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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.