A 'Real World' Redemption

Last night saw the finale of the The Real World: San Diego and we're kind of sad to see it go. 

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Last night saw the finale of the The Real World: San Diego -- no, you have not taken a time machine back to the great and frightening days of 2004. There is another Real World: San Diego, or rather there was. As mentioned, it ended last night. And you know what? We're actually kind of sad to see it go.

It's become a universally, and correctly, assumed fact that ever since they started plying the kids with booze around the time of the Hawaii and Las Vegas seasons, The Real World has gone from interesting and unpredictable social experiment to party kid fish tank, simply a show that exists for the grim pleasures of watching the same inevitable hookups, the same wild and drunken mistakes, the same lazy kids complaining about having to do their mandated job. The show became formulaic and bordering on crass. It was still entertaining, depending on the delicate chemistry of the cast, but rarely did it approach anything like the Important Television heights of San Francisco or the thrilling social dynamics of Seattle. But then somehow this past season, in dull San Diego of all places, approached something almost resembling those early days.

Sure there was partying, but it came freighted with darkness and an urge to change. There were hookups, but they emboldened characters and created interesting social friction. Somehow the casting department found a perfectly calibrated mix of youngsters, an interesting crew who oftentimes made for fascinating behavioral analysis.

There was Sam, the boyish lesbian from a military family who was admirably passionate about gay rights, but also did silly young things like claim that she alone was going to open her roommates' eyes to the very idea of gayness, that idea somehow communicated through a "highlighter party" nightclub event. Ah yes, the classic way of progress! The highlighter party.

Sam confounded her Don't Tread On Me flag-flying, gun range-going direct roommate Zach, a blond hulk who had severe good looks and some real bad attitudes about gay people. But really the true, interesting engine of Zach's personality was that he came across as sort of a cold-hearted sociopath, one who played along with social games only in an effort to pass.

Though he did eventually let some emotions show with Ashley, a blonde tube of toothpaste who instantly gravitated toward Zach. It was interesting watching her basically just adopt his personality to get closer to him, eschewing all the gay stuff when, it seemed likely, she would have gamely gone along with it were Zach not there being upset about it. This almost made her the worst cast member?

Certainly not the worst but definitely the most embarrassing was wannabe frat boy Nate, a dorky, oafish guy who did, though, nicely grow a lot throughout the season. He and his roommate Frank, the Middlebury kid struggling with his sexuality and what amounted to a bad binge drinking problem, became very close, opening up Nate's eyes to the realities of sexual difference and all that important stuff.

And there were two other girls, a supposedly ditzy 19-year-old who actually seemed wiser than most of her housemates, and a soulful musician girl from LA who kinda played up her soulful musician thing a bit too much, but was mostly just a sounding board for the more extreme characters. And they were extreme! But they were also believable, and relatable, and they had things to say beyond "Let's get wasted and make out in a diseased hot tub." They did get wasted and make out in a diseased hot tub, but it's not all they did.

Really, it was a successful season of The Real World, a true rarity in about the last ten years, and for that was say well done, MTV. Well cast and well edited and well thought. More of this please on the next season, which is set in... Pittsburgh. Ha, Pittsburgh! It's a great town, but for The Real World? Is Pittsburgh the San Diego of the Northeast? We won't find out until sometime next year, but, if it's anything like this bizarrely enjoyable season, it will be worth the wait.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.