Reality TV Comes to Santa Barbara
“This is the true story of seven strangers who agree to live together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”
And so, with that clever little tag phrase that hasn’t changed in 17 seasons, reality TV began, way back in 1992, tapping into the voyeuristic tendencies of the populace at large via the exhibitionist tendencies of a chosen few — and launching a new genre of television and several “careers” with it. The granddaddy of reality television, MTV’s The Real World, came to town last Saturday to cast for next season, and the peeps lined up, waiting for hours in the chilly rain, hoping to stake a claim on their 15 minutes. Would one of these hopefuls become season 18’s Country-Bumpkin-Turned-Sexual-Adventuress, or Devoted-Boyfriend-Who-(surprise!)-Strays-During-Drunken-Jacuzzi-Debauchery? (So I’ve seen the show once or twice. What can I say? I like to watch.) Only time will tell.
I arrived at Java Jones, where the auditions were being held, and made my way upstairs, where MTV’s two casting directors, Megan Sleeper and Evan Majors, sat, waiting to be wowed by … what, exactly? “We look for people who aren’t afraid to speak their mind,” said Majors, “who are willing to defend their point of view, even if everyone else disagrees with them.” Makes sense: The Real World’s casting directors are tasked with populating a reliably explosive powder keg, and if it takes the likes of the foul and foul-mouthed Puck to do it, so much the better. You have a problem with me sticking my finger up my nose and then into your jar of peanut butter? Well, screw you! Now, that’s quality entertainment.
I watched as the 18- to 24-year-old Real World would-bes were summoned in groups of 10 to the casting couch, and asked to say their name, age, hometown, and “one misconception people have about you.” Answers like “people think I’m stuck-up,” “innocent,” or “a bitch” were a-dime-a-dozen; while doozies like “people think I’m a guy,” or “people think just because I’m gay I want to go shopping with women,” caught the directors’ attention. During one round, when asked, “What’s the biggest issue facing your generation?” a girl who reported that she’s often misperceived as “dumb” said she thinks there’s a lot of bad stuff going on, but nobody cares enough to do anything about it. “So, you think your generation is apathetic?” asked Majors. The question was met with giggles and blank stares; I watched in a combination of disbelief, amusement, and horror as the girl seated closest to me mouthed to the girl next to her, “what’s apathetic?”
After that, I wandered outside. The rain had stopped, and I had to know, why would anyone choose to go on this show, to willingly surrender every possible shred of privacy? (I snagged a blank application form, and, after reading the two pages of legal boilerplate, I can assure you that participants do indeed surrender every shred.) I’m a writer and sometimes-photographer, an observer both by temperament and by trade, so I was dying to understand what motivates these young things who would be observed. In addition to the peanut-butter-caliber debacles, viewers have watched Real Worlders break down emotionally, experiment sexually, and blow chunks blind-drunkenly. What could possibly justify signing on for this level of cable-broadcast humiliation? “I’m graduating soon and don’t know what to do,” said some, or, “I can’t pay the rent.” But most common was “I want to live in a phat [that’s P-H-phat] house with hot roommates!” How could I argue with logic like that? More power to them. As for me, I’ll just be watching.
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