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''Real World: New Orleans'' doesn't compare to ''Survivor''

Josh Wolk says the MTV roommates need to start fighting more to match the desert island bickerers

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”Real World: New Orleans” doesn’t compare to ”Survivor”

It was with shaking hands that I stuck my advance copy of Tuesday night’s ”Real World: New Orleans” premiere into my VCR. As I’ve written in a past Hot Topic, I derive immeasurable pleasure at watching the MTV buttheads butt heads, and I am perennially in awe of the producers’ (Bunim/Murray Productions) ability to select seven perfect specimens of irritation.

The apex of the nine-year-old series came with last year’s Hawaii installment, when viewers were introduced to a posse of instantly recognizable pains in the neck. After the first episode, you knew Teck was a loudmouth, Ruthie had a problem with the drinky, and Kaia was a full-on narcissist. There were latent narcissists, too: Matt, Justin, and Amaya kept their character flaws in check — for a while — only to trot them out for surprise exhibitions. The Hawaii adventure was like opening up all your presents Christmas morning, and then finding even more gifts in your bed on Dec. 26. Ah, bliss!

So imagine my disappointment when I watched the premiere episode of ”The Real World: New Orleans” and met no one able to carry the Hawaii torch. Sure, there are signs of trouble to come. Melissa chatters so incessantly about sex that you’ll never be less horny in your life. The muscular David is Teck-lite, unable to suppress the urge to call himself a ”player” every 30 seconds. And then there’s Jamie — the Cornell grad who during the casting special claimed he had a Nelson Mandela poster in his room, and then referred to an African-American cast member from the Boston season as ”Shaka Zulu.” In episode one, Jamie further underscores his fake open-mindedness by looking frightened while discussing the prospect of living with a gay roommate, but then nervously asking, ”Is that a politically correct word, ‘Gay’?” (Yes, and so is ”ignoramus.”)

The rest of the cast seems harmless — too much so for my taste. There’s the wide-eyed Mormon Julie, the kindly farm boy/breakdancer Matt, the pretty but so far bland Kelley, and devilishly grinning Danny (whose ”secret” — coyly announced at the show’s outset — actually had the cast stumped for a while. Have they never seen this show before?) That doesn’t mean that they won’t get worse fast, but as of now I’m a little afraid that no one’s going to step up to the plate with jaw-dropping personal issues.

But is the New Orleans household really that much kinder than those from previous years? Or is there another problem: Does ”The Real World,” which helped to spawn the current reality-TV craze, now look tame compared to newer shows like CBS’ ”Survivor”? The thrill of ”Real World” comes when the roommates don’t get along, but ”Survivor,” whose third episode airs June 13, has made conflict the whole point of the show, not an incidental side effect.

And oh, how beautifully ”Survivor” does it! Starving and sweating the contestants into delirium, the desert-island hardships — plus the promise of $1 million to the sole survivor — turn even the friendliest of castaways into cranky bastards. At the close of each show, the survivors vote (by secret ballot) to expel one of their number from the island. To make the contest even more sadistic, the smarmy host, Jeff Probst, reads off the names of those getting slammed — so the runners-up know exactly how many people hate them… but aren’t sure who! Now, why didn’t ”Real World” think of this? Think back to the fractious Miami house, and imagine how much more delectably vicious the Dan/Melissa shouting match over his ”Birdcage” slides would have been had they not eaten in two days, and there was a million dollars at stake? Now THAT would have been great TV!

And in July we’ll see ”Big Brother,” which sounds like an ingenious cross between ”Survivor” and ”Real World,” with 10 contestants penned in a hidden-camera-filled house for three months with no communication to the outside world. ”Big Brother” promises biweekly house meetings at which residents will select two candidates for expulsion — with viewers voting by phone to select the loser (or winner, depending on how you look at it). Life in ”Big Brother”’s world should be a long, drawn-out gladiator duel, with mind games taking the place of bloody maces.

To avoid becoming irrelevant in the very field it created, ”The Real World” had better start upping the antagonism ante on its show. I’ll stick with the New Orleans season for a while, but unless I see some backstabbing — fast — I’m going to switch my allegiance to ”Big Brother.” So a hint to Bunim and/or Murray: start rationing the cast’s food now.