Real World: Boston #11: Bad volunteers, karma police

llcoolj

In the show’s fifth season, the producers of The Real World gave the housemates something they had never had before (on the show, at least): a job. Miami’s season-long assignment was to start up a business with $50,000, which they failed to do (predictably, drama resulted anyway). Producers set their sights lower in Boston, with the housemates assigned to the East Boston Social Center as volunteers with an after-school program.

Later seasons would see casts work in media (at a Seattle radio station, New Orleans public access TV) and low-level retail (a Hawaiian apparel store, a San Diego boating company), but it would be a while until they worked with children again (they helped some inner-city kids on a mural in Chicago in season 11 and on Outward Bound in season 18).

That’s no doubt because of the trials and tribulations of Boston, which made producers (and youth advocates) weary of introducing children to The Real World. Halfway through their time with the program, housemates had dated parents, used the center as an excuse for a trip to Puerto Rico, and talked about their sex lives (Their mentorship on homosexuality was no doubt positive but still raised concerns). Amazingly, this wasn’t even rock bottom for them.

The Center plans an overnight ski trip to Mount Snow, about 90 minutes away in Vermont. Center director Anthony takes each housemate aside individually to make it “absolutely, crystal clear” that they need to be with the children at all times. Inevitably, Sean and Jason disobey this simple standard: bored by the basic instruction, they ditch the kids to ski and snowboard by themselves. Genesis, after predicting “total chaos,” uses the trip to get away from everyone and be by herself. When confronted by Anthony, Sean has lame lame justifications for his selfish behavior and doesn’t apologize.

skiing

Back in Boston, Anthony surveys half of the kids and the picture of the volunteers isn’t pretty. Several kids say they never listen to them; when asked what they like best about the volunteers, one says “I like when they’re not yelling.” It’s a wake-up call for Jason, who says they’re getting more credit than they deserve and have not pulled their weight at all. Montana, of course, takes it personal and gets defensive; she asks for personal feedback from Anthony because it’s so hard for her to believe that she’s not getting anything right.

Anthony sits her down and lays it out: she knows her stuff and, for the most part, she’s pleasant. But she’s also a busy-body, melodramatic and hyper-defensive. None of this is untrue, and Montana takes it as well as expected, saying that asking for feedback didn’t give him an “open invitation” to insult her. “The more criticism I get,” she confesses, “the more I want to say ‘fuck you’.”

Thinking that the housemates have learned their lessons, Anthony enlists them to chaperone a select group of kids at the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future in Philadelphia, which features all the living presidents along with Oprah, Colin Powell and other notables. They approach this with the usual blasé attitude: Sean wants to know if the lodging will have a hot tub, while Elka and Jason beg-off entirely. Again, the expectation is that everyone will stay with their assigned children for the entire time. Simple enough, right? To quote The Simpsons, what could possib-lie go wrong?

Repeated troublemakers Sean and Syrus skip out to hang with (and, as suggested by editing, hook-up with) some college kids. The next morning, they’re nowhere to be found (it’s the pre-cell phone era) and the group heads to the Summit without them. “If they don’t want to be a part of our team, they shouldn’t be with us,” says Anthony. When they finally show up, they end up sleeping during the speeches, as does Montana.

sleep

Things go from bad to worse at the Taste of Philadelphia. Montana and Sean drink wine in front of the children, a fact which quickly makes it back to Anthony. When they’re back in Boston, he suspends them and Syrus, but won’t tell them why until he has all the facts. Syrus figures it out, but he’s in the clear because he wasn’t drinking at the event (a brief moment of responsible behavior!).

Sean gets reprimanded yet again and realizes he needs to turn it around in the last five weeks of volunteering. Montana’s punishment is harsher: she wasn’t watching and two 11-year-old kids tried wine. “It blows my mind that they tasted alcohol in our care,” says Anthony, flabbergasted. “I could lose my license for that.” She’s kept on suspension while Anthony figures out his next steps, and she can only focus on how much it would “suck” to get fired for the first time; she feels like the “worst person in the world” but if it’s unclear if she means for endangering her job or for endangering the kids.

When rewatching these episodes, I thought I had misremembered the alcohol incident: I could have sworn that Montana gave the kids a sip of wine. My memory was soon vindicated: Anthony questioned both kids, separately and repeatedly, and they both said that they begged for a sip of wine and Montana gave in. Montana maintains her innocence, but her story has changed: she says they asked for wine, but she said no. She’s terminated immediately, inevitably running into the kids as she sees them for what she thinks is the last time, unable to tell them that she won’t be back.

Montana spends the next few days moping around and reveling in her depression, but she has to get it together soon: she needs 20 hours a week to not be in breach of her Real World contract. Not only that, but in a grand bit of irony, the housemates are discussing whether or not she should be able to live in the house since she got fired — the position she held (vocally!) when Syrus got in trouble for seeing one of the kid’s mothers.

wine

Kameelah thinks Montana should practice what she preached, and wonders aloud to Jason if she should throw Montana’s previous stance back in her face, to let her know that she knows what kind of person she is, that “this type of shadiness is why I stopped talking to you four months ago.” Jason, as he has previously, stays neutral, although he does joke that he’ll “get some popcorn” for the confrontation. That’s definitely what Kameelah doesn’t want, and she decides not to say anything, relying on the Golden Rule for once.

Syrus seems to find the role reversal humorous: “Karma’s a bitch ain’t she? ‘Cause she came back harder than a motherfucker.” Still, he doesn’t want to make a move on her (they’ve grown closer in the weeks since their confrontations) and neither does her closest friend in the house, Sean. However, that doesn’t prevent them from having some fun at her expense, pretending that the housemates are serious about making her leave. They can’t hold it for very long, bursting out laughing. “That was mean but very well executed,” Montana admits.

Montana hopes to volunteer elsewhere so that she can redeem herself. After some frustrating games of phone tag, cancelled appointments and bad fits (her squeamishness around blood makes the Red Cross a no-go), she finally connects with Shelter, Inc., an organization that helps get the homeless back on their feet. She picks up supplies, cooks meals and makes arrangements for haircuts; while she misses the kids, she says it’s a better fit. “Maybe I was fired for a reason,” she says, a metaphysical bit of sour grapes justification for the whole thing. Even more ridiculously, she says that she’s made a difference at the shelter “if only with her presence” — as if having a twentysomething narcissist around is all that homeless people need to succeed!

