Gather round, and let me tell you a story about a more wholesome time, when seven strangers — actual strangers, with ambitions beyond making a living on the “Real World: Challenge” racket — were picked to live in a house and have their lives taped, so we could all find out what would happen if they stopped being polite and started getting real (which did not merely mean getting drunk). Over the course of its first 28 seasons, “The Real World” tracked a course from earnest social experiment to modified-”Jerry Springer Show,” featuring could-be models who play up to the camera. The latest installments resemble the original about as much as a bedazzled, fluorescent T-shirt that may be able to give you herpes resembles a regular undershirt.
The series' ratings have flagged anyway, and in this, its 29th season, the producers decided to head in a more contrived direction still. (Can I suggest “The Real World: Rhodes Scholar Edition,” MTV?) “Real World: Ex-Plosion” takes place in San Francisco, hallowed “Real World” ground, but the contestants are not having thoughtful conversations about AIDS or fights about who stuck his fingers in the peanut butter. Instead, over four episodes, four roommates have paired off, one's mother has died (he went home for half an episode), glasses have been thrown, and one contestant — and they are contestants, not participants, now — allowed herself to be voted off after displaying extremely erratic behavior under the influence.
The conceit of this cycle is that the cast members, who think they are on a regularly formatted season, are being joined by their former or still significant others. Because this is complicated to explain in a ditty, the show has scrapped its famous opening poem: There's now just a Mylar balloon in the shape of a heart — very Jeff Koons — that gets shot with an arrow and explodes. I do not only hate this set-up because it violates whatever purity “The Real World” had left. (“The Real World,” formerly as pure as a glass of water full of cigarette butts, rum, sunscreen and bodily fluids — now just a glass of all of those things, without water.) It also amplifies the stupidest fiction of recent “Real World” seasons, which is the notion that any of the dysfunctional, fleeting, starter relationships it catalogues are actually heady, emotional affairs.
The cast-members are all in their very early 20s or younger, and their relationships are characterized by immaturity, pettiness, jealousy and wild proclamations. This is perfectly age-inappropriate, but it makes for numbing, repetitive television: a parade of jealous, drunk extroverts getting jealous and drunk about relationships that were meant to end, in which everyone is already cheating. The relationships with the exes, even if they initially happened off camera, seem to hew to this formula. (Very few people show up on “The Real World” with a partner back home anymore. Such a thing is usually taken as a provocation by the rest of the house to break said relationship up.) When they arrive, all the exes think they alone will be replacing one roommate. When they discover that the group of them is crashing the show at once — a pretty nasty trick — not a one even thinks about leaving.
To be fair, the producers did a good job casting the couples: Everyone is in it for the drama, no questions asked. But this will likely prevent whatever slightly idiosyncratic twists and turns might otherwise unfold. Two of the cast-members are fooling around but not having sex — one of them promised her father she wouldn't have sex on camera, a very “Real World” sort of second-virginity. (His newly arrived ex will, presumably, have no such qualms.) If they ever reinstate the “seven strangers” refrain, the more honest description would be: “Seven people who know how to behave on a reality TV show were picked to live ...”
“Ex-Plosion” is not that far removed from the tabloid mentality that says if two famous 19-year olds are dating, it is always time to ask if they are getting married. Presumably everyone involved with putting out that tabloid knows that the question is absurdly premature, but they pretend otherwise, because that's what sells. None of these romances are serious, but “The Real World” keeps pretending they might be, just so it has an excuse to tape and air twice as many fist-fights, altercations, sob-fests and night-vision footage of young people writhing beneath sheets as usual. Producers these days, man.
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Paskin, Slate's TV critic, has written for New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine andSalon.com.