The music is generically edgy, synth-poppy with a dollop of minor chords and staccato percussion—it makes clear references to all the record industry styles MTV so benumbingly purveys, giving every target market a slice of acoustic pie to say, hey, this show’s for you. The scene under the credits is distinctively New York, whether the iron grating facades of SoHo, lower Manhattan from some angle but always including the Brooklyn Bridge, and shot from a post-industrial perch like a rooftop or warehouse, with a fashionably disheveled urban twenty-nothing warrior narrating from in medias res the particulars of the controversy du jour. They were the only ones there. He says he was looking for the spaghetti spoon. She says he picked up the candlestick and was going to hit her. It’s his word against his. Who knows what really happened?” Then the title flashes, scrawled across the screen in graffiti script, THE REAL WORLD, and we’re underway, exploring the complexities and conflicts the newest commodified generation group—GenXers, Twentysomethings, the MTV generation, take your pick—confront in negotiating the social and economic wasteland brothers Reagan and Bush have bequeathed to us.
The project was this: collect an eclectic assortment of young adults from across the land, gather them together in a SoHo loft, pay their rent, press “record” on the minicam, and watch the fur fly. An angry black man, an artsy dancey Alabama belle, a state-university frat boy, a gay man who wears his baseball cap backwards, and various other recognizable twenty types all get free New York living space and in exchange release the TV rights to their emotional, professional, and internecine crises to MTV, which then edits, dubs, overlays, and overplays their squabbles in the form of sociocinematic verité. They call the show THE REAL WORLD, and if it doesn’t resemble any worid you live in, why, you better recalibrate your epistemological antennae because it is right there on the reality medium itself, television, the dispenser of the cathode ray simulacrum that has displaced our perceptions of lived experience and programmed for us better reception of the world as advertisers, politicians, talk-show hosts, and other, assorted hucksters want us to see it. But back to the real world, I mean THE REAL WORLD, where our demographic melange of vigesigenarians bounce off the walls, each other, and seemingly the holder of the minicam like so many pinballs caught in a machine with flippers that never miss, fortuitously falling into scenes that dramatize the pressing issues MTV sees young adults facing today. Sex in the age of AIDS, amorphous career designs, how to cope with perfectly cast old-world parents, and so on. While these are unquestionably vexing issues, I suggest that if MTV brought their cameras into an actual urban scene of cohabiting twenty-plus-year-olds, the discourse would be somewhat different. How to get the third roommate to do the dishes or take out the trash, who gets control of the TV remote, who made what long-distance telephone call, where to store bicycles in the confined space of “low-rent” apartments, how to meet the objects of sexual attraction and preserve one’s self-respect, how to stay awake past 10:30 on a weeknight, what the hell to do on the weekend on an office grunt’s salary; such mundane matters confront twenties on a regular basis and form the substance of their daily lives. Of course, in the decentered, post-postmodern world, arguing about relative realities is as tenable as arguing about the angel population on Sinead O’Connor’s pinhead, and I do not intend to make this my arena of contention.
I will restrict my indictment of THE REAL WORLD to the terms of its engagement with its own reality, that of television. MTV has always tried to portray itself as a venue of anti-television, with a polished veneer of deprofessionalized production values, personalities well schooled in street-smarts, and the face of a heretofore unportrayed marketing group, teen music listeners previously restricted to radio and American Bandstand. These qualities all appear in THE REAL WORLD, indeed they comprise the basic constituents of its raison d’televiser, but they only mask the truly TV-conformist character of the show.
The dramatic axis of the program is the form taken by the weekly conflict between the angry black man, Kevin, and the artsy-dancey Alabaman, Julie. One week it is the argument that degenerates into the disputed threat of violence mentioned above, another week it is a plain old shouting match that grows out of a discussion of race relations. “Bigot, racist”—“racist yourself, you just want special treatment” and so on. Kevin advances menacingly, Julie cowers, sometimes cries a little bit, Kevin stalks out of the apartment, Julie accepts the solace of the other apartment-mates, much soul searching goes on for the camera. Such encounters punch all the programmed buttons of stereotypical, sexual/racial conflict that have festered in the American psyche since that nameless Puritan man cast a lingering glance over a comely Native American lass about 23 minutes after the Mayflower made landfall.
MTV was going to be different, a television network that wasn’t really television. It would reveal the production devices that made it a concocted reality and demystify the implicit claims to verisimilitude that TV has always made. Instead, intoxicated by the commercial power it quickly came to wield, MTV has become the chief offender in the blurring of commodified and aesthetic realities and has succeeded in transforming its viewers into twenty no-thinks. Consider one of its chief exponents, Spike Lee. Is he a movie-maker who sells jeans, a jeans-seller who comments on race relations, a social critic who sells jeans to make his movies, or what? And how to know out of which mouth he is talking when he speaks in any of his many media? The only barely unarticulated gothic sexual fascism of THE REAL WORLD panders to the same degraded, mush-minded view of the world that the rest of the television viewing audience has developed. Unfortunately, it is packaged, smelling like teen spirit, in precisely the torn blue jeans and high-top Cons that its audience is sure to buy.