I’d like to begin this week’s Real World coverage by wishing MTV a happy 30th birthday. I was an obsessive viewer of the network from the very moment my family finally got cable in the 3rd grade, and the early seasons of The Real World are just one of the many things I adored about MTV back in the day: I used to record my favorite videos on VHS tapes, I loved Remote Control even if I was too young to get it, and I had a bizarre, age-inappropriate crush on VJ Adam Curry. Of course, once I got to middle school, I thought MTV was stupid and uncool, or at least I pretended to.
It’s taken the perspective of adulthood—and the craven stupidity of most of the network’s current programming—to make me appreciate the network that I grew up with in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. For me, the moment that epitomizes this difference is the 1991 VMAs. That year, REM’s “Losing My Religion” swept the awards, and every time Michael Stipe took to the stage to make an acceptance speech, he unveiled a different t-shirt enscribed with a political message. Sure, it was unbearably earnest and preachy in a Benetton ad kind of way, but so were the ‘90s!
Yet you get the sense that today’s MTV is a little embarrassed by its own past, like a vapid teenager sick of hearing about what her activist parents did back in the groovy ‘60s: its 30th anniversary retrospective is airing on VH1 Classic, and the reboot of 120 Minutes has been relegated to the backwaters of MTV2. There’s a strong argument to be made that the premiere of The Real World was the beginning of the end of “good” MTV, that it was the moment the network began its inexorable march toward Snooki and The Situation. But I believe the opposite to be true: that The Real World is one of the last worthwhile shows the network ever produced.
This week we’ve got a truly classic episode of The Real World, one that, if the salivating comments over the past few weeks are to be believed, made an indelible impression on many of this site’s male readers back in 1992. That’s right: it’s The One Where Julie Takes Her Top Off.
The vacation episode is a time-honored television tradition. Who could forget when Saved by the Bell went to Hawaii? Or when Lucy and Ricky went to Paris? Or when Dennis, Arvid and the Head of the Class gang went to Moscow? (No? Just me?) It’s one scripted TV convention that transfers seamlessly to the reality genre; if anything, the blatant product placement and location filming is way less jarring on a reality series than a sitcom, which may be why today’s reality producers are so fond of sending their cast members to exotic locales. Still, the vacation episode—whether scripted or “real”—almost always smacks of contrivance. It’s a ploy producers rely on when they’ve hit a narrative roadblock, when they’re slightly desperate to shake things up.
In the case of The Real World, the problem is that none of the ladies are getting laid. The producers intervene by carting the ladies off to Jamaica, hoping that they’ll drink too many Red Stripes and have orgies with several dozen Rastafarians, or maybe just make out with a cute English guy or something. As Becky, Heather and Julie arrive in Jamaica, a creatively punctuated banner at the airport reads, “Welcome to the home of the ‘LoveBirds’.” All that’s missing is the “….we hope.” The express purpose of their journey is to get some action, but at least for Julie and Heather, the mission is an abject failure.
Almost as soon as they land, the women of the loft discover that the men of Jamaica (or, to be more precise, the men in Jamaica) leave a great deal to be desired. It all starts on a boat ride, during which a cute-looking guy regales Heather with stories of his chronic unemployment. Next, the ladies embraces the devil-may-care spirit of the islands and head to a nude beach. Julie hopes they “get to see something” (by which she means “hot young man meat”), but they are shocked—shocked!—to discover the beach is over-run with old men who “look like high school principals.”
Naturally, the naked dudes flock to nekkid Julie and Becky like flies to honey. One man compliments Julie’s breasts and asks if he can touch them. Believe it or not, Julie declines the offer.
Realizing that Jamaica is not be the romantic Eden they hoped it would be, the girls opt for Plan B: fucking with the poor saps who approach them. It is hilarious. Becky tells one credulous fellow she is an alligator wrestler. Julie tells another that Becky has the hots for Danny DeVito. But in what’s easily the best scene, a Canadian with a blonde flat-top and a plunging, brightly-patterned rayon button-down approaches Julie. “You’re a really attractive girl. I went out with an Elle model one time,” he says. Julie twirls her hair, affects a ridiculous twang, and pretends to be impressed: “You look like the type that’d be right picky, you know, not the type that’d be going out with all sorts.” Mr. Canada then tells Julie about the time he went down south to build a barn using “big spike nails” and brags about owning his own flooring company (“You want stucco on your wall, I’ll do it.”). Like an amateur astronomer pointing to Orion’s belt in the night sky, he discusses the reflective quality of various tiles at the bar. Guys, I hope you’re taking notes.