With only a month to go, everyone feels bad that they haven’t done anything of note at Center. The lone exception is Kameelah, who has been the only one to take it seriously, repainting the facilities and finessing a meeting with LL Cool J on the Philadelphia trip. The evalutations, Montana’s firing and the inevitable end of their time at the Center eventually gets the group to take their volunteering seriously.

logpool

Sean says he doesn’t want to be a “total turdball” anymore and pushes back on Syrus’ lame excuses for not giving his all. He pulls out a dollar bill, dramatically telling him to “Quit. passing. the buck.” Sean takes Syrus and Jason with him on a roadtrip to Maine to pick up a log for a log-rolling program (and for some male-bonding over axe-throwing and air-guitaring). The kids dig log-rolling and he feels good that he’s finally making an impact. The feeling is contagious: Syrus finally starts his basketball program when he realizes that the point of volunteering isn’t to give him a challenge, but to help others however he can.

Elka wants to go out with a bang, helping the kids to do a play (“Country Mouse and City Mouse: A True Story,” an appropriate pick for the house’s true country mouse) at the final assembly. Jason, perhaps realizing that the model car kits weren’t enough, decides to share his true passion with the kids: writing. He gives them books and journals and gets them to write diaries and stories; when one of his kids reads at the assembly, he “doesn’t feel like a lazy butthole anymore.”

“What started off as very rocky,” Anthony says at the assembly, “is becoming very emotional, and we will miss every single one of you guys.” The kids make a surprise appearance at the firehouse, waking them up with a performance of ‘Put a Little Love in our Heart’. Even Genesis, who struggled to make connections at the Center, gets emotional; so does Syrus, who breaks down during his confessional. “The next few days are going to be tough for all of us,” Anthony admits.

While the housemates eventually made a difference at the Center, I can’t imagine that Anthony would have allowed them to volunteer if he knew what he was in for; it often seemed that he had to reprimand the housemates more than the children. It seems that the producers of The Real World learned a similar lesson, quickly realizing that drama would happen whether their casts were volunteering with children or working at the Palms in Vegas, so why bother making a difference?

kidshouse

Best Musical Moments: Once again, Third Eye Blind continued their soundtrack dominance (‘How’s It Gonna Be’), with additional songs I didn’t like by bands I didn’t like (Smash Mouth’s ‘Walking on the Sun’) and songs I didn’t like by bands I loved (Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Thirty-Three’). But the winner has to be Radiohead’s ‘Karma Police’ for Montana’s date with irony.

Real World: Boston #10: “It’s difficult to be a 19-year-old virgin in the 1990s”

walter-poster

Episode #17 – “Honor Thy Father And Mother” – October 29, 1997
Episode #18 – “Leather Pants In Virgin Territory” – November 5, 1997
Episode #19 – “The English Rocker, the American Rapper, and the Renegade Redhead” – November 12, 1997

While several of the housemates dealt with long-distance relationships (with varying levels of success), no one is dealing with a longer-distance relationship with Elka. Her boyfriend Walter is an Irish musician with a slight resemblance to Skeet Ulrich who lives in London; the pair met in Greece on holiday and, apart from their week together, have built their relationship over the phone. (The poster that hangs over her bed is promo for his band Bazaar’s lone album, which — alas — isn’t available on the internet.)

Elka says it’s the closest she’s ever felt to love, but not everyone is so sure. Jason “seriously” doubts that he’ll visit her in Boston, while Sean tries unsuccessfully to convince her to date someone in town. When Montana describes her relationship with Vaj as “the most honest” of anyone in the house, she adds, “No, your relationship with Walter counts,” her words dripping with sarcasm.

Her father is generally dismissive of the relationship, but he does offer to pay for half of Walter’s trip to Boston. Walter declines the offer, as he’s going to try his best to make it over on what we can only assume are a struggling artist’s wages. As she waits for Walter to decide if and when he’s going to visit, she plays darts like she’s trying to kill the dartboard. Genesis’s friend Adam is, as always, the voice of reason, telling her that artists get focused on their own work and she shouldn’t be worried that he hasn’t given her an answer either way. When Walter calls to tell her he’s going to visit, she literally jumps for joy. Adam storms over and mock-lectures Walter, “You know she’s been stressing about this all week?”

eyebrow

But before Walter does, her father and brother Brian visit Boston. Elka’s father is conservative and domineering; even though she’s 19, he still controls her finances and she’s weary of disobeying him. His issues run from the personal (he flat out says “no” when she says she wants to get her eyebrow or nose pierced) to the interpersonal. She tells him she’s accepting of Genesis and would go to a gay club if it makes her happy, but he gives her a gay panic guilt trip: “What happens if you like it?”

Walter’s visit looms large. Elka knows that her father wouldn’t approve of him staying in her bed, but admits it would be ridiculous if he crosses the Atlantic and then sleeps on the couch or in a hotel. While she waits for his visit, she dips her toe in the waters of independence, getting her eyebrow pierced. She says she will always respect and honor her father, but she knows she’s old enough to make her own decisions.

Elka realizes that her father is “worried, nervous and sad” that she’s growing up, especially with the death of her mother, who died from cancer just months before she came to Boston; it’s a loss that she’s still processing, obviously. Elka describes her mother as a wonderful woman who touched lives, and her passing has left her family scrambling to assume her roles: Elka’s father has struggled to be “Mr. Mom,” the one she confides in, especially with regards to relationships, and Elka has tried to be a supportive, protective figure for both her father and her brother.

at-show

Elka goes back to Brownsville to attend a “style show” dedicated to her mother. She didn’t want to go because she knew it was going to be painful, but didn’t want to look selfish. Plus, she realizes she can’t stay away from home forever. The show goes well and it allows her to honor her mother’s memory and connect with her father, as she continues to chip away at his conservative resistance towards her relationship with Walter. Despite his objections, her mother’s death has put everything in perspective. “I have to start living life for Elka.”

