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TV preview: Hank Stuever on MTV's 'The Real World: D.C.'

By Hank Stuever
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; C01

If you tossed a manila folder containing headshots of all the 170 or so dipwads, skanks, dorks, studs, punks, layabouts, hipsters, frat boys, princesses, alcoholics, dreamers, androgynes, breasty sweetie-pies, thugs, defensive right-wingers, dilettante liberals, wannabe musicians/actors/rappers/comedians, future spokesmodels, racist hicks and angry minorities who've ever done time in the pop-art confines of 23 seasons (!) of MTV's "The Real World," and let the contents scatter to the floor, and then allowed me 15 minutes or so to sort the cast members by season and city, I might do all right, at first:

Heather B. goes with the primordial 1992 New York season, of course, with Eric, Julie and Norman; Jacinda goes with London; Pedro and Puck will always have San Francisco; and here's that gay/not-gay/gay black dude who slapped that one heavy-lidded white chick in Seattle for calling him gay. But I'd have to give up around 2000 or so (Colin goes with Hawaii? Mormon Girl was New Orleans?), as my addled Gen-X brain clouds over like a badly filtrated "Real World" Jacuzzi.

As these young hatchlings embarrassed themselves while fitfully cohabiting in an Ikea-furnished bacchanal, my interest (and perhaps yours) has waned in direct proportion to the aging process, which is the natural course of things.

But there was always one nagging question left unanswered as the show repeated its formula into oblivion: Why not Washington, D.C.?

The moaning about this deliberate oversight went on for years. What was so uncool about Washington for MTV to have ignored us all this while -- especially at the height of Monicagate or "The West Wing" or the post-9/11 Code Orange gloom? (There were reasons! For a long time, it was believed by some that Metro's ban on film crews in the subway system was to blame.) The excuses rarely passed scrutiny, and the ardor still burned: Can we please have a "Real World?"

At long last, the answer is here: Yes, we can.

Washington is not too boring for "The Real World," but times have changed. Now it turns out to be the other way around: "The Real World" is too boring for Washington.

Or anyplace else. The show is moribund, calcified and predictably dull -- so much so that it's hard to believe there are still young people who will volunteer for this duty. Being on "The Real World" now looks remarkably old-fashioned, like attending some ancient cotillion, or meeting the other Archies down at the malt shop.

"I'm Ashley," says a bubbly, Obama-obsessed, raven-haired 22-year-old Californian, waiting at the top of the escalator on the terminal level of Reagan National Airport in the opening seconds of "The Real World: D.C.," which premieres Wednesday night on MTV after much too much anticipation and local gossip during last summer's taping. (And already there's a believability problem: What dumb-dumb gets her luggage down in Arrivals and then climbs two more levels back up to Departures, unless she's part of a giant contrivance known as a reality show?)

"I'm Mike," says a muscle-bound cardboard Adonis, rising like a green-eyed vision on the escalator, having just explained to us in his "audition video" that he lives in a "normal" Colorado suburb, works for a rental-car company, and likes to play football and go to church.

They hug hello. (They hug because kids today -- Generation Coddled -- always hug first and then seek meaningfulness later.)

"He's cute," Ashley confides.

(He's GAY! screams what remains of "The Real World's" loyal audience, in unison. No, no, no -- he's bi. Sorry for the spoiler, such as it is.)

Ashley and Mike taxi off to a red-brick, Wardman-style manse at 20th and S streets NW, which they are quite impressed with, but which, from the outside, screams "defunct Freedonian embassy" to the rest of us. Inside, it is explosively tricked out in Lovesac beanbags, Old Glory bunting, a "confessional" video room made to look like the White House press room and an Internet nook that resembles the Oval Office.

