When I found out that the upcoming season of MTV’s The Real World would be set in Cancun, I can’t say I was that surprised. Disappointed? Yes. Annoyed? Absolutely. But surprised? Only enough to warrant a shrug and a “Well, I can’t believe it didn’t happen sooner.”
Premiering tonight, The Real World: Cancun marks the twenty-second season of arguably the first and most influential reality show ever. It’s had some high points, like Pedro from San Francisco who brought attention to LBGT issues and HIV/AIDS; but also its fair share of lows: Drunk dialing, drunk driving, drunk fighting, drunk crying, drunk fucking, etc., from pretty much every season. But as TV executives push reality shows closer and closer to the brink of absolute stupidity (read: I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!), there’s also been an influx of shows—The Amazing Race, The Biggest Loser, and that Susan Boyle one—that don’t rely on the sex, booze, and c-list celebrities that most other producers believe are requisite to make an entertaining reality show. Granted the three shows mentioned above are all competitions with lucrative rewards, but still they don’t thrive on belittling or insulting contestants (for instance, The Amazing Race encourages teamwork and cooperation and The Biggest Loser promotes a healthy lifestyle). Essentially, these shows don’t rely on manufactured or influenced reality, but rather a more natural, though still not entirely, actual reality.
Even The Real World looked like it might be changing: With the previous season set in Brooklyn, MTV advertised the twenty-first season as a sort of return to form. Unlike previous locations such as Hollywood, New Orleans, and Las Vegas, Brooklyn came with a connotation of being, for lack of a better term, more real—sure they lived in some fully renovated loft in Red Hook, but it was still in Brooklyn. Cast member Chet Cannon put it best: “Brooklyn is usually spoken of as more a place where you don’t want to go — I just don’t want to get shot down here.” Yes, this is incredibly ignorant and probably slightly racist, but what else would you expect from a Salt Lake City Mormon, or pretty much anyone else in this country? Hell, Chet was just like Julie from the first season in New York: A small town girl put into a big city and who may or may not have been (but probably was) very racist. Still, the Brooklyn season was supposed to be a deviation from the rule. No longer would The Real World be bogged down by the idiocy that plagued former seasons—this time it was going to be really real.
And to a certain extent it actually worked. Of course there was still drinking and fighting and sex, but the cast finally seemed like actual people, not just traditional role-fillers like “the hot one” or “the drunk one.” So then why the change? Why, after a successful season that actually saw a significant ratings increase, would producer Jon Murray bring the show to Cancun? It seems completely counter-intuitive. Here you have the mother of all reality shows providing viewers with genuine, relatively regular people dealing with relatively genuine problems and living together in a relatively genuine setting. If that’s not an improvement from the Trishelle, Steven and Brynn threesome from the first episode of the Las Vegas season, I don’t know what is.
Taking The Real World to Cancun basically means Jon Murray thinks that his target audience is too idiotic and childish to handle legitimate human interaction. It’s just insulting. The setting offers nothing new, just more of the same Real World from Las Vegas or Hawaii. Even the Cancun cast is pathetic: While last season included the first transgender house mate, an Iraq War veteran who suffers from PTSD and could face redeployment, and a woman who had been abused by both a teacher and her father, this season’s cast boasts not one, but two, Hooters waitresses and an NFL free-agent punter. So instead of offering another season like Brooklyn or possibly something even better, Murray and MTV are basically saying, “Fuck you, we’re going to get eight twenty-somethings completely shit-faced so you can sit stupidly on your couch and watch them make complete asses of themselves.” And the worst part is they’re probably making the right move, in a business sense, anyway.
Or maybe the worst part of all of this is that they finished filming in Cancun right before the swine-flu outbreak. If there could have been one saving grace for this season, just one element that would have made it actually worth watching would have been a deadly pandemic. But I suppose that’s what dreams are for.