Finally, Walter arrives, in all his long-haired, leathered-panted glory. He charms the housemates the same way he has charmed Elka, making jokes about how it’s “tough riding a Virgin for nine hours.” They might be opposites, but the cliché holds true. The pair spend the days holding hands, making out and picniking; they even go to church. “There was no way I could say goodbye after that,” Elka admits, as Walter crashes on the couch.

Then the inevitable happens: they hook up on the pool table and in the adjacent bed. Montana and Genesis watch on the monitors (again, with the freaking monitors…) but Jason goes down and puts a sock on the camera. Even if he has his doubts about Walter, he thinks they deserve a little privacy.

Eventually, Walter must return to London; Elka wonder why they’re always saying good bye. Walter has plans to visit and work in Vegas, and Elka tells her father that she wants to visit him. Again, he says no outright, because that wouldn’t be “acceptable behavior.” Elka says that she has “all this pressure to be somebody” while in Boston, from her father and her community in Brownsville, but ultimately she has to be true to herself. “I’m going to follow my heart on this one and do what I think is right.”

in-bed

Best Musical Moments: There were a few obvious musical cues over the course of these episodes: Puffy and Faith Evans’ ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ during the tribute to Elka’s mother, Robyn’s ‘Show Me Love’ for the Elka-Walter love montage, and LeAnn Rimes’ chart-dominating ‘How Do I Live?’ for their tearful goodbyes.

But no song is more evocative of the era than The Prodigy’s ‘Breathe’, which plays as Elka attacks the dartboard. It was also one of the songs that ignited my interest in “alternative” music. I’m not sure if I heard it on The Buzz 103.1 or saw the video on MTV (probably the latter), but I know The Fat of the Land was among the CDs I would get for my 14th birthday, next to Korn’s Follow the Leader and Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, because I was finally allowed to own CDs with Parental Advisory stickers. Talk about conservative parents…

Real World: Boston #9: 200 Simple Rules for Dating Kameelah

list

Episode #15 – “Noises & Rumors” – October 15, 1997

For all the iconic Real World moments that have lived on in the collective consciousness, there’s one from Boston that I didn’t know had found a second life: Kameelah’s list, the scroll of 200-plus requirements for anyone who wants to date her, better known as a Kameelah-Ass List on the OkayPlayer boards and in certain corners of Black Twitter.

The numbered list ranges from the simple (sings to me, teaches me sports, financially stable) to the specific (weight more than 190 pounds, name must have more than one syllable) to the bizarre (has never entertained worshipping the devil). As established, Kameelah has a problem with men, having been abused, abandoned and otherwise mistreated by the men in her life. In that way, the list is a defense mechanism — make it hard enough to date someone, and you don’t risk getting hurt by them — and it works. “Maybe there’s not a mister right,” Montana advises, “but maybe there’s a mister good-enough.”

Kameelah finds some Misters Good Enough when hanging out with local Alpha Phi Alpha members. She’s finally in her element, discussing the issues of the day (ebonics etc) and going to step shows, but she admits that it’s “intimidating”: she’s actually meeting men who fulfill her requirements, something she thought would never happen. She goes on a few dates with the nerdy, overeager Aaron, but cuts it off because he fails two rules: he can’t take a hint and he can’t dance.

kam-alpha2

Her next suitor is Doug, an Alpha who’s studying mechanical engineering. “He’s a cool cat,” she says, a “very intelligent brother.” Unfortunately, he fails rule #147: have no children. It’s a red flag, because even though he takes responsibility for his daughter, Kameelah is worried about “a mother lurking” somewhere. Even if the situation gives her pause, she’s still disappointed when she doesn’t meet his daughter at Doug’s step show. “Maybe we’ll have to do a little give and take,” she says. “He’s a keeper.”

Doug having a child is not the only problem. Kameelah hears that he was “kicking it” with another girl, and when she repeatedly gives him chances to tell the truth of what happened, he drops the ball. He says nothing romantic or sexual happened, but admits that they “wrestled.” That isn’t enough for Kameelah. “I’m sitting here waiting for you to tell me the truth,” she tells him over the phone, adding before hanging up, “You’re lying to me and you disgust me right now.”

Kameelah reiterates how she feels about most men: they’re inconsistent and inconsiderate, and that often leaves her playing the fool; she doesn’t like the loss of control. “When I take the time to let someone in, I don’t expect you to trash it,” she tells Jason. “All the men I’ve met have just trashed it.” He notes that it’s awful getting cheated on. (At this point, Jason and Timber’s co-dependent relationship has hit the rocks: Timber “stayed with” someone while on a coke binge, and Jason hooked up at a party to balance the scales.)

kam-doug

The next time she sees Doug, he maintains that she’s the only person he’s been seeing, and notes that they’ve stayed away from girlfriend-boyfriend tags because of the inevitable end of her time in Boston. She believes him in the end, saying that it’s not in his nature to be shady and recognizing how sorry he was about the whole thing. They retire to her bedroom and Sean and Elka hear some “strange sounds,” which scandalizes the two most conservative members of the house.

While Elka was quick to condemn Kameelah and Genesis for talking about homosexuality with the kids, she is less concerned with speaking about Kameelah’s supposed sex life in front of them. She’s convinced that Kameelah and Doug had sex, and she tells Montana about the “moaning and groaning, bumping and grinding” — all within earshot of the kids! Kameelah maintains she didn’t have sexual intercourse (pre-dating President Clinton’s “sexual relations” presser by over a year), and tells her to mind her own business.

Sean, Montana and a holier-than-thou Elka keep talking about what happened as Kameelah gets increasingly pissed, telling Elka that she will knock her out if she doesn’t stop. At this point, voices are raised and the other staffers kick them out of the center to cool off. Kameelah thinks this is Elka’s payback for her “outing” her as a smoker; Elka thinks Kameelah was dishing out all her frustration towards her at once.

kam-center

When they return to the Center the next day, Anthony wants to know what was said. That’s good, because viewers have been screaming “why are they having this conversation in front of children!?” for the entire episode. The only thing that Elka remembers is Kameelah threatening to knock her out, somehow forgetting the non-stop gossiping that preceded the threat. This is an appearance of the Angry Black Woman trope (different from the Angry Black Man one), as Elka’s conservative upbringing again rears its ugly head. Clearly, Kameelah was not going to get violent — she was frustrated that everyone was speculating about her sex life — but because of prejudice (or in an attempt to avoid blame), that’s the only thing that Elka remembers.

