The cast become terrible lifeguards. The job phase starts, and Josh Wolk explains all about Princess Cara, defiant Theo, and nutty nutty Tonya

By Josh Wolk
Updated January 30, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

The Real World

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The cast become terrible lifeguards

I thought MTV had learned something when they put the Boston ”Real World”ers in charge of children at a day care center. The roommates ignored the small kids, screamed about sex in front of them, and Montana even gave one of them alcohol. The take-home lesson should have been, ”Don’t put ‘Real World’ casts in a situation where responsibility is a key job requirement.”

And MTV heeded that, sticking subsequent houses into radio stations, surf shops, and record labels, where they couldn’t make any mess that a loud guy from the marketing department couldn’t clean up in a day. But this year, apparently, moral imperatives have been shelved, and the ”Real World”ers have been put in charge of people’s lives… literally. They are going to be lifeguards.

Can someone just be assigned the job of lifeguard? One would think an effective guard would be a strong swimmer who was enthusiastic about the opportunity and respectful of its gravity, not someone who was dragged kicking and screaming into the pool. Frankly, if I’m going down for the last time, I’d like to think someone on the shore is willing to die trying to save me, rather than rolling their eyes and saying, ”Oh, great. Now I’ve got to deal with Mr. Drownypants.”

Now that I know they’re handing out life-or-death jobs to reality TV casts, I feel like I’m always going to be suspicious of people whom I’d normally consider my safety net. What’s next on the ”Real World” job roster: firemen, airline security? Who’s to say that in a few seasons I won’t be wheeled into surgery only to find that my emergency operation is going to be performed by Terri, a 21-year-old housemate with ”blood issues,” and the last thing I hear before I slip under the anesthesia is her ranting about how her roomie got obstetrics, but SHE wanted obstetrics, and it’s totally not fair and how is she supposed to remember if she sterilized herself or not?

Actually, I did have a jolt of cautious optimism when the roommates first reported for their lifesaving class: They were a few minutes early. I don’t think this has ever happened to a ”Real World” cast before; usually they arrive about a half-hour late in the midst of a full-throttle bicker. Could this be a sign of a new, responsible trend in housemates?

Of course not. I should have been clued in when Cara and Theo were both thrilled to learn they would be lifeguards, because they thought it would involve sitting on the beach all day. How sad is it that even ”Baywatch” has a more sophisticated understanding of lifeguarding than they do?

They were all then told to swim, and apparently for many of them this was an unrealistic demand. But they all got in and showed their stuff. Theo flopped onto the side of the pool like he’d just found Titanic driftwood, Chris barely approached coordination, and Cara did a head-out-of-the-water breaststroke that you usually don’t see north of Florida, or by anyone under the age of 63.

And then, right on schedule, the whining started. Cara was infuriated that an instructor took a zero-tolerance approach to her old-lady dog-paddling and told her to just ”get her f—ing face in the water and swim.” The teachers did not say this, mind you, although there was a vague Great Santini-esque tone to their tutelage… which would be a debatable approach if they weren’t teaching people HOW TO SAVE LIVES. But Cara was irritated by this methodology, and said as much. She later apologized for her tone, in the least apologetic tone I’ve ever heard.

If you happened to be one of the four viewers watching who couldn’t quite grasp that Cara is a bit of a princess, the producers were once again there to clue you in with visual cues as subtle as a Snoop Dogg video. When Cara was shown talking to her father (an excited ex-guard himself!), she said she couldn’t believe they expected her to swim 100 yards underwater… and then we cut to a close-up of her french-tipped nails. What, they couldn’t find a shot of her sitting underneath a giant salon hairdryer with a poodle on her lap?

During the time trials that decide whether the ”Real World”ers could continue training or not, Cara obstinately refused to do the crawl, and ended up walking the length of the pool while instructors yelled at her that she wasn’t trying. She later conceded the point, weeping that she actually didn’t try her hardest, but she just couldn’t take the pressure of saving someone’s life. Instead of all her faux-soul-searching, I preferred Theo’s straightforward response to failing the test: When they told him he could take swimming lessons to better his time, he responded, ”Hell no! I didn’t come here to learn how to swim!”

Of course, all of this deconstruction of Cara and Theo’s whining is just a warm-up for discussing the queen complainer, Tonya. What a fascinating character study she is. In foster care from the age of 12 to 17, she has a healthy ego (or is it insecurity?), is defiantly antisocial (or is she painfully shy?), and is also harboring what seems like an entirely imagined kidney disorder (or is it… well, it seems to be entirely imagined). With her complex upbringing, let me struggle to formulate a sensitive diagnosis: seems to me that every morning Tonya dips her head in a big bucket of crazy.

When Tonya was first asked to do laps, she stopped in the middle because her kidney troubles were acting up, and there was no convincing her to get back into the pool. She told the instructors matter-of-factly that she wouldn’t be doing any more swimming today, but perhaps she’d return in two weeks.

The kidney problem (which, she mentioned, no doctor can find an official cause for) only got worse the longer she stayed away from the pool, and soon she was calling her boyfriend to alert him that she was coming home. She needed her doctor in Walla Walla, because obviously that is where all the good medical care is…not in a two-bit backwards burg like Chicago. Actually, Walla Walla sounds exactly like the kind of town where they would have doctors who deal solely in psychosomatic illnesses. It’s like the beginning of a Borscht Belt routine: Is her physician named Dr. Howyafeelin, and does he have patients who think they’re chickens, but he doesn’t cure them because he needs the eggs?

The episode ended with a weeping Tonya at her wits’ end, distraught as she was unable to find a kidney-friendly cab. Will she find solace in Walla Walla? Will her mysterious illness be treatable? And is she the nuttiest ”Real World”er since New Orleans’ David? Only time will tell, but the more time she’s kept away from the seashore, the better. Now if only she’d take the rest of the cast with her to Walla Walla, the swimmers of Chicago could finally relax when they do the backstroke.

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