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IMAGE: "Real World Vegas"
Rudy Archuletta  /  AP File
"The Real World's" Las Vegas season was considered one of its most tawdry by many fans.
updated 6/28/2004 6:19:21 PM ET 2004-06-28T22:19:21

On Tuesday, MTV will show the finale of "Real World San Diego," the 14th season of the network's pioneering reality show. MTV's Web site boasts "This season,The Real World’  corrals its most eclectic group of seven strangers yet to shack up in a house set in sunny San Diego."

They got part of that right. San Diego is indeed sunny. But the copywriter who declared this latest cast an "eclectic group" has quite possibly never seen the show since its landmark San Francisco season.

The San Diego cast of "seven strangers" consisted of seven bodies fresh out of the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, all with no work ethic or career aspirations except to drink, fool around, and hit the city's clubs. Not that you could tell what city they were living in — the show has narrowed its focus so much that they could be filming all the seasons on a Burbank lot.

For several years now, the show has been on a downward slide seldom seen on a show that constantly gets renewed. It's easy to forget what a breath of fresh air "The Real World" was back in 1992, its first season.

Where have all the goals gone?
That first season's charms can never be duplicated, of course, because that original cast had no idea what was about to happen to them. Nowadays, thousands apply hoping to become a part of the show they grew up with. They've seen the fame that comes to a "Real World" cast member — Tami from Los Angeles married an NBA millionaire, Kyle from Chicago landed a role on "Days of our Lives." (The show claims it doesn't recruit those who want to act, but an overwhelmingly large number of show alumni end up moving to Los Angeles. Some luck out, but others are reminiscent of the lines Dionne Warwick sang so memorably: "And all the stars / that never were / are parking cars and pumping gas.")

In New York that first season, co-creators Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jon Murray cast seven people who actually had lifelong dreams to pursue in the Big Apple. Show favorite Julie left her home in Alabama and strove to pursue the life of a professional dancer. Becky, Andre and Heather B. were musicians, Norm a painter, Kevin a writer, Eric (Nies, who later rode MTV's coattails to a weird form of fame as host of "The Grind") a model.

That first season deserved the attention it got — it had been decades since PBS explored the lives of the Loud family in "American Family," and the concept of "Real World" felt fresh. But concept is one thing. The original season shone brightest because its cast and its setting worked together. These were seven smart young adults (well, Eric was no brain surgeon) with real goals.

They cared about each other, and they cared about real issues. Julie and Kevin had a frightening argument about racism, Julie befriended and spent the night with a homeless woman, and most of the cast piled in a car and drove to a pro-choice rally in Washington, D.C. Can anyone imagine a recent cast member — say, Las Vegas' Trishelle or San Diego's Brad — even being able to name the secretary of state? If the issue doesn't involve the drinking age, most recent Real Worlders aren't going to give a damn. They can't even get to work on time — a running plotline in the current season involved the cast being unable to make it to their job at such eye-cracking times as 10:30 a.m., even when a cash bonus was dangled in front of them.

West to California
"Real World" started to slide a bit with its second season, Los Angeles, in 1993. Immediately, the cast seemed less ambitious. Country singer Jon had a career going in his hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky, but moving the teenager to L.A. was too much, too soon. Despite an embarrassing TV-movie audition, he would have been better able to pursue his dream had the show been set in Nashville. Other cast members, like accountant Aaron and L.A. deputy marshall Irene (cast solely so her wedding could be shown, I suspect) could have pursued their careers just about anywhere.

And instead of making friends, the house divided quickly into two cliques, with dumpy Beth S. coming off as alternately cruel and unfairly picked on. As opposed to the final New York show, where the roommates dragged their mattresses together for one big slumber party, the L.A. cast dissolved into a fight in one of their final scenes.