Anthony says the obvious: “Melodramatic outbursts can’t happen here.” He tells a remorseful Sean and Elka that he was going to suspend them; instead, he gives them a reprieve, with their next incident resulting in immediate termination. When he talks to Kameelah, he says that she’s the only one of the housemates committed to the kids (she’s been working to repaint the community center to make it bright and more stimulating) and that it’d be a shame to lose her over “petty” arguments; she says the beef is squashed.

The incident leads to some soul searching. Kameelah tells Genesis that her goal was to stay true to herself no matter what, taking positive things from the others and leaving everything else. She contrasts herself to Elka, whose goody-two-shoes facade has started to fall, and wonders if she’s done a 180 as well; Genesis says she has kept the same values, opinions and attitudes. Kameelah says she doesn’t “pretend to be holier than thou,” although how she’s treated some of the other roommates (especially Syrus) would contradict that. In her confessional, Elka wonders who Kameelah thinks she is. “Everyone has to fit this mold — she’s way too demanding.”

Elka and Kameelah might be in conflict now, but it’s not because they’re different — it’s because they’re so similar. They both have high standards for everyone: Elka’s religious conservatism and Kameelah’s pragmatic approach to personal responsibility may be miles apart, but they are both demanding and often holier-than-thou. High standards aren’t a bad thing, but having them isn’t always pretty, especially when they’re thrown back at you.

kam-subway

Best Kameelah moments: On the subway, Kameelah steps up against street harassment, confronting a guy who hollers at her: “That is so rude, why do you guys do that?” she asks. “Tell all your friends, ‘psst psst’ is not how you attract a woman.” Later, when Sean gets hives, she tells him a story about a girl who got herpes simplex from eating Chinese food that had been ejaculated on by three guys — the type of urban legends we all were trading in our teens.

Best musical moments: Kameelah’s club visits and private time with Doug are soundtracked by neo soul of the era: D’Angelo’s ‘Lady’ and 702’s ‘Get It Together’, respectively. Meanwhile, Doug steps to DJ Kool’s ‘Let Me Clear My Throat’, a ‘90s jam that still kills.

Real World: Boston #8: No one cares about Road Rules

rr

As I’ve been working on this project, I’ve asked anyone who will listen to name their favorite season of The Real World. The answers have included the usual suspects, mostly Seattle with a handful of surrounding seasons, including New Orleans and Boston (I’d hope so!). What I haven’t asked is for people’s favorite season of Road Rules, and I can’t imagine I’d get any answers, either, because, of the two, Road Rules is clearly the inferior show.

Road Rules launched in 1995 with the basic premise of Real World on an RV, and like most spin-offs, it pales in comparison to the original. Real World seasons are iconic, with memorable “characters” and infamous moments; Road Rules seasons are a series of reality show challenges. Arguably, the show is better known as a component part of The Challenge (fka Road Rules: All Stars and Real World/Road Rules Challenge), a competition-based show that seemingly was created to piggyback off the success of Survivor.

While the shows briefly crossed-over in 1996 (the second season cast posed as housekeepers and successfully stole the eight-ball off Miami’s pool table), the first foray into a Challenge-styled competition came — you guessed it — in 1997.

pr-kids

At the after-school program, the Boston housemates are told that they’ll be setting up a video pen-pal program — in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Previous seasons had featured such trips, but perhaps none with logic so specious. Kameelah, Genesis and Montana react like they won the Showcase Showdown; spoiled little Elka pouts about not going to Europe, where she’s be able to visit her boyfriend. Their goals are simple: Syrus is hoping for women, nice weather and cheap rum; Genesis wants a tan; Kameelah hopes for no arguments; and Montana somewhat facetiously wishes for a cockfight.

The housemates decamp to San Juan’s Gallery Inn, which is covered in death-mask-like sculptures; Jason describes the place as “Salvador Dali’s cottage in the woods.” The trip is the first time everyone had been out of the firehouse together, and the bonding starts at a club, and it goes better than their time at the Puerto Rican after-school program, because only Kameelah and Elka speak Spanish. Still, with their CU-SeeMe set up, the housemates can get back to vacation.

Montana goes on a date, Jason’s freestyle poetry is met by Syrus’ surprise talent for spitting dancehall flows; the group goes on a boat ride to the party beach and unwind with a dinner party. While Montana, Sean and Kameelah discuss affirmative action, Genesis excuses herself; again, she feels stupid when the group has these conversations. “I think you’re being far too intense, all of you,” offers Jan, the innkeeper. Montana explains that they’ve all had a lot happen to them, but Jan isn’t buying it. “Yeah, but life keeps going on — you just keep doing it.” Sage advice that the barely-adult housemates don’t quite heed.

dinner

However, Real World: Boston isn’t the only MTV crew in Puerto Rico: the cast of Road Rules: Islands is there as well. Coincidentally, I actually remember this cast because one of them, Vince, is from my hometown, Boca Raton. At this point, Boca was best known in pop culture as the home of Jerry’s parents on Seinfeld; it would be about five years before Boca’s Chris Carrabba would become an emo demi-god. Vince getting chosen for the show was covered in the local paper (the one I’d write for in high school), and I’m sure I watched because of the local connection. It wouldn’t be until high school that Vince’s background (private school, gated community in Boca’s city limits) would cause me to see him as an adversarial Other (public school, “across the tracks” in West Boca).

But aside from the hometown connection, I don’t remember much about this season of Road Rules, or even what would happen next. In the two-episode Real World – Road Rules Challenge crossover, the Road Rules crew are given dossiers about their Boston counterparts: Kameelah is “not shy about telling it as she sees it;” Montana is an “unabashed, unshaven feminist;” Jason is (hilariously) equal parts Kerouac, Beck and Bukowski with an eyeliner pencil. They scribble some trash talk on an invitation to a competition and leave it with the Inn before Boston arrives (like a comic book crossover, exactly when this “event” takes place in continuity is unclear).

