“We are in the era of Peak TV. In 2015, a staggering 419 scripted shows aired on television and streaming services (that number is expected to go up by the end of 2016), and amid all the zombies and thrones and scandals and strange things, there are now even a few shows about hip-hop…
These shows have so far either relied on soap opera tropes (Empire) or stylized nostalgia (The Get Down looks back to the late 70s; The Breaks to the early ‘90s). Missing, until now, was a show that says something about the contemporary moment in both hip-hop and society at-large, and one that fits nicely alongside the best of what Peak TV has to offer.
FX’s Atlanta is that show. Created and starring Donald Glover, who moonlights as rapper Childish Gambino, the series follows the struggles of Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover) as he manages the rap career of his cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) in the titular city, while simultaneously trying to raise his daughter and woo her mother Vanessa (Zazie Beetz). More than its logline, Atlanta is the type of comedy-drama (or “sadcom”) that is elevating the art of television.”
Writing about television in 2015 is fucking exhausting.
The recent “Golden Age of Television” was highlighted by a set of practically agreed-upon tentpoles and a handful of diamonds hidden in the rough of broadcast and cable schedules. It was easy to consume Golden Age television, with its seasonal rhythms and predictable players.
But the Golden Age ended, probably a few years before Don Draper closed his eyes and bought the world a Coke. We’re now in the age of Peak TV, which means more than 400 original scripted series — not just from the usual suspects, but on lower rent cable channels eager to be the next AMC and on streaming services trying to be the next Netflix. There are blockbuster crowd-pleasers (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead), upscale soap operas (Scandal, Empire), critical darlings (too many to name), prestige simulacra (too many more to name) and much more.
In 2015, I just couldn’t keep up with Peak TV. I still have seasons of Hannibal and The Americans to binge on, with an entire queue of unwatched TV after those. This year, I watched too many hours of cape-and-cowl adventures (and squared circle misadventures) to stay in the conversation, especially when bingeable shows are expected to be digested over the course of one lost weekend.
What I did watch plenty of, however, were what Vulture’s Jenny Jaffe calls sadcoms: “the raw, honest, surprisingly hopeful, long-gestating progeny of M*A*S*H” that forge a path defined by “neither sincere escapism nor cynical nihilism.”
That definition certainly applies to my favorite new show of 2015 (and possibly favorite overall this year): Lifetime’s Unreal, which I previously described as “a much-better-than-it-should-be drama that peaks behind the curtain of a Bachelor-style dating show, with heavy doses of satire and dark comedy.” (I liked the show so much that it sent me down a Real World rabbit hole).
A Noah’s Arc of self-loathing cutthroats with sociopathic tendencies, Unreal — like any good backstage show — reveals that the real drama (and/or comedy) is behind the curtain. Rather than just parodying reality TV conventions, it used its premise to explore mental health, relationship co-dependency, interpersonal manipulation and the drive to find meaning and purpose in our jobs.
While certain angles were over-foreshadowed, there were legitimate surprises along the way, and a convoluted, whirlwind finale left only mother-daughter analogues Quinn and Rachel (Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby) left standing — setting up a Shakespearean second season that will hopefully have more eyes on it than the first.
Also making strong first impressions were a pair of post-mumblecore shows that both did a lot with a little. The Duplass brothers brought their act to HBO on Togetherness, focusing on married couple Brett and Michelle (Mark Duplass and the underrated Melanie Lynsky), friend Alex (Steve Zissis, who also wrote the show with the Dupli) and sibling Tina (Amanda Peet) that are dealing with late-thirtysomething ennui — failing relationships and failing careers — in different but equally self-destructive ways.
Togetherness could generously be described as subtle: the foursome’s tribulations pass with little in the way of Big Dramatic Moments until the finale. After turning Alex into her pet project and rejecting his puppy love, Tina finds herself on a road towards unhappiness and an unfulfilled life, as Alex heads to a new job with literally no baggage. Brett, after moping about for seven episodes, finally gets his shit together and acts like a father, finding a spark that’s been missing for years.
