When MTV launched The Real World in 1992, its premise — throw together a disparate group of young people for six months in a boss apartment in a big city and film them interacting—was novel, especially to the human guinea pigs that were its stars. The first couple of Real World casts were relatively innocent—babes in the media woods. By now, however, Real Worlding has become a young-adult life option: Hmm, should I go right into graduate school, bum around Europe for a year, get a gig at Starbucks, or do a season of Real World?

The latest crew has been willingly shanghaied to rainy, grungy Seattle, to giggle and fester in a waterfront house decorated to look like an unholy cross between Pee-wee’s Playhouse and the Playboy mansion. (There are also—a novelty for this series—shelves of books, which is, like, cool, because as one Worlder said in the opening episode, “We’re all academians [sic].” Turns out many of the tomes are sex manuals, craftily designed by the Skinner-box producers to raise the collective libido in the house.)

But let’s do the roll call, shall we? There’s

—Janet, 20, a stunning Korean-American woman who one senses smiles so much because she’s so relieved to be away from her dour, workhorse parents, who run a restaurant in Chicago. Janet’s grandmother was worried about her granddaughter’s involvement in The Real World, because she thought it was “a show about pornography,” but Janet offers this rather vague reassurance: “Why would I leave home for six months to do pornography, Grandma?”

—Nathan, 20, on leave from the Virginia Military Institute, a stocky, stolid, pleasant fellow saddled with a back-at-home girlfriend who is hell on wheels; every time they get on the phone, she whines and berates him into guilt-addled despair;

—David, 21, Nathan’s bud and fellow VMI recruit; a former escort-service chauffeur raised tough in working-class Boston, David is the most interesting, complicated one in this bunch, a worldly-wise smoothy with a touching romantic side;

—Irene, 21, quiet, kooky, curly-haired; so far possessor of the most unreadable personality, with hints of both eccentricity and a sense of humor. But don’t get too attached—Irene is outta there before the series ends in a plot twist I won’t spoil;

—Lindsay, 21, who occupies what regular viewers have come to think of as the “Puck position,” named for the widely detested egomaniac from Season 3. Lindsay’s obnoxiousness lies in her unrelentingly grinning, bouncy demeanor, which fails to disguise total self-absorption and an eagerness to bad-mouth others;

—Stephen, 19, soft-spoken, African-American, and devoutly Jewish, three qualities that make him instant odd man out in this den of talky, mostly white, religion-irrelevant roommates; and

—Rebecca, 19, a wispy blond whose scattered manner is a cover for both a steely personality and a state of virginity that’s going to come as a surprise to David, who seems ready to bust a major move on her.

Yes, it’s a regular ticking time bomb out there in Seattle; already, Lindsay has persuaded Rebecca that Irene is a dweeb to be snubbed. The tension occurs in a paradisiacal context—the gang’s digs include a rock-climbing wall, picturephone (the better for Nathan to see how distraught his girlfriend is), a kitchen that looks like a diner, and lots of state-of-the-art exercise equipment. To coax them all out of their living quarters, the cast has been given employment at a Seattle alt-rock radio station. They’re hired as “modulators”—radio-industry lingo for shills who have to go out and drum up audiences for station promotions like a concert by a local band, Superdelux, whose post-grunge strategy is to be as blandly poppish as possible. Unlike last season’s Worlders, who volunteered time at a day care center, the new bunch is encouraged to go for the glory—the station manager tells them if they do grunt promotion work now, they’ll get their own radio show on the station. It’s hard to know who’s being more cynical here: the station, the cast, or the Real World producers.

But cynicism (albeit good-natured, zippily edited cyncism) is what the real world—excuse me, The Real World—is all about these days. The show is like a variation on that bumper-sticker slogan: It’s their world—we just live in it for 22 episodes. B

The Real World
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