When the housemates get the message with the Road Rules logo, the girls freak out like they did when they found out about the trip. They ponder the meanings of the pun-heavy trash-talk; Sean assumes “some gay guy” is behind a joke about “rolling his log.” The next day, the housemates head to the woods to meet Road Rules: apart from Vince, there’s the cocky Jake, the cast pariah Oscar, and Kalle and Erika, whose main characterizations (in these episodes, at least) are that one is blonde and one is brunette.

challenge

At this point in Road Rules, competitions provide the cast’s only way of making money for living expenses; they have $14 to their names and need a win badly. But they’re confident at their chances: they’ve been on the road and sea, while the housemates have had the relatively cushy Real World experience. “What happens when you pick seven strangers, put them in a house, and they make total and complete assholes out of themselves,” jokes Vince.

Over two episodes, the teams compete in a series of team-building physical challenges; the first four games are worth $50 a pop, with $100 for the final game. With their seven people to Road Rules’ five, two Real Worlders will be randomly removed from each game for a little extra drama. The Road Rulers are mostly worried about college basketballer Syrus, who is shown in slo-mo with bigfoot sound effects (problematic!). Syrus knows what’s expected of him, pushing himself to the point of injury: he underestimates a jump and busts his shin open, but bandages it and continues.

Real World jumps to a 3-0 lead; it appears that their forced-bonding is starting to pay-off. Meanwhile, the crews start to mingle. The Road Rulers are whining about needing the money; Jake is blathering on about love, affirmation and group sex with the Real World women, while Oscar and Syrus bond over their respective outcast statuses. (According to a bit of “trivia” on Wiki, the cast asked producers to replace Oscar with someone they liked, but because he hadn’t actually done anything wrong, “production chastised the cast for their negative and isolating attitude.”)

jump

Road Rules wins the final two events, tying in money but losing in points. Their “severe humiliation” for the latter is giving pedicures to the housemates. True to their established roles, the chauvinistic Oscar refuses to give Montana a pedicure (as if giving a man one would be better for him?), and Montana takes offense, rubbing mud in his face before the two wrestle with each other.

After the challenge, Syrus attends to his leg wound and the two crews meet at a club. Sean hits it off with Erika, who wonders “When’s the next time I’ll be in Puerto Rico partying with the Real World?” Apparently, “I’m on the Real World” does work as a pick-up line, even to other reality show-ers. The morning after, Sean gets teased for hooking up with Erika. Jason won’t confirm or deny the “rumors” of what happened, while Montana jokes that the two “macked down” at the bar and that Sean had Erika up against the wall in the bathroom. For his part, Sean is ever the gentlemen, coyly no-commenting the situation.

Whatever actually happened between Sean and Erika aside, it wouldn’t be Sean’s last romantic encounter on a Road Rules spin-off. The next year, he’d be a part of the inaugural Road Rules: All Stars cast, alongside Eric from New York, Jon from Los Angeles, Cynthia from Miami, and Rachel from San Francisco — who is now his wife and mother of their seven (!) children. But that wouldn’t be for another couple of years. After this episode, Real World returns to Boston, and Road Rules continues down the road to obscurity.

hookup

Best Music: Third Eye Blind deep cut ‘London’ soundtracks the housemates’ boat ride. Coincidentally, a Third Eye Blind song is at the center of my only Road Rules memory. In the show’s next season, the crew must film an anti-suicide PSA with the band’s ‘Jumper’ as the soundtrack. I can’t hear the song without thinking of that episode, which is streaming in full on YouTube (if only Real World was as accessible!).

It wasn’t just MTV shows: Third Eye Blind seemed to be the pop soundtrack for the late ‘90s; despite peaking at #25, the band’s self-titled debut spent two years on the charts and spawned five singles. Obviously, the meth-addled ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ was everywhere. ‘London’, along with ‘Graduate’, appear in the nostalgic essential Can’t Hardly Wait, and I imagine ‘How’s It Going To Be’ popped up somewhere. I never would have copped to liking them (way to pop at the time), but their music has definitely aged better than some of the shit I was listening to back then.

Real World: Boston #7: “The only way to get your mind off a man is with another man.”

montana-bed

Episode 12 – “Sweet Tarts And Sour Hearts” – September 24, 1997
Episode 13 – “No Man Is An Island” – October 1, 1997
Episode 14 – “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” – October 8, 1997

Despite The Real World joking about Montana’s “Love Geometry,” it was clear — almost from the first moment we saw them together — that Montana and Vaj’s relationship would not be fun and games. I maintain that a long-distance, seeing-other-people arrangement is difficult under normal circumstances and nearly impossible in The Real World, and by the midpoint of the season, Montana and Vaj’s delicate balancing act falls apart.

I’ve generally been more favorable towards Montana than Vaj, but her behavior eventually starts to tip the balance. She wants the best of all worlds: she has asked for Vaj to give her space to live her life and let her see other people without consequence, but says she’ll stop if he asks — an unwinnable position for Vaj, who would then be asking her to sacrifice her independence. She berates him for not being there for Valentine’s Day, but when he offers to visit, she says she already has plans (with Matt). It’s a cat-and-mouse game.

It’s not just frustrating for Vaj: the housemates aren’t sympathetic to the game she’s playing, either. Jason confesses that she has to “make a damn decision.” Kameelah tells her that she could be seen as “hoe-ish” depending on how far her relationship with Matt is going, and Sean — ever the manchild — thinks its fine as long as “boobies and cooter” aren’t involved.

When Vaj visits, the tension is palpable. Montana still wants him to keep his visit short and sweet, and Vaj jokes, “I could go now if you want.” Their day-after-Valentine’s date is a night at a hotel with a “$7 bottle of Champale,” during which Vaj gives Montana a painting that is “very romantic and at the same time totally gruesome.” The kicker is that the painting is only halfway finished because when Vaj painted it, his “soul was only halfway full.” Montana thinks that — and the painting’s “eternal, intense, burning love” inscription — is “a lot of pressure to put on a person.” She refuses to promise that they’ll be together again. “Make me no promises, tell me no lies.”

painting

Vaj doesn’t want any lies, but he also wants to remain as blissfully ignorant as possible. When Genesis’s friend Adam asks (over speakerphone!) which of Montana’s boyfriends is visiting, Vaj loses it. “Oh, you son of a bitch, I’m climbing through that phone and ripping out your spine,” he jokes (air-quotes around “jokes”). He wonders how many boyfriends she has, but admits he doesn’t want to even know.

