The more MTV’s reality granddaddy The Real World changes, the more it stays the same. Now in its 30th season, the show looks nothing like the sober social experiment it started as, but its old-school reality tropes and fusty storytelling are unchanged. Granted, the show is boozier and more cynical than ever before, but it still consists of seven strangers picked to live in a house decorated like a surrealist chain restaurant, where friendships are forged, showmances are engineered, and addictions are stoked. Today’s Real World isn’t season one’s Kevin Powell and Becky Blasband dialoguing about race, but in a post-Jersey Shore world, the show manages to retain a connection to its earnest roots.
Nostalgia is the sole saving grace of the grossly manipulative new season—dubbed Real World: Skeletons—which might easily set new standards for reality exploitation were it not wrapped in a familiar packaging. For example, The Real World is one of very few reality shows that still sees fit to fashion half an episode out of ground transportation from the airport and roommate introductions. Current reality shows almost never chronicle regular folks, even pretty ones. They’re either built around stars or designed to launch new ones, so there’s an appealing quaintness about watching fresh-faced 20-somethings cartwheel drunk, flirt recklessly, and acclimate to life inside a pimped-out fishbowl.
But the concept of Skeletons is anything but quaint, representing the latest attempt to revitalize the ailing franchise with an uncomfortably antagonistic makeover. The first such attempt came last season with Real World: Ex-Plosion, in which the seven roomies hunker down in San Francisco expecting a typical Real World experience, then return home from a day trip to a surprise: their ex-lovers have taken up residence for the last half of their stay.
Creator Jonathan Murray was refreshingly honest about the retooling at the time of Ex-Plosion’s premiere, admitting in interviews that today’s audience doesn’t connect with the “diverse people working out their differences” version of the show. The introduction of the exes, he said, was meant to introduce the challenges of reconciling past and present without allowing the former to dictate the latter. Obviously, Ex-Plosion didn’t yield any profound relationship breakthroughs, but it was as intriguing as it was mean-spirited, succeeding mostly because of the tension that built between the cast and production team after the stunt was revealed.
Skeletons borrows Ex-Plosion‘s central idea, but tweaks the execution in ways that portend the wrong kind of reality train wreck. This season, the roommates will also co-habitate with people they share complicated histories with, but the visitors won’t necessarily be exes. The visitors won’t reside in the house on a long-term basis, but will stay in the house for one week, with a new ghost popping up each week to disrupt the fragile relationships between the roommates.
Like Ex-Plosion, Skeletons doesn’t tip its hand right away, it gives the roommates two weeks to firm up their new relationships before the mischief begins, while reminding the audience of what’s to come with ominous text overlays like, “13 Days Until First Skeleton Arrives.” Watching Ex-Plosion could be perversely thrilling, as the housemates forge tentative romantic relationships unaware their exes will be salting their games within weeks. Skeletons can’t quite duplicate this electricity because it’s the second iteration of the ghosts-from-the-past concept, and while the roommates will no doubt do their best to feign shock when guests arrive, the artifice will be hard to ignore, considering Ex-Plosion ended its run before Skeletons began filming.
To the extent there are genuine surprises for the Skeletons crew, it’ll be the nature of the relationships that pop back up, which, by their description alone, challenge the limitations of the audience’s sadism. Take for example Madison Walls, the effervescent, platinum blonde housemate from Austin, Texas, who dominates the premiere. Madison’s high-pitched voice and party-all-the-time attitude are so exaggerated, she comes off more as a performance than a person, like a manic pixie dream girl for men whose dreams resemble ’80s hair-metal videos. Throughout the episode, she makes fleeting references to her dark past, and eventually, the show reveals the reasons to the audience while the housemates are left unaware. Long story short, Madison overcame a severe heroin addiction, and is now trying to rebuild her life and salvage the relationships she destroyed with the deception, manipulation, and theft characteristic of addiction.
Some of those people will now reappear in Madison’s life, forcing her to make amends. The other roommates will be visited by a diverse cast of past acquaintances, including horrible bosses, estranged family members, cyberbullies, and romantic acquaintances, at least one of which has been described as a stalker. The looming reunions sound invariably disastrous, and risk turning Real World from frivolous reality filler into an ethical briar patch by injecting it with the exploitative stunts of Dr. Phil and Intervention, but without the straight face. And the new tone risks diluting the efficacy of the stories Real World is used to telling. Once it’s established that Madison is a recovering addict trying to put her life on track, it’s hard to regard her budding showmance with housemate Tony Raines as important.
Skeletons isn’t the first reality show to put its participants through the wringer this way. Survivor has remained fresh after 29 seasons—just one behind Real World—by constantly deploying new formats designed to push relationships to the brink. But Survivor is pitched to its participants as a sadistic social experiment designed to put them under extreme mental and physical pressure, while Real World is presented as a three-month booze cruise on dry land, leaving the housemates woefully unprepared to deal with the emotional fallout.
Even Survivor, despite taking place far outside the bounds of daily life and dangling a million-dollar prize, can stress its players to the point of a full-blown breakdown. Such breakdowns are all but guaranteed in Skeletons, and without prior consent or a prize in sight, the whole endeavor is hard to acquit. Despite the queasy new format, The Real World often feels like its old self, but it’s hard not to long for the days when the communal hot tub didn’t have such a steep cost of entry.