‘The Real World: St. Thomas’ Recap (Season Premiere): “Paradise Found”
Seven strangers unite in earthly paradise and forge an extraordinary bond. With rum.
Oh, The Real World. Why is this show still on? As a perennial but now mostly ignored institution of its network and genre, it can be easy to forget how significant it used to be. It’s also easy to simplify the history and just assume that as the genus it pioneered became fixed as a lurid stream of human triteness (the pillars of Survivor and The Osbournes being the true lodestars of the reality show paradigm currently in force), it quickly conformed to the standard; but in reality, its descent from attempted edgy documentary to a series of largely-dramatized binge drinking vignettes has been more gradual over the twenty years it has aired. As the show progresses toward thirty installments, they’ve occasionally tried to recapture that same early-90s fire of relevancy (season three’s HIV-positive Pedro remaining the most notable Issue Ambassador), even including a transwoman—weirdly, as an eighth cast member, as though they could whisk her away if it turned out they’d miscalculated—a few seasons ago. Yet they haven’t made a real play at reformulation, and the show keeps chugging on, sticking to its iconic ingredients despite having become mostly overshadowed by more hyper-contextual (and therefore less ultimately pure) descendants like the now-routine Jersey Shore.
Anyway, enough of my highfalutin introducin’. Let’s meet the cast:
- Robb, 21, from Pennsylvania. A ginger basketball player.
- Marie, 23, from Staten Island, who is “spontaneous.”
In an unusual turn for the show, the two meet at Robb’s house, parents and kid sister present. She notices that he has “Hakuna Matata” tattooed on his leg and reveals that she has the same slogan on her ass, which would only be a celestial token of their karmic bond if this meeting hadn’t been predestined by months of interviews with producers. Shhh, don’t tell them. Moving on:
- LaToya, 22, from Virginia. “Lovably sassy,” or whatever descriptor she provided that I forgot to write down.
- Trey, 23, from Baltimore. The obligatory main hunk. I don’t remember if we got to see any of his at-home tape or heard about his life at all, so I’ll pretend he was a 102-pound Yeshiva student who auditioned in secret and morphed into this Abercrombie mannequin in the months after being cast. A reverse-sideways Yentl, if you will. Yes, I’m already this bored.
In another short-lived twist, the roommates have no idea where their house is until they learn, apparently by telegram, that they’re going to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Trey doesn’t know where that is! Immediately, I wonder what the hell they’ll do for the traditional house “vacation” later in the season; doesn’t every place in the world look like Bartertown from Mad Max 3 in comparison with the Caribbean?
Over in St. Thomas, we meet:
- Brandon, 24, from Southie in Boston. Poor and struggling, with huge gauges and a perpetual hangdog.
- Swift, 22, from New Jersey, a golden boy soon-to-be law student.
- Laura, 23, from Nebraska, who informs us that she got hot midway through high school and is now a “huge flirt… boys are just like toys to me.” Okay.
Lee the Salty Boat Captain (who I kind of wish the cameras would just turn around and follow instead of these 20-year-old idiots) shows up to take them to their house on its own goddamn island. Brandon, moved by the extravagance, seems surprised to learn that there is a hot tub, even though there not being a hot tub at a Real World house would be literally impossible.
The drinking begins at once and in earnest, as most of the roommates are handed shots of rum right off the plane. Meanwhile, we learn that Brandon is a recovering drug addict and has attempted suicide. He and Swift initiate a bromance over shared authenticity, or something. Marie and Laura bond over being drunks, which is more meaningful in this setting, I think.
The kids avoid the usual hand wringing over room assignments; Robb and Swift decide to room together because they’re messy. Brandon bunks with his polar-male-opposite Trey, who seems hard to dislike. He is comfortable enough to admit that Swift “has the best body in the house” and wears his alpha dog swagger without betraying the anxiety that often undercuts it, as Swift does as he later blurts, “I’m not cocky, I’m confident,” as though he’s rehearsed the line in the mirror for the past several months.