After Montana — in an act rich in symbolism — shaves Vaj’s head, the two prepare for his return to New York by appraising the uneasy visit. “You’ve just been so distant,” Vaj says, “I don’t even feel like I should be here: I feel like I’m impeding on your life.” Montana has gone from calling every night to pushing for him to leave; Vaj doesn’t know what to think. She maintains that he came up expecting too much from her: “How many times do I have to say I love you?” Vaj says it’s not just words, but actions: he’s putting up with a lot because he cares for her. He leaves sad, angry, confused — as he should.

The group’s trip to Puerto Rico both complicates the geometry and provides insight into why Montana is the way she is. In San Juan, she goes on a date with a local (with Elka briefly as the awkward chaperone), touring a cemetery and eventually frolicking in the waves and making out on the beach. She calls the guy “a great diversion” and ends the night with a kiss but nothing more. “The only way to get your mind off a man,” she explains, “is with another man.” To that end, she continues her flirting with Sean: she flashes his video camera when they’re on a boat, and he can’t help himself, showing the clip to anyone who will watch it. “I should have know that men are going to men,” she acknowledges. “Even if they’re good men, they’re still men.”

sean-cam

Montana’s issues with men are well established, but a late night discussion provides more insight. She never met her real dad, and her only exchange with him is heartbreaking. “I wrote him once,” she explains. “All I wrote in the letter was ‘I want you to know who I am, I’m eight years old, I like hopscotch, I like science, I like dissecting things. I don’t want anything back — I just want you to know what your daughter is like.’” Her father sent the letter back, unopened: return to sender, do not write to me.

Montana is nothing if not self-aware about how this lack of a father has affected her. “In my teen years, I sought acceptance from men through dating and having a boyfriend. I think it’s sick: I’m a feminist, I think that I’m a strong, independent person, but at the same time, it’s a little scary for me not to have a man in my life because I don’t have a father. I know why I’m that way, but what do I do about it, I don’t know.”

When she returns to Boston, the predicament is no clearer. She still has feelings for Matt, but wishes she didn’t. “That would be my dream: to have no feelings for him,” an empty wish that Elka calls a “Santa Claus prayer”: Montana hasn’t done anything to help herself. Montana finally takes action. She explains that she envisioned hooking up with someone in a bar, not meeting her new Valentine. Matt understands and they pledge to stay friends.

montana-phone

Montana’s relief is short-lived, as she gets a page from Vaj: “It’s over, I don’t love you anymore, love doesn’t mean anything, he can have you. You have one month to get your stuff out of my house before I throw it in the streets.” (My father had a pager and I only remember being able to send a number; I had no idea that leaving blocks of text by pager was a thing that existed in 1996/1997.) Before she broke it off with Matt, she was finally honest about the relationship with Vaj, and apparently she had been sleeping with him; that seems to be the final straw for Vaj, understandably.

With the housemates listening in, Montana makes one of the season’s most infamous phone calls. No matter what she says, Vaj’s retort is “WHORE!” As Kameelah notes, Montana hasn’t apologized: she’s still rationalizing and trying to explain her way out of the mess. “I deserve a woman who won’t immediately get into a hardcore relationship,” Vaj says.

The next day, when the shock of the argument has worn off, Vaj calls and says he wants to put all the negative stuff behind them and move on; Montana apologizes and asks for forgiveness. She goes back to New York to patch things over, and concludes that they needed time apart to appreciate what they have. It’s more bullshit on a pile of the stuff, but at that point, they both seem happy to believe a lie rather than deal with the truth anymore.

Best Music: “I’ve been a bad bad girl / I’ve been careless with a delicate man / And it’s a sad, sad world / When a girl will break a boy, just because she can.” How could the show not use Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’ as Montana’s unofficial theme song? Besides being perfectly appropriate for the scene, let’s reflect on ‘Criminal’ for a moment: Apple wrote it in 45 minutes on a whim and recorded it before she turned 19, and — due to what I can only assume was record label incompetence — it was the fifth (!) single from Tidal. Plus, the iconic, Lolita chic video was directed by Mark Romanek, who also helmed — you guessed it — ‘The Perfect Drug’.

Real World: Boston #6: “I could never be your woman”

genesis-sex

Episode 11 – “Don’t Look Under This Sequined Tree, With Anyone Else But Me” – September 17, 1997

When we last saw Genesis, she was adjusting to life on the show, questioning her sexual identity and generally trying to find her place in the world. “I’m still a little bit weirded out,” she said, “but I’m okay, and it will only get better.” That sense of gradual progress toward self-acceptance continues, but it’s not without its challenges.

We first got a glimpse of Genesis’s deeper issues when the housemates opened up at the volunteer training. Perhaps lost amongst the heated discussion of rape was Genesis’s recollections of her childhood. With a mother passed out on drugs and booze, and a stepfather at the Air Force base, she was left to take care of her brother: she bathed him, fed him, got him to school. But when her parents split up, the kids were separated, and she was alone. “I didn’t want friends,” she says. “I only wanted my brother back, he was my right arm.”

As expected, her childhood had lasting effects. “I wasn’t mentally abused, but in a lot of ways, I was put down a lot,” she confesses. “I keep these things in the back of my mind.” Her feelings of inadequacy affected her social development, contributed to her feelings of isolation from the housemates (especially when they have discussions of social issues) and came into focus when she started volunteering at the after-school program.

genesis-kid

She airs her frustration to Anthony: she doesn’t know the kids’ names, she has nothing in common with them and she seems to be the only one who can’t do the job. She was never around kids during her childhood and she doesn’t have anything good to reflect on, no games or arts and crafts to revisit. This isn’t Anthony’s first rodeo, and he asks, “Did you have a childhood?” When she answers “no,” he gives her a new challenge: “Set a goal of being a friend to one child.”

