It was around the time the city started smelling like a gas station, and the news became increasingly bleak as crude hemorrhaged into the Gulf of Mexico. And yet I was focused on another unfolding disaster. This one involved Mardi Gras beads.
The first time I saw pictures of the Dufossat Street mansion selected for The Real World: New Orleans, I knew MTV would be propagating an image of New Orleans that only exists within Bourbon Street bars and airport gift shops. The interior of the house looks like it was designed by Blaine Kern and a blender. It's a Mardi Gras fever dream complete with sundry voodoo kitsch, wall decorations Chili's would reject on the basis of tackiness, and beads — so, so many beads — strewn about the entryway. The house is a giant pile of Carnival detritus anchored by Rooms to Go furnishings, and I knew the cast wouldn't be much better. Considering current trends in reality TV, it would likely be a group of vapid college dropouts hoping their televised embarrassment could serve as a resume for a future career in the genre. In other words, this would be a Hand Grenade kind of crowd.
The first episode met all expectations. Cast members dined at one of those French Quarter restaurants that displays its food under plastic wrap. The cast mispronounced things and bought a lot of food-coloring drinks on Bourbon Street. They rode a mechanical bull and ran around their garish environs screaming like they'd never seen anything so amazing. The cast acted how I thought they would. What surprised me was how much I was enjoying it all.
People praise David Simon's Treme because of its accuracy. They say he really gets the city, unlike predecessors K-Ville and all those bad movies set in New Orleans you see on cable networks (see: The Skeleton Key, parts of Double Jeopardy, the list goes on). But Treme felt a little too real at times, conjuring some painful memories from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and it didn't help that the oil disaster continued as the show aired. It all reminded me how vulnerable we are, even five years after the levee failures.
Conversely, any feelings experienced while watching The Real World are ephemeral. The brief horror felt while a cast member discusses her "va-jay-jay" tattoo is diffused by the confusion induced by another's nightly routine of blow-drying his body. The sadness felt as Kermit Ruffins' music provides the soundtrack for a tragic Hurricane bender dissipates with the humor of the NOPD being called after someone's toothbrush gets peed on.
The show is a welcome reprieve because the world The Real World occupies is not, in fact, real. In The Real World's New Orleans, the biggest issues facing residents include where to eat a hangover meal — Cannon's or Subway? — and the most commonly committed crime is toothbrush urine-icide. Sure, the show touches on some serious issues like dating violence and homophobia, but generally it's all hookups and vodka shots punctuated by some volunteer work.
The timing of the show's taping further contributes to this fantasy New Orleans. MTV happened to drop in around back-to-back Super Bowl and Mardi Gras, so The Real World's New Orleans is stuck in that pre-oil disaster time when the city was a perpetual party ringing with shouts of "Who Dat!"
We're still facing challenges five years after Hurricane Katrina, and the oil spill is presenting a new crop of problems, the full magnitude of which has yet to be seen. It's all overwhelming, which is why it's important to escape the real world on occasion. What better way than with The Real World?