No contest: "The Real World" is better than the real world. But is this third installment better than "Real World 2" or the original "The Real World"?
Expect that question to be debated endlessly following the debut tonight of the third season of MTV's unique blend of documentary and soap opera.
The producers call the show -- which chronicles the lives of seven roommates during a year -- a "reality-based soap opera." Sarah Schlow of Baltimore says: "It's intriguing. You must watch it even though you hate it."
Richard N. Kitchen, a Cleveland fan, describes it differently. "Sort of like watching a train wreck," he says by way of Internet.
Mr. Kitchen's description may come closer to explaining the perverse fascination an increasing number of fans have with the show. Like Jimmy Stewart in "Rear Window," one rolls up to the window on a hot summer night and watches the world go by.
The first season, published reports put "The Real World's" audience at 3 million. Creator and executive producer Mary-Ellis Bunim says the number doubled during the second season and held steady. And "The Real World" is such a popular subject on America Online that a bulletin board devoted to the show filled to capacity yesterday, with 500 postings. Another board quickly opened.
"It's not 'Melrose Place,' " Dominic, a cast member from the second season, observed during one episode. No kidding -- no murders, no schemes, not a lot of romance. One of the highlights from "Real World 2" was watching one house member over-sugar another's beloved red Kool-Aid.
And even though the formula stays the same, the locale and cast change annually. This year you've got your impossibly great real estate, a house in San Francisco, at the bottom of curving Lombard Street.
You've got the latest edition of the magnificent-looking seven, a culturally diverse group of strangers who let strangers film almost every moment of their lives in exchange for free rent.
You've even got the prerequisite up-to-the-minute decor, this time from Ikea. Hey, it's a real world, someone has to furnish it.
"Ikea is honored," a spokeswoman says graciously, before subtly trashing the earlier furnishings.
What's really new, besides the furniture, is the "Real World's" growing cult.
"The first season, it took a little while for people to find us," says Ms. Bunim. "It was a matter of it catching on."
For the first show, in New York, producers interviewed 500 potential cast members. More than 25,000 applied for parts in the third installment. Calls are already coming in to MTV from people interested in "Real World 4."
Chris Bragg, 19, a student at the University of New Mexico, was one of the hopefuls. He got a form-letter rejection but has no hard feelings. "I'm going to tape it," he says of tonight's season opener. "I have the others all on tape, 10 cassettes in all."
Nolan Lew of Berkeley, Calif., admits he cruised the Bay Area during his spring break, hoping to bump into the current cast members.
"Only later was I to find out I was looking in the wrong area," he confides. "I spoke to someone who told me he saw some of the cast members at a dance club in San Francisco, and the cameramen were directing the cast where to go and sit and what to talk about."
Throughout the shooting, which ended Sunday, others tried to crash "The Real World." A woman showed up for dinner, toting some Foster Lager. A man arrived, via suitcase, saying he was real and therefore qualified to be on the show.
Such a result was not foreseen two years ago, when "The Real World" debuted to a flurry of sometimes snide reviews and articles -- "Ah, to be young, cute and stupid," Tom Shales began in the Washington Post. Newsweek found some virtues, but worried about kids who would sit around discussing "Gilligan's Island." (Now there are beer commercials riffing on "The Real World" ambience, with Real-World-esque discussions around a pool table, a prominent prop on the show.)
But "The Real World" has become one of MTV's most popular nonmusic programs, edged out only by the definitely unreal "Beavis and Butt-head." By year two, "Real World" revisionism followed, as more critics confessed: It's silly, it has no redeeming social values, I can't stop watching it.
There's talk of a fan club for Jon Brennan, the "Real World 2" country-western singer who still gets mail addressed simply "MTV Cowboy." Teen magazine informed its readers, after the second show started: "As the documentary-like series quickly shows, people fight, flirt, throw up, go to work." Although not necessarily in that order.
There's every indication "The Real World" will continue broadening its horizons. Locations mentioned for future shows include London, Chicago and Washington. No Baltimore, however. That apparently would be a little too real.
Even parents have begun watching it with their children, Ms. Bunim says. "After a few of our more dramatic episodes, we got a tremendous amount of mail from adults, who had been hooked through their kids."
Unlike "Seinfeld" or "Melrose Place," however, "The Real World" fans may not be chatting about it at the office the next morning, or holding parties to watch it. They're likely to be found on-line, obsessing over the tiniest details. Why did Beth and Irene always have lipstick on, even first thing in the morning? Do you think the "RW2" cast ever regretted picking Glen when David was forced out of the house?
Ms. Bunim says such personal observations, especially in the media, were hurtful to cast members. "People forgot these kids weren't actors, but people."
They may not be actors, but there is some skepticism about whether cast members truly forget about the omnipresent cameras, as some have said.
"I don't know if it's possible to forget," Ms. Bunim says. "But we try to choose people who are able to transcend that."
"That" includes wearing body mikes and beepers, so the crew can keep in touch. Up to 70 hours of footage is filmed for each of the 22 half-hour episodes, which, even with the characteristic quick-cuts and added soundtrack, have plenty of dull spots.
Ms. Bunim says she and her partner, Jon Murray, are particularly proud of this year's cast. Opinionated, the roommates also are "involved in issues outside of themselves." They also finally came through with what the first two had failed to deliver -- on-air romances.
Asked if the roommates find romance in or out of the house, Ms. Bunim says coyly: "You'll have to watch."