This goal soon leads to one of the season’s most iconic scenes. A few girls are talking with Genesis and Kameelah and teasing each other when one mentions Michael Jackson being gay; another, Jessica, says her mom hasn’t let her watch Ellen ever since Ellen DeGeneres came out. Then, the dagger: “I don’t like gay people,” Jessica says. “I just have a feeling that I hate them.”

Kameelah quickly sees a teachable moment, using step-by-step logic to try to rewire this elementary-age girl (which she does, appropriately and deftly). She asks if Jessica would still like her if she was gay, and Jessica says she would. Kameelah asks “if I like girls and I don’t want to kiss you, why does it matter?” Jessica says one of her friends said she was gay, and she still likes her. Then, from the mouths of babes, one of the kids offers this: “It doesn’t matter if they’re gay, it matters how they treat you.” Genesis has been silent the whole time, and she leaves, wiping away tears.

When the housemates meet with the after-school staffers, this “informative” conversation is brought up, and it’s assumed that Genesis did the talking. Kameelah explains what she said — that there wasn’t anything sexual or age-inappropriate — and her reasoning: “I wanted to have [Jessica] think about it, and not just regurgitate what her mother was saying.” But Elka’s conservative Christianity bubbles up and lets the air out of the balloon. She sees herself in Jessica, and if that had happened to her, she would have been taken out of the program. “Maybe it isn’t our duty to ‘inform’ them about this.” Dammit, Elka!

Genesis seemed to be finding her footing in Boston, but now seems shaken by the whole ordeal. “I don’t want to be gay anymore, I want to be straight,” she tells Kameelah. “I’m sick and tired of being hated by people, and stereotyped.” Still on her A-game, Kameelah has an answer ready: “That shouldn’t make you not want to be gay, that should make you want to be the most open gay person you can be,” suggesting that she bring a gay pride flag to the center and start a real discussion. Genesis sarcastically runs down the stereotypes and the attacks — it’s a choice, it’s a perversion, it’s a ticket to Hell — and takes a drag on her cigarette. “Life’s a bitch.”

Thankfully, Genesis has continued to “find her people” in Boston, free of her relationship with Tammy. Her friendship with Adam, who performs in drag as Eve, has continued to blossom; gay clubs and drag shows have seemingly replaced late nights in trans chatrooms. Sean is confused by the whole thing, and Kameelah — who had just been so good on verbalizing gay equality — can’t wrap her head around Genesis being “attracted” to a drag queen. (In 2001, Genesis told Out: “I was never sexually attracted to a drag queen… but because Adam was a drag queen and he was my best friend, they jumped on that I was having some sexual attraction to him.”)

genesis-adam-drag

“In a lot of ways, I think drag queens are more beautiful than women,” Genesis admits. “They know how to do their hair and wear the right clothes.” She’s transfixed at Adam’s drag performances and when they’re on the dance floor she confesses, “You’re turning me on!”

The sexual identity crisis has continued. She tells her mom that she came to conclusion that she’s bisexual, and though she’s dominantly into women, she’s been attracted to two drag queens (“I don’t know what you’d call that”). Her mom — or her mom’s therapist, apparently — has a theory: maybe Genesis isn’t “a true blue lesbian.” Genesis sees some truth there: “Everyone keeps saying that to me.”

Her friendship with Adam is becoming something more, at least from her side. “I’m lost without you, I don’t know what to do,” she cries. “You’re more beautiful than I am, you’re sexier than I am — you’re everything I wish I could be.” Adam denies her claims and tosses back a joke, “What am I, the wind beneath your wings?” It’s here when we see the depth of Genesis’s self-doubt and abandonment issues, problems that started in childhood and continued through her only adult relationship. But even as she struggles, she’s starting to learn about herself. “I give of myself so freely to people and I get nothing in return,” she realizes.

tarot

Some clarity comes — in dramatic fashion — from Montana. Previously, she read Genesis’s palm, and now she reads her tarot cards, because of course she reads tarot cards (spoiler alert: Montana is now an acupuncturist, herbalist and massage therapist). “You found a real trusting relationship — you found a friend, but it could be more,” she explains. The card that shows Genesis has the power in the situation, even though she doesn’t think she does, is a woman “stroking a big snake.” This elicits some giggles from Genesis and Adam, because COME ON.

Adam knows Genesis had “asked” the tarot about him, and eases her fears. “You know I do love you, right?” Genesis knows she’s clinging onto him for dear life, and for good reason: he understands her, possibly like no one else has. “You always put everybody first, you never think of what you want, that’s why I’m pushing you to see what you want to do,” he explains. “That’s why you’ve thrust yourself in my life so hardcore: you want to be accepted, you want somebody to be there when you’re feeling weak. This is the time to say, ‘what do I want?’ If you don’t like something, it’s time to say it, don’t you think?”

Adam’s pep talk works. “I’ve gained a new respect for myself,” she says, and she sees her relationship with Adam continuing as just that: the ultimate, best-friendship. Adam says he doesn’t want her to have unhealthy relationships, with him or anyone else, and considering what she’s been through, that’s a good start.

genesis-adam

Best Music: These episodes were loaded, both with nostalgic favorites (White Town’s apropos ‘Your Woman’, Shawn Colvin’s ‘Sunny Came Home’) and songs that are a few degrees removed from nostalgia. I don’t remember Republica’s ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ as well as ‘Ready To Go’ (which I could have sworn was in Clueless, but it looks like I’m misremembering this scene in Vegas Vacation), and Chantal Kreviazuk’s ‘God Made Me’ makes me think of her ‘In This Life’, which would soundtrack Saved! — but not until 2004.

PS: In the wake of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, Alan Sepinwall argued that gay TV icons like Ellen DeGeneres, the characters of Will and Grace and Real World: San Francisco’s Pedro Zamora helped normalize gay culture and, eventually, marriage. In a longer piece, I’m sure that the scene with the kids overcoming homophobia would be included.