Ashley and Mike flirtatiously decide to bunk together in the "Lincoln" bedroom (Warholian silkscreen of Abe) and are soon joined by Callie, a 21-year-old vegan Republican from Texas, who wanders around Dupont Circle baffled by a street map. (It's strange how the mind immediately asks "Where's her GPS?" and yet simultaneously longs for a time when nobody on "The Real World" even had a cellphone.) "I'll just keep going in circles," Callie twangs, "and pretty soon I have to find it." (She finds it, and claims a bed under the soothing visage of Ronald Reagan.)

Next comes Emily, a 20-year-old Missourian who grew up in a strict fundamentalist "cult" (her word) and is now voraciously tasting the wild life of skydiving and nose piercings and sexy tank tops and reality TV. Panting after her is Andrew, 21, from Denver, the show's designated doofus horndog and instant social irritant. "Top things I want to do in D.C., in this order," he says. "One, try to get laid. Two, show off my artistic abilities."

After him comes Erika, 21, a Chicago musician enamored of her own 1990s sense of being an alterna-chick. "Everything that stresses me/I love the way it sets me free," she sings in one of her coffeehouse ballads, to what seems to be the tune of Phoebe Buffay's timeless "Smelly Cat" from "Friends." In the same cab comes Josh, 23, a South Philly tough boy who also aspires to be a musician.

"I'm waiting for the really hot black guy with muscles to walk in," Ashley announces.

She's young enough to have never known life without "The Real World" on MTV, and can therefore predict exactly what happens next: A really hot black guy with muscles walks in. He is Ty, 22, from Baltimore. It's as if these people have been harvested in a lab somewhere. The circle is complete; not a one of them has broken any mold; the non-adventure may now begin.

After mocking Andrew for being a virgin (against his protestations to the contrary), our group of strangers takes to the streets of Washington in search of exotic wonders, which leads them all of a few hundred feet to the Buca di Beppo on Connecticut Avenue.

Whereupon, in their first real conversation, they all get mad at the black guy. (Just like they did back in the day! Like always. Before it is at last canceled, would "The Real World" just once consider a house full of seven black people and one white person, preferably an Orthodox Jew?)

Over the pasta, the girls want to know everyone's sexual history, and everyone supplies it.

Mike the football stud tells everyone he's bisexual.

And because nobody seems to really care, Mike elaborates to a fellow roomie the next morning: "I want it to be seen just as a characteristic that I have," he says, with some naive hope that his story line will be assembled differently in the editing room. "Yeah, I like to snowboard, and yeah, I have a different sexuality. I want to be seen as a person and not . . . 'There's Mike, the bisexual guy.' That's why I don't like to tell a lot of people."

That's right: He doesn't like to tell a lot of people. So of course, the surest path to privacy is talking about it on your first episode of "The Real World." Twenty-three seasons and we haven't progressed a step. (Once more, Callie: I'll just keep going in circles, and pretty soon I have to find it.)

Which is not to say that the show is disastrously dull. One thing "The Real World: D.C." has going for it is a seductive nostalgia for anyone who was ever young and clueless in the capital city and lived in a group house and screwed around.

And, perhaps inspired by a sense of Obamaesque optimism, "The Real World's" producers seem to have chosen kids with at least some remaining brain cells, some sense of ambition and plans. It barely recalls the series's earlier days -- when the San Francisco cast featured a doctor doing her residency, a cartoonist getting editorial work and a patron saint of HIV activism -- but it remains to be seen what the residents of 20th and S managed to accomplish with their time here. A glimpse at the upcoming season seems to immediately devolve into sex, boozy fights, screaming and the summoning of ambulances. So if you're expecting altruistic change agents, don't hold your breath.

Frankly, there's no guessing to be done here. Thanks to an insipid amount of both mainstream and citizen reportage that occurred during "The Real World's" time in D.C., the Web can tell you just about everything these kids did. That's the bitter cruelty of today's endless cinema verite: Picked to live in a house and have their lives taped, as the show's opening still goes, but not before they've already been spied on, gawked at, blogged about and tweeted to death. By the time it's on, it's off.

The Real World: D.C., (one-hour) premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on MTV.

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