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Arrested Development

MTV eats its young and spits them out into the polluted swamp of meta–reality TV

I stopped watching The Real World and Road Rules years ago. But the annual Real World/Road Rules Challenge—a meta–TV spin-off that pits former cast members from both series against each other in an array of grueling and humiliating contests— remains weirdly mesmerizing. The current season's competitions have been less vile than in recent years, when Fear Factor–style trials often turned the show's exotic beach settings into a Roman vomitorium. Instead, activities now veer toward the sexual: One event forced participants to hump each other in order to transfer water onto body sponges; another involved rolling around in wet paint while dressed in skimpy bathing suits. But it's not the physical ordeals that make for such compelling viewing—it's the interpersonal ugliness in between, the scheming, backstabbing, brawling, and trash- talking that the show actively encourages.

Launched in 1992, The Real World is generally regarded as the birthplace of modern reality TV. It can now be seen as a social experiment gone terribly awry, not unlike the ominous Dharma Initiative on Lost. RWoriginally sold itself as a show about kids from diverse backgrounds learning to live together. But the show's makers soon grasped that friction and discord sucked in more viewers, and the casting department turned the mix-and-mismatching of borderline personalities into a cynical science. Anger issues? Anorexia? Nymphomania? Alcoholism? Step this way! The participants also figured out that amping up their own deficiencies and honing a two-dimensional persona would nab them the most screen time. Road Rules worked the same kind of behaviorist manipulation but crammed its contestants into a motor home for extra cabin-fever combustibility while dispatching the cast members on all kinds of scary physical trials.

Currently in the midst of a new season, the RW/RR Challenge increasingly looks like a cross between a full-time profession and a life-sentence detention camp for its participants. You get the sense that these kids —if you can call them that, considering that some of the players are way past their sell-by date—will be inhabiting this grotesque alternative reality for the rest of their lives. A lot of RW and RR alumni put aside burgeoning "real world" careers and turned the gig into a job, cashing in on the college lecture circuit and marketing their own photos, sexy calendars, and T-shirts.

If they're not literally indentured to the sweatshop known as Bunim/Murray Productions, these not-really-kids-anymore might as well be. They're as addicted as any of the voyeurs at home, hooked on the buzz of celebrity, their nascent personalities deformed by their first taste of self-exposure. RW/RR Challenge stars the ones who didn't realize they'd made a terrible mistake by signing up for a reality show, who keep coming back, each return warping their psyches a little more.

Because these RW/RR participants have been thrust together so often, an incestuous malaise has enveloped the ensemble. By now, nearly everyone has slept with or beaten up every castmate, and rivalries sometimes reach the point of delirium—which makes Challenge both intoxicating and degrading to watch. Last year's theme was "good guys versus badasses," but as one of the participants explained on a retrospective special, "Some of the people portrayed as super-good were kind of . . . evil." Witness Julie: A plucky but virginal Mormon on the New Orleans edition of RW, Julie has perpetrated some seriously rogue behavior during the Challenges. She once tried to rip her rival out of a safety harness while they were hanging hundreds of feet off the ground, and allegedly bit another competitor's arm.

This season, the theme is "rookies versus veterans," with the most hardened competitors playing on the latter team. That includes Julie and Beth, the irritating busybody from RW's L.A. season who blossomed into a media 'ho and this season's main troublemaker. "If you come after me, I'm gonna come after you even harder. That's the way Beth operates," she simpers. You know you've got a problem when someone talks about herself in the third person.

It's funny (more funny-sad than funny ha-ha) to see the more haggard competitors—some of whom must be pushing 40—suck in their bellies and play frat house games. In a recent episode, Montana recalls clashing with Beth in the very first RW/RR Challenge a decade ago: "You would think over the process of 10 years there would be a little bit of personal growth, but there's been no growth for Beth—except in the thighs." When Beth becomes team captain, Montana tries to act her age and make peace, saying, "Honestly, we're women in our thirties." Beth shakes hands, insisting, "I don't want to fight you!" But as soon as Montana leaves the camera frame, Beth sticks her finger down her throat like a bratty pre-teen poster girl for the state of suspended adolescence the show encourages.

RW/RR created its own out-of-whack ecosystem distorted by the radioactive glare of celebrity, but a major jolt to its precarious food chain is imminent. Road Rules has been put on permanent hiatus, drying up half the supply of new recruits, so the next Challenge will apparently pit RW/RR veterans against "regular" young people who are reality TV virgins. The working title for this upcoming season? Fresh Meat.

 
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