Real World: Boston #5: Stereotypes suck, but so does Syrus

syrus-luetta

Episode 9 – “Dating Policy (aka Syrus Plays by the Rules, part 1)” – September 3, 1997
Episode 10 – “The Girls in the House … (aka Syrus Plays by His Own Rules, part 2)” – September 10, 1997

Two character tropes that The Real World frequently portrays are the Horrible Roommate and the Angry Black Man. The Horrible Roommate is typified by Puck, whose long list of aggressive asshole behaviors got him evicted from San Francisco; Hawaii’s Justin is a close second for his sociopathic manipulations. The Real World relied on the Angry Black Man from the start, pitting activist-writer Kevin against “fish out of water” Southerner Julie and watching Los Angeles comic David come into conflict with his housemates until he was evicted for infamously pulling the covers off an underwear-clad Tami.

Boston’s Syrus is portrayed as a combination of the two types: someone who is constantly in conflict with his housemates over his bad behavior, and someone who is quick to see racial differences as the cause for everything that happens to him in the house. The Real World is certainly responsible for casting, shooting and editing in a way that conforms to these stereotypes — but Syrus definitely does not help himself.

In the first third of the season, Syrus is defined largely by two things: his habit of bringing home women at all hours of the night, and the fact that he thinks that women “cry rape” because of an incident that happened in college. The first is an issue of respect (or lack thereof), the second seems to be a sign of some deep-seated misogyny, and both are problematic on their own. When his disrespect of his housemates and his disrespect of women intertwine, though, things go south quickly.

At the after-school program, Syrus hits it off with Luetta, the mother of one of the kids. His logic is simple: half the mothers are single, and it’s a matter of “supply and demand.” When Syrus brings Luetta to the firehouse, Kameelah’s shocked face says it all. “I don’t care what Syrus does, I’m not his mother,” she explains, “but when it concerns all of us — like that mess right there — that’s when I have a problem.” Kameelah — to be honest — does care what Syrus does in his personal life, but she’s not alone: Elka thinks him dating Luetta is unprofessional, if it’s even allowed at all. Unsurprisingly, Syrus’s most vocal critic is Montana, who doesn’t think he should use the after-school program as a way to pick up women. She also doesn’t think he’s taking the program seriously: the two argue when he jacks his ankle playing basketball and decides to call in sick, and she calls him an “embarrassment.”

syrus-montana

Syrus and Sean have bonded as the house’s two bros (and, to their credit, they’ve also started a dialogue about race), and Sean gives him a heads-up that people are talking, and that his dating Luetta could get him fired from the program. The gossiping and debate continues behind his back. Elka says he isn’t adding anything to the house or the program, and Kameelah says that if he gets fired, he should have to leave the house; Montana agrees, in a nice bit of foreshadowing.

Kameelah and Elka seem to think it’s a bridge too far to straight-up tell on him, but Montana is undeterred: she tells the program director, Anthony, that he “better have a talk with Syrus” about the policy. Kameelah thinks that Montana is a “troublemaker” who wants Syrus out of the house; she later confesses as much, saying, “If he didn’t live here, I’d be ten times happier.” For Syrus, the feeling is mutual: “If I get a chance to take her down, I’m going to take her down.” As we’ve seen before, when Syrus’s persecution complex crops up (“It’s like I’m in prison!”), it isn’t pretty.

Anthony eventually speaks with him about dating a parent. “I think it’s unprofessional, it’s a huge conflict-of-interest, it could be a pending lawsuit,” Anthony says, adding that “common sense” should have told Syrus not to do it. First, Syrus tries to weasel out of it on a technicality, saying he didn’t read or sign anything that said he couldn’t date a parent, and when Anthony tells him to think it over, he plays the race card. “Being a minority, I’m used to giving in to stuff I don’t agree with, so I don’t have to agree with it to do it,” he says. “I’ll do what you need me to do. I’ll take care of it.” Syrus has no doubt seen his share of racial injustice — and this definitely isn’t that.

Syrus tells everyone that he’ll stop seeing Luetta, and then promptly continues to do so behind their backs (but, as always, on camera). He doesn’t limit his bad behavior to seeing the mother, as he continues to treat the house like — in Montana’s words — “an hourly-rate motel.” The last straw for Kameelah is when one of Syrus’s friends, Ed, hooks up with a random woman in their bathroom. She kicks them out and isn’t buying Ed’s “let’s be friends” bullshit. “I’m about to get mad,” she tells him. “This is the end of the conversation.”

kameelah-ed

Syrus thinks he’s getting singled out, that the other housemates are allowed to have company and he isn’t. Again, he’s conflating the issues: no one else is bringing the party back home once the club closes, no one else’s guest are hooking up with each other all over the house. He argues with Montana about getting calls at 2am, and he argues with Kameelah about this alleged hypocrisy. “All my female roommates are bitches, except for the blonde girl,” he tells his fellow revelers. “Other than her, fuck ‘em all.”

Montana may have been a “troublemaker” when she ratted out Syrus at the after-school program (STOP SNITCHING), but his behavior in the house is the real problem. “The part I’m not happy with,” she explains, “is being threatened and being called a bitch and told to fuck off.” She confronts him in the light of day, and explains that it seemed like he was about to hit her. Syrus says that definitely wasn’t the case — he’d never hit a woman — but he apologizes for coming off that way.

While he apologizes and tries to mend fences (“Did you do something with your hair?”), their confessionals tell the true story. “I don’t see how the biggest bitch in the house can be threatened by words,” he says dryly, as he continues to completely miss the point. “He can apologize until the cows come home, but I’m not going to forget it,” says Montana, echoing what she said after their rape discussion: these issues don’t go away with an apology — they linger in the back of their minds, ready to crop up during the next battle.

Montana’s fear of a physical confrontation with Syrus is real, but what part did her history of abuse, her uneasy relationship with Syrus, the incident itself, and a socialized, irrational fear of black violence play? These are questions unasked and unanswered by The Real World — and the real world, too, for that matter.

Best Music: The Indigo Girls’ ‘Shame On You’ soundtracks the Big Reveal that Syrus is still seeing Luetta, despite all the drama, and while its “shame on you” chorus is a bit on the nose, the song’s anti-racist message is oddly appropriate.