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Reality Check: MTV shakes up the reality TV format it created

Emily Fehrenbacher

Thus far, Reality Check has focused on the world of Alaska reality TV. However, as a connoisseur of the genre, I must stray a bit to address a pivotal moment in reality TV history that happened last week: MTV changed the format of "The Real World" after 28 seasons and 22 years.

"The Real World" is the longest-running reality series and is credited with creating the modern genre that I hate to love and love to hate. To put it in perspective, many of the current cast members of "The Real World: Ex-plosion" were not even born when "The Real World" premiered in 1992. For those who have been living in the wilderness for over two decades and somehow missed it, the premise of "The Real World" is simple: place seven young, attractive strangers in a trendy city loft and find out what happens when people from different backgrounds, all thirsty for the spotlight and alcohol, "start getting real."

This format brought us some significant moments in television and popular culture. Pedro Zemora ("The Real World: San Francisco") gave us a glimpse into the life of someone living with AIDS. Ruthie ("The Real World: Hawaii") went to rehab after a drunk-driving incident. Coral Smith taught Mike "The Miz" (now of WWE fame) about African-American culture during the "The Real World: Back to New York." I watched the Chicago cast react to 9-11, the Paris cast in the early days of the Iraq War and the Washington, D.C., cast in the optimistic first year of President Obama's term.

Here's the new premise: the seven roommates move into the house and a month after they are settled in, their exes move in with them, thus doubling the size of the cast. Based on the previews, tears and rage will immediately begin to flow.

More notable than this plot twist was the fact that MTV demolished the so-called fourth wall. In previous seasons, the audience was supposed to ignore the fact that the cast had grown up watching "The Real World" and that the cameras and producers were present in all the scenes. But in the first episode of "The Real World: Ex-plosion," we frequently saw cameramen in the background. MTV even showed a cast member calling a producer to ask for permission to go to a specific night club. Cast members mentioned looking good on TV, talked about how hot it was in their apartment (this is why they are always scantily clad on reality shows, because production literally turns up the heat) and referenced their season number. I suspect this will have a ripple effect in the broader reality TV genre.

Imagine if we got to see the cameramen on "Ultimate Survival Alaska" hanging from the sides of mountains with heavy equipment, or a conversation between the cast of "Alaska: The Last Frontier" warning a producer that they were going to head to the Safeway to grab some flour and butter. It's a step towards making these shows more real to audiences that have been suspending their belief for two decades.

Before I move on to Alaska shows, I must mention the content of "The Real World: Ex-plosion" because it was a total train wreck, and I loved it. In only one episode, a girl named Ashley got hammered, drunk-dialed her grandpa and told him, "I want to crawl inside your belly," screamed that her family could buy someone else's family and threw hot grease in the face of a roommate that did nothing to her. I hope that MTV hired an actress and gave her lines, or that she's a robot controlled by MTV's ratings department, because I don't want to live in a world where people like this are freely roaming the streets. If you haven't watched "The Real World" since you were in college, now might be the time to come back. Make sure to DVR it, though, because no one over age 16 should be subjected to the type of commercials that appear on MTV.

While Ashley was slurring because of the booze, Rudy Reyes on "Ultimate Survival Alaska" was slurring because he was in stage two of hypothermia. It's hard to believe these shows are part of the same genre, because the people on them are from different planets. It was a pretty mediocre episode of "Ultimate Survival Alaska": Sean Burch saw his life flash before his eyes, again; Dallas Seavey did the noble thing and helped out the Military Team, obviously; and the Mountaineers ate better than the other teams thanks to their ski-fishing skills. The Endurance Athletes finally secured a victory after weeks of coming in second place.

This episode was a great commercial for packrafting, which, as Marty Raney reminds us, was invented in Alaska. Speaking of Raney, word in the Alaska reality TV rumor mill (which only exists in my mind) is that he'll be part of the Anchorage Folk Festival on Tuesday, Jan. 21, at the Eagle River Ale House. If you haven't heard "I Really Caribou You," Google it immediately.

• Emily Fehrenbacher lives in Anchorage, where she reviews Alaska reality TV.


By Emily Fehrenbacher
Daily News correspondent