Time for a reality check


There is very little that is real about MTV's "The Real World," which returns for its fourth season tonight at 10.

The young adults brought together for the twentysomething soap opera live for free in a fabulous house in an absolutely fabulous city. They are starting dream careers as models, singers, race car drivers, musicians and writers. And the incredible narcissism that most of them exhibit is stroked and celebrated by the MTV cameras (in real life, if would more likely send them straight into clinical depression).

Despite all the artifice and unreasonable expectations it's selling, "The Real World" is one superb television series. Producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, along with director George Verschoor, fold, bend and expand the syntax of television storytelling to create a high-energy narrative that's impossible to resist. "The Real World" does for television storytelling in the 1990s what Tom Wolfe did for pop-culture print journalism reporting in the late '60s.

This year, the seven young adults live in London in what has to be the best "Real World" pad ever. Downstairs, the converted warehouse is made to look like a castle. But the upper levels are all light, sweetness and modern appliances.

The neighborhood is referred to by the English as "shabbily genteel." Upscale bohemian is more like it. Think of Greenwich Village as it hasn't been since about 1970.

The cast is more international than ever: three Americans, two Brits, one German and one Australian.

The real reason for the London setting and international cast, of course, is that it makes the series more attractive to MTV's channels in other countries, which means Viacom (the corporate owner of MTV and VH1) makes more money than it did with primarily American casts living in American cities. But the diversity also makes for a more interesting on-screen mix.

Going in, my favorite is Neil, a 24-year-old graduate of Oxford University's Wadham College who is taking time off from doctoral studies in psychology to perform with a musical band in London.

There's not enough of Neil's music in tonight's opening to classify it. He calls it "noise" and says his ultimate goal is "world domination of techno sleaze." I think he's kidding. But it's hard to tell with Neil, who seems to have mastered the cool, detached, ironic and superior tone of young men schooled in English ruling-class culture.

Neil is also into body piercing and he shows his breast nipples to the MTV cameras as they follow him into the sack one night. Neil is initially not too thrilled about sharing digs with the Americans. "Their sort of upfront friendliness smacks of insincerity," he says.

But insincerity doesn't stand in the way of Neil's quickly finding himself attracted to an American named Kat, a 19-year-old NYU student from Tacoma who wants to be an Olympic fencer (as in thrust and parry). By the end of tonight's installment, it looks like there's a love triangle in the works involving Neil, Kat and Neil's English girlfriend, Chrys.

Actually, it's a love quadrangle, because 21-year-old Michael -- a race car driver from a wealthy family in St. Louis -- also thinks Kat is the cat's pajamas. The only problem is Michael appears to have the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old. He looks like he's going to cry, for example, when he finds out that he can't get ranch dressing at the English grocery store. He calms himself by saying he'll just ask his mom to send him some.

Michael's whiny, puppy-dog presence quickly starts to bum Kat, who gravitates toward the sophisticated Neil.

Outside of Kat, the most self-absorbed member of the cast is Jacinda, 22, a model from Australia. The best sense of humor seems to be that of Lars, a 24-year-old from Berlin who wears lots of leather and wants to work in the music industry. Sharon, 20, an Englishwoman who sings in a jazz-funk band, gets the first night's award for high energy and higher spirits.

The final cast member is a 19-year-old from Oregon named Jay, who won a playwriting award while in high school and quickly heads for London's West End theater district. Not surprisingly, he plans to write a play during his five months in England. Jacinda appears to have taken an interest in Jay -- well, as much as she can take an interest in anyone beyond herself.

Will Jay write a play? Will it be a hit? Will Jacinda sparkle during her next photo "shoot"? Will Neil dump Chrys for Kat? Will Kat get into body piercing? Will Michael be able to hold on until Mom's ranch dressing arrives from St. Louis?

The developments in "The Real World" are mostly the stuff of soap opera, but it's so engaging. And, sometimes, it does get real, as viewers who watched last year's series with Pedro Zamora -- the young man who died from AIDS -- can attest.

In the end, "The Real World" falls somewhere between video voyeurism and the most compelling kind of anthropology. Yes, the twentysomething culture inside that London flat is artificially constructed for a commercial TV show, but it's still illuminating to be taken inside and shown the world through the eyes of the natives.

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