The third season, held in a house on San Francisco's famously crooked Lombard Street, is perhaps the most memorable after New York. Bunim and Murray had their casting magic back, casting HIV-positive Pedro, who captured hearts from coast to coast and passed away shortly after his season, and belligerent bike messenger Puck, who was so obnoxious that the roommates voted him out mid-season (shades of the voting off that would later work so well on "Survivor"). Several of the cast members from San Francisco went on to pursue impressive careers — Judd as a cartoonist, Pam (now married to Judd) as a doctor, even Rachel (now married to Sean from the Boston season) as a television host (she auditioned for, and was rejected by, "The View").

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It was in the show's fourth season that things really began to slide. Bunim-Murray decided that a good location for that season would be London. And while the setting was indeed glorious (if rarely seen), very few of the now-international cast could work in Great Britain. And whatever their good qualities, without formal jobs, this cast did not have the desire to get out and explore the famous world capital. So they sat around the house. And sat some more. And watched television. And read the label of a ketchup bottle at 4 a.m., wondering if the ketchup was made in the U.K. or the U.S. It was about as exciting as it sounds.

Take this job and shove it
After the London season, Bunim-Murray decided they needed to shake things up and provide the cast with a group job, making it easier for the cameras to follow them. The jobs have ranged from teen dreams (Arista Records employees in a second NY season, throwing nightclub parties in the tawdry Vegas season) to the somewhat bizarre (working on the Stars and Stripes yacht in San Diego, lifeguarding in Chicago).

The group jobs definitely produced some film-friendly conflict — Melissa throwing a chair during the cast’s cable-access job in New Orleans was played over and over and over again on MTV — but they also changed the tone of the show for the worse.

Ever since the group job was introduced, "Real World" has seemed to cast for conflict and sex appeal rather than intelligence and goals. That original cast would never make it onto the show today. Scholarly Kevin, down-to-earth Heather B., and witty Norm are about as far from today's mold of beefcake and cheesecake as New York is from San Diego.

Someone like Julie or Becky, with careers in various stages of development, would have to put those dreams on hold and instead spend their days swabbing boat decks or putting on sexy outfits for an Angel and Devil party (both actual tasks of recent casts). And if you're a larger person, like Heather B. or London's Sharon, don't even bother to apply.  Ever since the show discovered that they could add a hot tub to the zany, Willy Wonka-like decor of the Real World houses, they've only cast fairly buff men and women who look hot in bikinis.

How to save the show
"Real World" has been criticized for casting to fill slots — the Pretty One, the Punk One, the Gay Guy — and for only choosing an occasional token Asian or African-American cast member. I'm not sure I buy this completely. I think they cast for conflict and looks — for personality, yes, but the kind of personality that works well on a dance floor at 3 a.m., and doesn't look quite so sparkling in the light of day.

This year has already provided some shake-ups for "Real World." Co-creator Mary-Ellis Bunim died of breast cancer in January. Last fall, a non-cast member claimed she was sexually assaulted in the "Real World" San Diego house (her alleged assailant is not a cast member either). And the show has had some trouble with its upcoming season, currently filming in Philadelphia — a city it had announced it was pulling out of due to a clash with the unions, since resolved.

My dream for "Real World" is that the show somehow returns to its roots. I would vote for setting every season in New York, a city that naturally draws ambitious and talented young people from all corners of the U.S. Ditch the hot tub, dump the lame group jobs, and cast not for cup size, but for intelligence. (Hint: Stop holding casting calls at "Coyote Ugly.") Require the applicants to have a goal they plan to pursue in New York, and make them explain how they plan to go about it if chosen. Still cast a diverse group — pick one kid from a Nebraska farm, another from South Central, one who was raised by gay parents, whatever — and trust the people you choose to create both conflict and community.

But the show is unlikely to switch paths at this point. Viewers who were in grade school during the original season have now grown up expecting cheesecake and conflict from "Real World," not career goals and young adults exploring their world and its issues. It's disappointing for older viewers who remember the show's promise, but it's got to be even more disappointing for the cast members. Assuming they don't get that part on "Days of Our Lives," they're in for a very rude awakening once they discover just how unreal life was in "The Real World."

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor

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