Other People's Trash

Belinda Acosta argues why your trash TV is no better than her trash TV.

Just don't call them polite: the cast of <i>The Real World</i> New York
Just don't call them "polite": the cast of The Real World New York (Photo By Jason Campbell)

Most people who admit to watching television have their "can't miss" programs, and the ones they avoid like bad breath. Claiming what you do and don't watch is a sort of a social shorthand for declaring your values and provides a way for others to determine your values. But an interesting thing has occurred in the past few years. If you want to get really technical about it, it probably occurred much earlier with the emergence of pulp novels. What I'm talking about is good trash. The stuff you know is intellectually vacant and a waste of time, yet still, you watch. If you're fortunate, your good trash appeals to a larger group of people. There's comfort in being in league with those who "get it," even if your peeps are sneered at from the outside (think about those terminally maligned Trekkies). Bad trash is other people's trash -- the stuff you wouldn't be caught dead watching or reading, or admitting to watching or reading. Other people's trash is beneath you, and hardly worth mentioning, except to claim your place on the social barometer of cool.

One show that definitely claims a high place on the barometer of cool is The Real World, which had its season premiere last week. The MTV franchise, now in its 10th year, deserves props for doing "reality" first and doing it right the first time. The setting of the RW is the ultimate, young adult sandbox: a bad-ass apartment in a big city, appointed with all the top-of-the-line necessities (barring TV and stereo). Best of all, no buzz-killing parents lurking about. It's the show kids across America tune in to, and turn down when mom or dad walk into the room. At least that's how MTV described it in not one, but two pre-shows to the RW premiere -- the reunion show and the casting special. If you missed these specials, you weren't looking. They aired nearly nonstop prior to the RW season premiere.

It was interesting, watching the hoopla leading up to the RW, how certain factors deem the show cool and acceptable, whereas in another setting, it might be viewed more derisively. For example, in one clip from RW Miami, three housemates were spying on two other housemates (one male, one female) who brought home a woman after a night out. After a dip in the hot tub, the three of them went to shower -- together. This caused giddy curiosity among the spying housemates, and cameras careened behind them as they ran around like puppies to eavesdrop outside the bathroom window.

Then one of them inexplicably tried to wedge herself through the narrow bathroom window -- for what purpose, I'm not sure, except to have one of those, "Omigod! I was so drunk ... " stories. But as I watched the scene, all I could think was: What would the reaction be if this were a 300-pound woman in polyester pants, squeezing through the bathroom window of a double-wide trailer after her gap-toothed husband got caught messin' with his cousin? Gives it a whole new spin. Why is it acceptable, and omigod-hilarious to watch this girl act a fool on RW, when on Jerry Springer she would be called trailer trash? Because her behind was cute? Because she was somewhat educated and had all her teeth? Or because she was on MTV instead of The Jerry Springer Show?

All of this is a long-winded way of declaring that I cop to my predilection for good trash, but maybe I'll be a little less rabid in my condemnation of it when it shows up in other forms. Because when it all comes down to it, we all want to know what went down: We want to know the story, the details, the dirt, the lowdown, the skinny. We want to know how people similar to us act in certain situations, and we want to know how people unlike us behave as well. Part of it may be lurid curiosity, and part of it may satisfy the need to set ourselves above others, but in the end, it's because we want to know something about ourselves and something unlike ourselves. You take what you need, when you need it.

Much has been written about the voyeurism and exhibitionism of RW and other reality television, but another issue to observe is how class, gender, and race play themselves out on the small screen in these shows. Which is why I've made a date to watch RW this year. Between the sharp-tongued Coral, the ghetto-glamorous Nicole, the perilously-similar-to-RW-Hawaii-Amaya Lori, and Malik, never have I seen so many brown-tinged folks on one, high-profile TV show. Completing the cast are Austinite and UT student Kevin Dunn, Midwestern frat rat Mike, and the doll-faced resident virgin, Rachel. If it's true that RW has brought a number of issues to the television table and opened discussion of those issues -- virginity, HIV and AIDS, safe sex, homosexuality, among others -- then I'm eager to see this season's RW. Race is the most divisive, painful issue to be approached on modern television, and so in need of being talked about in new ways. Will it happen on RW? I hope so. I truly hope so. If not, I'm still looking forward to the goofy antics of seven strangers who discover what it's like to "be real."

The Real World airs Tuesdays at 9pm on MTV.

Spy Wars Talent Search

A new reality-adventure series, Spy Wars, is looking for contestants. Men and women age 21 and older, in "good physical and mental condition," are invited to audition for the new ABC reality series. Selected contestants vie with team members to compete in "Mission: Impossible-style challenges to win a life-altering prize." For more details, log onto www.ABC.com. Application deadline is Aug. 8.

E-mail Belinda Acosta at tveye@austinchronicle.com

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The Real World, MTV, Spy Wars

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