Media pundits like to peg The Real World as the birthplace of the reality TV inferno. But after 13 seasons, it has jettisoned all remaining traces of its cinema verité origins and plunged headlong into conspicuous sex, slime, and surveillance. (Even Puck, the show’s most noxious alum, recently whined that all today’s Real Worlders do is “drink, fight, and fuck.”) Which is why it’s such an unexpected time for R.J. Cutler to make Freshman Diaries, a new series on Showtime that follows 12 freshmen through their first year at the University of Texas at Austin—with riveting results.
Cutler—best known for his work on the Clinton campaign documentary The War Room, as well as The Perfect Candidate, about Oliver North’s Senate campaign, and his previous youth-verité series, American High—treads the same late-adolescent landscape as The Real World, but with very different methods and outcome. Instead of cramming his characters into an Ikea-furnished loft, surrounding them with temptation, and filming their every frisky move with night-vision cameras, Cutler left the kids in their own habitat. He equipped them with cameras, and sent a few crews to follow along, amassing a total of 2,200 hours of footage. Cutler explains, “Rather than the idea that kids had cameras in their face 24-7, think more along the line of a small camera crew following the kid three to four hours in a day. And then they might not see us for a week.” Cutler realized that there’s inherent drama in the transitional nature of freshman year—not sensationalistic stuff, but the excruciatingly awkward finding-yourself/well-of-loneliness/lost-at-sea kind of drama that lies buried deep within all of us, whether we attended college or not.
The notion of reality television as a star vehicle has so pervaded the American mindset that it’s hard to imagine finding 12 teenagers who won’t play to the cameras. Cutler says that the selection process was crucial: “We worked really hard to weed out those kids who wanted to be performing on The Real World, and it was much harder this time than even three years ago, when we did American High. But anyone who wants to be on The Real World has no business here. We’re not putting you in a house and filming you in a fishbowl—we’re collaborating with you in the telling of your life.” In this spirit, Freshman Diaries gathered a cross section of sweet, normal kids prepared to open themselves up to Cutler’s tender, watchful eye.
My favorite character so far is Neil, the sensitive gay boy from Dallas: gawky but confident, naive but also a little angry. Showing the camera a boppy yearbook photo of himself, he reads out chummy autographs: ” ‘I’ll miss your goofiness and your laugh.’ . . . I don’t know why she wrote that stuff because I never laughed around her. I didn’t like her. All the people in this high school, they were fucking assholes to me because I’m gay.” Neil’s excitement is palpable as he breaks away from the terrordome of high school and tries on new identities in the safe cell of his dorm. In the first few months he develops a crush on Hannah, a fag hag in training, and then on Luis, a flamboyant, insecure teen who is also being filmed for the series. Neil forces himself to mingle at a homo-social, nervously biting his lip as a buzz-haired lesbian gibbers boisterously about safe sex. “Hell, what do you do?” he tells the camera. “I don’t know how to be gay!”
While Neil revels in the uncertainty, Kyle mourns the loss of his close-knit high school friendships. Although two of his best friends are attending the same college, it quickly becomes clear that their plans no longer involve him. The footage delicately evokes the rift without showing any major Real World-style venting or blowups—just scenes of Kyle repeatedly calling them on the phone. In one heart-sinking scene, he worms his way into an evening at his friend Aiyasawmi’s place, where Kyle is the only white kid in a party full of Asian students. “Right now I feel like I should be looking for some other venues to explore socially,” says Kyle dryly in the voice-over, while on-screen we see Aiyasawmi’s friends clambering together for a group photo, with Kyle squirming on the edge of the sofa, loneliness etched in every crevice of his face.
Grown-ups rarely appear in the first few episodes of Freshman Diaries—kind of like Logan’s Run, where everyone past puberty has been eliminated, or Peanuts, where grown-ups just emit those strange “wah-wah” sounds. When adults do show up, it’s not such good news; they usually arrive as emissaries of society, to exert emotional and practical pressure on the teenagers. We first glimpse sheltered Casey in her middle-class home, watching a video of her school play with the parents, who disapprove of her interest in theater. Her dad, a computer specialist, strong-arms her into majoring in computer science, a subject that interests her not at all. But when she nearly flunks out and is buckling under the pressure of his expectations, Casey tries to get him to relent. He doesn’t, and they have a number of great, blunt exchanges like this one:
Dad: “Going to my goddamn job isn’t fun. I’m sick to my stomach, but I just do it.”
Casey: “Wouldn’t you want me to do something I enjoy?”
Dad: “Not really. No.”
Inevitably, Casey rebels, and various other good kids go a little bit bad—not necessarily because they’re showing off for television cameras (if they did any grandstanding Cutler left it on the cutting room floor), but because college is a giant lab for personal experimentation. Especially for students like Nicole, an 18-year-old so dignified she already looks like a district attorney, and so straitlaced she’s never been kissed by a boy or exceeded the speed limit. She dreams that college will wreak some kind of alchemical transformation. (Actually, she describes it more simply, in terms of Felicity theme song lyrics: “You can become a new version of you.”) And so it does.
These days there’s a network for just about every niche: food, sports, music, cartoons, animals, politics, indie films, even home repairs. But visual art gets no respect on television, beyond the occasional documentary on Picasso or late-night screening of Pollock. So the very existence of Art:21—Art in the 21st Century feels groundbreaking. Spread over two nights, the second incarnation of the Emmy-nominated miniseries presents a serious but entertaining contemplation of 15 modern working artists. The producers selected a vivid mix of established names (Kara Walker, Gabriel Orozco, Kiki Smith) and intriguing up-and-comers (Trenton Doyle Hitchcock, Walton Ford), devoting about 20 minutes to each artist’s work. Surprisingly, the program doesn’t overemphasize biography, although life stories leak out as they discuss how artistic obsessions and styles took hold of them.
Just as Project Greenlight reveals the army of technical people behind the scenes of a movie, Art:21 offers a fascinating glimpse of the assistants, artisans, and printmakers sometimes involved in bringing a vision to life, totally messing with the myth of the lone suffering artiste. And the camera keeps us entertained by evoking a sense of perpetual motion as the work comes into being: Walker cutting remarkably graceful, disturbing figures from construction paper; Raymond Pettibon’s hand slashing out dark inky lines; Collier Shorr racing around youth wrestling matches with her camera, contemplating “the life I would’ve had if I was a boy”; Vija Celmins planting tiny white specks on a canvas she has been working on for over a year, discussing the way she “builds a painting” as she erases and repaints dot after dot. Intimate and painstaking work laid open for the world to see.