Meanwhile, a love triangle sprouts as Brandon starts to pine for the seductive, fake-redheaded Lauren. She “[doesn’t] really want to hook up with roommates” and yet admits to the ladies that she “can’t take [her] eyes off Trey.” I become certain this will all be resolved with class and candor, while beginning to resent Marie and Robb, whose flirting (“we’re both goooooons!”) makes my brain ache.
The first night falls. Marie prepares rum punch for LaToya, who, in the darkest turn yet, kind of dislikes rum. Out in the yard (beach?) Brandon feels he is “the outsider” because he is super alternative and has a doughy body. Lauren wants to help Brandon feel good and comfortable, but only in that “friend” way that I am told 20-something men don’t really care for. Lauren reveals that she is adopted and trying to find her birth parents. They share a nice moment that will certainly not be ironically undermined later when she has a similar, more intimate scene with Trey. Brandon, showing a sixth sense for personal calamity, already has his feet off the wagon before he even sees the two together. He gets naked and falls into the hot tub, while the roommates look on as though a small animal is dying in the yard.
When we return from commercial, comfort and good feelings are restored as the roommates are drunk together in a tree, bonding over some kind of rogue poop incident. Laura and Trey flirt more openly, and she shows him her adoption stuff as Brandon paces anxiously by the bedroom. A few Final Cut Pro clicks later, everybody is coupled up while Brandon sits alone in the gazebo writing in his journal, consoling himself with this free three-month vacation in return for being the group Eeyore for the duration. Robb eventually joins him and they drunkenly talk chicks within earshot of an annoyed Trey. Brandon opens up about his insecurities, in a moment of rare, true vulnerability: “I don’t want her laughing with him, I don’t want her smiling at his jokes.” As Robb—so drunk he can’t hold onto his cigarette—tries to talk sense into him, Brandon, inconsolable, wanders off with fire in his eyes. (I’m killing this recap game so far, huh?) Their tense council outside is inter-cut with Trey venting to Laura about the whole mess, because those things clearly happened at the same time. Later, Brandon pulls Trey into their shared room and admits he’s acting inappropriately, jealous about the adoption conversations. Trey affirms that he is indeed the “All-American” so-and-so of Brandon’s paranoid torment. Somehow, Brandon accepts this and they bond over their mutual honesty. Alcohol, guys—it brings us together.
As I sit here watching this emotional/chemical mayhem unfold, I’m reminded of what a great hangout show this remains, in spite of its shallowness and borderline social irresponsibility. During a break late in the hour, a Moonrise Kingdom ad with Bill Murray rambling about the movie’s cast in an archly artificial living room set appears and it seems oddly tailor-made for the entire hour, linked in spirit with the addictive pull of the program. Before we come back to the show proper, they splice in to the broadcast a brief clip of Trey goofing around with the ladies’ footwear, and the whole viewing experience blends pleasingly. At its best, The Real World remembers that we (by whom I mean the thinning audience of which I, with a shrug, remain a member) don’t really care about its ambitions toward significance or even, really, conventional drama. I avoid competition shows like The Biggest Loser because watching average Joes trying to change their lives always proves less than compelling. I don’t care about voyeur-a-thons like the Real Housewives franchise because trashy faux-anthropology turns out to be just as dull as the real thing. I just want to see some young hotties be thrown into a clearly weird scenario and see how they fuck around for a while until they go away, changed in no particular fashion.
To that extent, this year’s crop handles it as well as one can hope for: after Marie and Robb bond further in the confessional, drunk and dumb as ever, Marie passes out and they decide to surround her sleeping form with peanut butter jars. In a way, it’s the most highbrow thing I’ve seen on a reality show in a while.
They can’t help ending things on a sour note, though: Trey finds Brandon’s journal as the tatted sad-sack is passed out in the gazebo, and becomes concerned with his suicidal scrawling. Will this serious psychosocial concern be treated with the sensitivity and complexity it warrants? Keep viewing with me to find out! (No, though.)
Image courtesy mtv.com
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