avoided since maybe the Seattle season, the show’s seventh, which aired a decade ago and was the last one in which each cast member seemed motivated by something grander than the desire to wile away a few months before the cameras.

In the press release about the move to New York, Jon Murray, co-creator of “The Real World” and chairman and president of Bunim-Murray Productions, noted that “the Brooklyn season, like the Hollywood season, will focus on what people loved about ‘The Real World’ when it launched in 1992 -- genuine people, meaningful conflict and powerful stories.”

In this regard, he is not as laughably misguided as he sounds. The current season, “The Real World: Hollywood,” is the most vivid, engaging and artful in years, the first time in recent memory that the typical cast of misfits has generated something approximating genuine pathos.

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Being that the show takes place in Hollywood -- conveniently, walking distance from any number of dens of night life iniquity on Hollywood Boulevard -- producers deliberately cast a set of entertainment-industry aspirants. Though they bear all the scars of great “Real World” cast mates -- family trauma, arrest histories, battles with addiction -- they also come armed with something even more exotic: goals. As a setup for a season to be filmed in a borough known for its artistic strivers, it is perfect.

This has also been one of the most manic seasons in “Real World” history -- episodes are now a full hour (as they will be next season), and they are dizzying, cramming a spectacular amount of story into each show. It’s just halfway into the season, and already Joey has been shipped off to rehab and, in this week’s episode, has returned. Brianna has faced a court date on a prior assault arrest. Kimberly has displayed what can only be described as bouts of casual racism, repeatedly calling Brianna “ghetto” and suggesting that her behavior is beyond the pale even for “Blackville,” wherever that may be. Last week, there was a near-orgy in the hot tub (though it was played less salaciously than a similar one on the most recent season of “Big Brother”). And finally, in the confessional room, Will engaged in an act that did not appear to require the presence of his shorts with non-cast mate Reva, a woman who was dating Greg.

Why did Greg deserve this treatment? Because he is one of the oddest and most compelling figures in “Real World” history. From the earliest episodes, he distanced himself from his roommates, calling them “peasants” and sitting apart from them at meals. He pranked them, putting rocks in Will’s bed and stealing Sarah’s panties after she trash-talked him to a woman he’d brought back to the house. He calls women he’s involved with “associates.” He gets pedicures. “I am Greg, and I am perfection,” he says. “I don’t need these peasants.” (He is the first “Real World” cast member to be chosen by an online vote, making him perhaps more of a wild card than producers could have anticipated.)

Though it is tempting to lump Greg in with the great “Real World” performance artists -- Puck from San Francisco, Coral from New York, Isaac from Sydney, and anyone who has appeared on more than three of the “Real World"/"Road Rules” challenges -- his naivete sadly outweighs his cynicism. He says things like “industry party” and “red carpet A-list event” with no irony whatsoever and skips out on some of the improv-comedy classes that pass for the cast’s “job” this season so he can gain a toehold in the modeling industry, which is why he came to Los Angeles. “I love runway,” he says. “It’s my passion.”

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But for all his self-absorption, and even though he has often been the root cause of problems in the house, he has also notably been the mediator in several conflicts. And when his roommates get mad at him, as they do in almost every episode, his condescension acts as a buffer; he won’t let himself get frazzled. He frustrates the housemates to the point where he gains the moral high ground. Given their increasingly bizarre behavior, they have to cede it to him. Even when Will makes insinuations about his sexuality and cruelly mentions Greg’s recently deceased father, Greg is a rock. Brianna compliments him on holding his feelings back, even though in the previous episode she’d scolded him for the same, warning, “You will be alone for the rest of your life.”

At the height of house tensions, Greg addressed the camera: “Why am I happy right now? Because I am on bad terms with every single roommate. I’m not gonna crack. I am a [expletive] diamond. Diamond does not crack -- it cuts.”

In this week’s episode, Greg will suffer extreme consequences for his general indifference to the work that is expected of him with the rest of the cast. Forced to call the trickster Reva to pick him up from the house, he registers the faintest of flinches, but he’s not truly derailed. After all, here is someone intimate with the big picture, arriving with a purpose and getting scarce when it becomes clear his presence serves everyone’s interests but his own.

It’s a throwback to the show’s early days, when it seemed like “The Real World” was mere intrusion into lives already in progress.

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