The show saved its climax for a cliffhanger ending, and the final sequence is worth the wait. James Blake’s spacious torch song ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ soundtracks the season’s last moments. It’s a perfect pairing, in both lyric and tone, as Michelle contemplates an affair, passing notes with youthful trepidation. All that separates her from a contented life is a hotel door, and the anticipation for her kiss with David is powerful but bittersweet: with Brett driving to the hotel to make things right, the happiness of the moment cannot last.
With Netflix casting itself as the next HBO and Amazon scoring a hit with its own sadcom (Transparent, the second season of which is on my binge-list), it was only a matter of time before Hulu stepped up its original programming. While I found Difficult People unwatchable, Casual is a pleasant, Duplass-lite look at parenting and relationships, especially where the failures of the first cause a lifetime of failures in the second.
The too-close family dynamic reminded me of Six Feet Under, and not just because Tara Lynne Barr is the new Lauren Ambrose or because Frances Conroy shows up a few episodes in. But that’s about all the shows have in common: Casual lives up to its name, with a touch more drama than Togetherness. The always-excellent Michaela Watkins is the show’s core, and Eliza Coupe (RIP Happy Endings) and Nyasha Hatendi do good work in support. The show basically ended with a blank slate, so it will be interesting to see which stories the show will tell in season two.
A handful of sadcoms returned for second seasons, but creative progress is not always a given. Married is nearly as casual as Casual (coincidentally, both Frances Conroy and Michaela Watkins have cameos), and its second (and final) season was as enjoyable, if as slight, as the first. It still suffered from not quite knowing how to use its supporting cast: John Hodgman was still a sore thumb, Jenny Slate exited to do a pilot for FX and Paul Reiser’s character was aimless (no matter how hilarious). Russ (Nat Faxon) and Lina (Judy Greer) struggled to balance marriage, parenting and careers with a verisimilitude that wasn’t as weighty as some of the shows on this list, their brand of bad parenting generally light-hearted and the show’s emotional moments touching but fleeting. Judy Greer deserves a show that you’ll know her from, and sadly, this won’t be it.
Animated sadcoms fared better. Rick and Morty returned for another season of foul-mouthed, sci-fi misanthropy, dabbling in simultaneous timeline exploration, Inception-styled universe creation and the type of flashback-fakeouts that Community did in “Paradigms of Human Memory.” The show even “tempted fate” with a sequel to the interdimensional channel-hopping of season one’s “Rixty Minutes,” but without the gut-punch of Morty’s heartbreaking speech.
That type of moment did happen, though. The season gradually revealed the reason why Beth apologizes for Rick’s beyond-fucked behavior: he abandoned his family when she was young and she’s desperate to hold onto him, no matter what. Interestingly, Rick was the show’s emotional center, whether during a failed suicide attempt or while making a final sacrifice to save the family. Music played a surprisingly crucial role here (considering the show’s reliance on parody), with the heartstring-pulling indie pop of Chaos Chaos’ ‘Do You Feel It?’ soundtracking the former and Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ scoring the latter.
Similarly, BoJack Horseman’s second season delivered more hijinks than heartbreak, with BoJack’s girlfriend (an owl who woke up from a 30-year coma), Vincent Adultman, Margo Martindale and Todd’s improv group providing easy joke fodder. The season’s best storyline follows Diane as her unhappiness with her marriage to Mr. Peanutbutter takes her to a war-torn country and then into a long, drunken depression; their surprise reunion is pure rom-com material.
While Diane’s story was told over the season, the crux of BoJack’s was contained in one subplotless episode (one that also featured an FKA twigs pun and a spot-on Drake parody). After hallucinating about the picturesque life he could have had with Charlotte in season one, Bojack drives to New Mexico to reconnect and give it a shot in season two. Instead of a finding another lost soul, he finds Charlotte with a husband, two kids and a standard-issue suburban life.
When BoJack takes her daughter to the prom as a glorified chaperone, it’s a slow-motion car crash that manages to deliver surprises even when the inevitable happens. The fallout between Charlotte and BoJack is heartbreaking and final, but when he recovers, a jogger gives him advice that resonates beyond the scene and the show. “Every day, it gets a little easier,” says the jogger, ostensibly about running. ”But you gotta do it every day.”