With so few male prospects, the ladies are left to bond with each other. They sit by the pool, speculating about the origins of the male libido, and lie in the sun sharing their dating horror stories. (Julie’s worst date ever involves a pair of white shorts and sounds exactly like a “Say Anything” from YM.) As with so much about The Real World: New York, the vacation seems pretty tame in retrospect: the ladies stay in normal-sized rooms at a normal resort whose name is never mentioned; they don’t insult any foreigners; they fail to puke, urinate or have intercourse in a public place.
But there is one big moment of drama from the trip: Becky’s affair with Bill, the be-mulleted ex-Real World director she “sucked through the 4th wall.” Re-watching this episode, it’s funny how the producers chose to deal with this breach of reality television ethics. They wait almost until the end of the episode to reveal the affair, and even then we only get brief glimpses of Becky and Bill interacting—lying on the boat together in Jamaica and making out a bar back in New York. What’s clear is that the producers didn’t really know how to deal with it, so they sort of swept it under the rug. (I also love the tacitly judgmental "ex" before Bill's job title.)
While the girls are fending off the advances of Canadian tile magnates, the boys are left to brood back in cold, rainy NYC. In a hilarious montage, Andre goes on a binge of self-pity, angrily tearing up Jamaica brochures, violently flinging cue balls across the pool table and screaming about the weather to no one in particular.
Then he just lies down on the pool table in some kind of protest:
This week, Eric is nowhere to be found, and Norm is off on a hot date, which means that Andre and Kevin have to awkwardly tolerate each other’s company for a night. What’s funny is even though they’re the whiniest two people in the loft, Kevin and Andre really, really don’t like each other. Things start out on the right foot: Kevin writes a whiny poem about not being in Jamaica, and Andre turns it into a whiny song. (If nothing else, these two share a love of complaining.) But it all goes south when Kevin and Andre go out to dinner. Kevin treats Andre like an interview subject, asking him an endless string of biographical questions, which Andre is all too happy to answer. (Why yes, he did grow up in a musical household. Thanks for asking, Kevin!) Andre clearly can’t stand Kevin, and repeatedly drops passive-aggressive mentions about how he’s never at the loft. Burn!
Andre experiences a brief respite from the agony of living rent-free in a huge loft when he goes on a date with Lisa, a
Citizen Dick Reigndance groupie. He takes her to Back Fence, a shitty NYU bar on Bleecker Street, where they share terrible drinks and make out in the street. (Clearly, Andre sure could take some lessons from Julie’s Canadian friend.) In any case, Andre might look like a lady, but he’s totally hetero. Sitting next to a basket filled with dirty laundry (by the way, I love the very slackery settings for all the cast interviews in this season: Julie’s messy room, Kevin in a freight elevator), Andre muses about the various benefits of being in a hugely successful rock band. “[It] has its benefits, be it women, be it the possibility of getting your statement across to a broad spectrum of people,” he says, then mouths to the camera: “It’s the women.”
Oh, Andre. You so bad!
- Probably the most disappointing thing about watching these old Real World episodes is that the Greek Chorus of late ‘80s/early‘90s hits has been replaced by crappy canned music. I’ve been able to overlook it until now, but somehow the tropical setting and Andre’s rain-soaked sulk-fest both really suffered without the right musical accompaniment (seriously, imagine all the ham-fisted possibilities: “Losing My Religion,” “I’m Too Sexy,” “Love Shack,” “Black or White”). I wonder what songs were actually used on this episode? Anyone care to hazard a guess?
- As a solution, I’ve decided to turn on the ‘90s “Music Choice” channel on my TV to set the mood while I write. (Currently playing: Gin Blossoms!)
- Let’s talk fashion. It’s starting to feel a little repetitive giving the award to Becky week after week, but she just wears everything so well. Consider the self-assurance it takes to wear a bandanna like this, Rambo-style, and still look good:
- The ghost of Kevin and Becky’s racism argument hangs over this episode. In one scene, the girls, sitting in a hot tub, talk about the fight, which we see in flashback (reality TV producers had yet to discover the power of the black-and-white flashback). Becky seems mostly over it, but when they get back to New York, Kevin still wants to talk about it. Becky listens politely for about 10 seconds, then interrupts Kevin to tell him she’s starving and would rather go eat. Hilarious.
- Andre’s mom’s band put out an album on Capitol Records. He describes them as “A mixture between Manhattan Transfer and The Osmonds,” which sounds like a fucking nightmare if you ask me.
- I love the scene where the members of Reigndance sit for an interview with a young-but-still-bald-and-chubby Matt Pinfield and discuss their new single, “Why Divide?”, which is about racism (obvs).
- Speaking of Matt Pinfield: how is it possible that he looked exactly the same in 1992 as he does now? Did he ever have any hair? Just wondering.