That advice would come in handy on You’re The Worst, which managed to outdo its impressive debut season by fleshing out its characters and honestly portraying depression. Season two followed its fearsome foursome into new stages of life: Gretchen and Jimmy found out what living together entails, Lindsay rapidly approached rock bottom, and Edgar strived for normalcy (while, like BoJack‘s Todd, delving into improv — with less culty results).
Despite the new status quo, the show seemed to be in a comfortable pocket until the fourth episode began a slow-build reveal of Gretchen’s depression. Self-medicated and struggling for control, Gretchen is in a tailspin, and Jimmy uses the same approach as he does when hunting for a mouse in the house: systematic whack-a-mole without addressing the base causes.
Eventually, Jimmy figures out how to help her (just being there is a start) and Gretchen finally accepts his help (and commits herself to treatment), but not before hitting some emotional depths that you might not expect from a show that features an Odd Future parody. The masterful “LCD Soundsystem” episode — which will have you double-checking that you’re watching the correct show — is a game changer. And by the time Gretchen echoes Jimmy’s drunken confession and says that she loves him too, the game has certainly been changed.
So many of the water cooler shows of the Peak TV era do nothing for me — which is fine, not every pop object is for everyone — but these sadcoms do. And even if the signposts of the “genre” are becoming formulaic — broken family dynamics, mental health issues, unlikeable protagonists, dark-as-night comedy, surprisingly touching moments — each of these shows used these tools to tell new stories, in new and different ways. Combing through Peak TV may be exhausting, but it’s a little easier if you know what you’re looking for.
This is it. After nearly six months, these seven strangers are about to leave The Real World for the real world, and they’re each handling it in their own way. Genesis, sadly, is faring the worst. She is in “total fear” of losing everything she has in Boston (the house, her roommates, the Center) and going home, where all she has is unpaid bills, no apartment, no girlfriend and no job. She scared of never seeing the housemates again, and she regrets that she didn’t open up and share more. For now, she shares a cry and a tissue with Kameelah.
Montana, perhaps realizing that her mistakes, tries to mend fences with Elka, telling her that if her time there was worth anything, it was because of her friendships with her, Sean and Syrus. “When you get married, I will be there,” she promises. In the confessional, we reach Peak Elka: “[Montana] may be a feminist and she may not be a virgin, but we have a lot in common.”
While Sean wants all seven to have one last dinner at Artu’s, where they ate the first time they all went out together. Montana is down: after everything, even if they don’t like each other, they survived the experience together, and she wants to commemorate that. But other resentments are still very real. Kameelah wonders why they have to “relive this nightmare,” and if she doesn’t go, Genesis doesn’t want to go either; they eventually agree to go after some prodding from make-love-not-war Jason.
At Artu’s they toast to five and half months of memories. Elka notes all her firsts: being away from home, having roommates, working with kids, having a relationship with a gay person. They’re “all good” experiences, and it’s going to be hard to leave. Even Kameelah comes around to Montana’s way of thinking: no matter how horrible things got, they’re leaving as a group, and it’s been the best experience she’s had.
Back at the house, Sean notes that his “naiveness” was a big impediment in his relationships with Genesis and Kameelah, and Genesis admits that she was more closed off than she should have been. “We all should have had this conversation two months ago,” Sean says, and it’s the most right he’s ever been on the show.
Sean and Syrus play one last game of pool and, with Montana, they toast to the “three homies.” They’re in a more celebratory mode than Genesis, Jason and Kameelah, who commiserate about not going back home to much. At the airport, they share tearful goodbyes as they leave, one by one. Sean goes to give Kameelah a handshake and she tells him “don’t be retarded” as they hug; she even hugs Montana goodbye. Montana is the only one not flying, and Vaj pulls up in a purple Mustang convertible (for all their drama, it’s as if it never happened). Genesis blows Jason a kiss, and that’s it.
Well, my two-month nostalgia trip is over. I’ve found this whole project rewarding, not just as a writing exercise, but as an examination of memory and its various tricks (it’s no The Night Of The Gun, but the principle is the same). Some things I remembered vividly: Montana and the wine, the discussion of homosexuality with the kids, Syrus being a player. Other things were more vague: playing doctor at Martha’s Vineyard, Elka’s relationship with Walter, Sean’s goofiness. And I can’t believe I completely forgot about the Real World / Road Rules challenge. But even now, my memories of what I watched when I was 13 and what I saw for the first time in the past few weeks are starting to blur. Even my opinions of the housemates has changed from my initial memories and impressions, as did their portrayals as the show progressed.
I retrospectively identified with Jason based on his outsider status, and while I would have liked to see more of his story, that same status kept him apart from much of the action. I had remembered Genesis being cool, but I didn’t realize how crucial her journey — not just dealing with her sexuality, but her empowerment in general — was to the core of the season. No wonder so many people I spoke with named her as their favorite. Similarly, I didn’t remember Kameelah as being such a prominent figure and strong personality in the house, and I certainly didn’t realize the Kameelah-ass-list had lived on in the pop culture consciousness.
Sean, Syrus and, to a certain extent, Elka remained consistent from beginning to end, both in my memory and on the show, but their compatriot Montana changed most, both for me and on the show. My first impression was Jessa of Girls, “but on her best day and without the malice,” and while her over-sharing and life sessions had their charms, her manipulative, self-centered behavior (from her relationship with Vaj to her actions at the Center) certainly revealed some malice I hadn’t remembered.
I’m not going to lie: like every other series finale I’ve ever seen, from Six Feet Under to The Shield to The Sopranos to Scrubs, the end of Real World: Boston was emotional for me. For someone who holds television as highly as I do, even happy endings are bittersweet, and while ending my “relationship” with fictional characters is always tough, this was different. Obviously, these aren’t fictional characters (although their portrayals might be fictionalized and finessed by producers and editors), and instead of having to contemplate “what ifs,” we have “where are they nows.”
Sean is perhaps the most notable: after marrying Rachel Campos from San Fransisco, he got into politics and is currently a Republican congressman; they have seven children. Any insights he gleaned into the lives of gays and blacks in America might have been for naught, as a member of some of the most conservative Congresses ever. And while Sean might be “making a difference,” Kameelah is actually making a difference: she’s an OB/GYN in New York.
All the housemates would go on to participate in various Real World/Road Rules Challenges, but none did so more than Syrus, who competed in five seasons post-Boston. He also turned his MTV celebrity into a career, working in the entertainment industry in various capacities. Jason also capitalized on his reality TV experience, but in the opposite direction: he quickly moved behind the scenes and is a partner at a reality TV casting company that bears his name; he lives in Santa Monica.
Also in California: Montana is an acupuncturist, herbalist and massage therapist. Genesis is a graphic designer and photographer whose Twitter bio describes her as a “Reality TV ‘has-been’.” Elka was engaged to Walter for a time and eventually ended up in California, but is the quietest, internet-wise; I guess that makes sense, all things considered.
Even after rewatching the season, and even after doing a little bit of internet stalking, I have to admit, I don’t know these people at all. Elka touched on this in an interview back in 2001. “Even if they know me for that span of five months, I say, ‘Sure, you know me. You know what I was up to for those five months, but you don’t know me as a person.’” For all it meant to me then (and now, to be honest) The Real World is not the real world.
Best musical moments: After all the old favorites, hit records and nostalgia bombs, the season closed first with Oasis’ ‘Don’t Go Away’ and then — as the show frequently did — with something a little more on the nose: Boston’s ‘Foreplay/Long Time’. “Well I’m takin’ my time, I’m just movin’ on / You’ll forget about me after I’ve been gone.”
Episode #16 – “Pent-Up Emotions In The Pig Pen (a.k.a. Communication)” – October 22, 1997
Episode #21 – “Black, White, And Sunburn All Over” – November 26, 1997
Episode #22 – “Turning to the Other Side” – December 3, 1997
Every friend group in high school and college eventually breaks down into cliques: even if based on shared interests and beliefs, these are friendships of convenience and circumstance, the best-case-scenarios of home towns and college campuses. Lines will be formed, usually over the minor differences that get blown out of proportion by youthful vision. This is no different for The Real World, the ultimate fishbowl friendship. These seven people have been cast specifically for their differences, for the conflict and drama they create.
As the season hits its final stretch, the housemates’ relationships are well established. Other than at work or during their Puerto Rico trip, all seven rarely hang out together. When they finally do sit down and talk at dinner, it becomes clear why. Sean tells Genesis that he feels like she never wants to talk to him; she says she doesn’t have anything in common with him, Montana and Syrus. “We’re not one big happy family,” she explains, “and we’re never going to be.” Sean thinks she’s prejudiced against him because he’s a straight, white male (ha!) and Montana is more explicit: “She doesn’t like being in the house, she doesn’t like hanging out with us, good, then get the fuck out.”
Genesis calls it “high school, reinvented,” and she’s not inaccurate. Cliques have formed with Genesis, Jason and Kameelah on one side and Sean, Syrus and Montana on the other; Elka is the swing-woman. The first group are prone to introspection, and the most likely to seek their communities out of the house, whether that means at gay clubs, black fraternities or artist parties. Sean, Syrus and Montana like to hit the town, have a few drinks and see where the chips fall.
Since her most recent identity crisis, Genesis has found a well a self-respect and assertiveness, and has made a Kameelah-ass list of her own, except not just for dating, but for living life. Her “Genesisisms” are the accumulation of her beliefs and opinions, turned into life lessons. Examples: “Lesson 75: Using your childhood as an excuse only makes you appear more immature, when you are an adult there are no more excuses,” “Lesson 83: Those that deny are the one’s [sic] more deeply involved.” She prints them in a Gothic font and starts pasting them around the house, and some of her housemates are less than impressed.
“I don’t need someone’s dogma when I’m trying to go to the 7-11,” Montana says, critiquing Genesis’s lessons as poorly-written ideas originally stated (and better stated) elsewhere. It probably doesn’t help that some of the Genesisisms seem to be coupled with a target: Jason thinks Lesson 75 is about Montana, while Genesis claims it’s about herself (even if it’s applicable to nearly everyone in the house). Syrus is on Montana’s side and decides to tear them down. “Wait ‘till hell breaks loose.” (It’s interesting how alliances have changed: when he was under attack, Syrus could count on only Sean and Genesis; Montana was perhaps his sharpest critic and is now one of his closer friends.) Genesis takes it as a “personal jab,” and Kameelah and Jason agree. “Were [the Genesisisms] hurting them?” Kameelah asks. “It was an ignorant thing to do; they’re going back up.”
Meanwhile, tensions have also been building in the house because — in a situation familiar to anyone who’s had roommates – they’re all slobs. Plates are unwashed, garbage piles up and the house stinks. Sean and Syrus clean the place, much to Genesis’s amusement; she’s amazed that anyone but her and Kameelah cleaned up. At this point, Sean, Syrus and Montana get in the sign game, writing a message posterboard (“O ye of much filth,” a pseudo-Biblical mock-up of the Genesisisms, plus a cringeworthy swastika next to “food nazis”) and a food-festooned tribute to the “pig of the day.” The first pig of the day is Jason, and they take his dirty plates and put them next to his bed while he’s sleeping (all captured on the Sean Cam, naturally).
Genesis fires the next salvo, flipping their poster and writing, “Just because you cleaned the kitchen once doesn’t make you God. Kiss my ass.” She crowns Sean the “asshole of the year” and the two finally have words while everyone else listens in (Sean stands on a chair in a pretty lame act of intimidation). Sean says she hasn’t spoken up or stuck up for herself before, while Genesis assails his “supremacy complex” and says that’s what she’s finally doing. “That felt awesome,” she tells Jason. “You’re about to see a new side of Genesis and it won’t be pretty.”
Genesis and Kameelah grab lunch with Anthony, who tells them “that house needs an enema.” Instead of an enema, they get another vacation: to Boston’s favorite getaway, Martha’s Vineyard. The tension between the two cliques is apparent by the time they hit the ferry, and — spoiler alert — the trip only calcifies the divisions. There’s no kumbaya moment, no spiritual enema.
At their gorgeous beach house, Jason quickly claims the master bedroom, which he says is perfect for three people — namely him, Kameelah and Genesis — kicking off a weekend of flirting. Genesis teases him, saying she thought he was a “fag;” he jokes that she didn’t notice his “obvious masculinity.” She soon will get a better look at his masculinity: after flashing Kameelah, Genesis wants to see, too (she’s never seen a penis). In a gesture of fairness, Genesis and Kameelah both flash him and they joke about how much closer they feel after seeing each other nude. That’s certainly true for Jason and Kameelah; there’s definitely mutual attraction as they flirt with, tease and chase each other across the house. “You should just have sex and get it over with,” says Genesis.
While Jason, Kameelah and Genesis are playing doctor, the other housemates are having good ol’ fashioned fun, playing charades, cards and taking old-timey photos. They exchange glances as Jason and Kameelah cause a ruckus, and while there’s no actual conflict at the beach, Kameelah is “paranoid” about walking into the house and having all the negativity come back.
They return to the house and begin their final stretch in Boston. There’s a lot of packing up, giving each other gifts and sharing memories — and enough time for some final drama. While Kameelah and Elka have started talking again, Montana stirs shit up, pretending to “look out” for Elka when she’s simply trying to sabotage Kameelah. And she still has no filter: “No offense to you but I’m sick of living with 19 year olds.”
This is where the she said-she said stuff gets complicated. In an effort to clear the air, Elka brings up a conversation where Montana claimed that Kameelah called Elka a “drama queen from Brownsville” that is “so far up Montana’s butt that it’s messing up her digestive system.” Kameelah immediately cops to the latter, but not to the drama queen bit, which sounds suspiciously like Montana. They confront Montana when she gets home but she says she doesn’t remember and that she’s tired of defending herself. Montana then fires back at Elka, telling her she regrets sharing anything personal with her. Elka says she’s being “petty,” and that she thought their friendship mattered more than that. Montana is not so sure.
Kameelah and Elka may be on good terms, but the same can’t be said of her relationships with Montana and Sean. She overheard them in the confessional room, taking a shot at her eye-rolling habit and saying that she’s immature for her age and that she’s trying to run their lives. Kameelah doesn’t pull any punches when she sees Montana, telling her to “leave my name out of your mouth.” Montana stands her ground: “I have the right to say what I want to say.”
Kameelah isn’t the only one that finds out how her housemates actually feel about her: Sean finds a note that she left in the bathroom, and shares the shit-talking contents with Montana before giving it back to her, saying she should be more careful with things like that. Kameelah is generally over Sean’s shit, and she’s tired of representing all of black America for the “whitest of white boys.” Sean actually thinks Kameelah is some sort of black supremacist, which would be funny if it wasn’t so clueless.
They eventually have it out, with Sean raising the same concerns he had with Genesis: he feels like she’s building a wall and not letting him into her life, and Kameelah doesn’t deny it: why would she let him in when he refuses to see her as a person but as a spokesperson for her race? Sean’s confrontations with Genesis and Kameelah are telling, as he feels persecuted by women who are gay and black, respectively. Maybe his future as a Republican congressman isn’t so shocking, after all. What is Congress, if not a group of conflicting cliques?
Best Musical Moments: These episodes, more so than the others, sounded like the mixtapes I’d make by recording The Buzz: alt-rock radio staples Beastie Boys (‘Sabotage’) and Soundgarden (‘Fell On Black Days’) next to personal favorites like Our Lady Peace’s ‘Superman’s Dead’, David Bowie’s Reznor-assisted ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ and Blink-182’s ‘Dammit’. And while I never would have copped to it at the time, the Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’ (which Elka gives Kameelah) is possibly the best pop song ever.
Episode #20 – “Homeless Is As Homeless Does” – November 19, 1997
Episode #22 – “Turning to the Other Side” – December 3, 1997
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.
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?”
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.
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.”
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…
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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’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’.
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.
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.”)
“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.
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.
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.