Last month, the latest cycle of MTV's "Real World/Road Rules Challenge" concluded with its usual paroxysm of backstabbing duplicity. You see, the guys had told Paula all along that they'd be keeping her as part of their alliance but then at the last minute they flipped on her and picked Evelyn instead because she was going to... Well, you get the point.
The "Real World/Road Rules Challenge" series ("RWRRC" for short) is like a king-sized bag of Chili Cheese Fritos. There's nothing of value there, and it may even be killing brain cells, but you can't stop consuming it
The "RWRRC" series is a rip-off of "Survivor." Two teams live together at some exotic location and compete for rewards and immunity every couple of days. One person gets eliminated each week with the ultimate goal being that the final handful of contestants left standing get a chance to compete in one last huge challenge for a big pot of cash. As for us viewers, we get front-row seats for the resultant alliance-building and double-crossing, all of it peppered with four-letter words bleeped by MTV. But because mouths aren't pixilated, you learn quick how to read lips.
Why is this show so addictive? We don't know... and we're not sure we care. But in the interests of self-improvement, we tried to analyze the show's allure. Why can't we change the channel?
1. The repertory effect. Unlike shows like "Survivor" in which each season introduces a new cast of characters, for "RWRRC" there's an awful lot of repeat appearances among a small pool of contestants. Some of these people we've watched compete in four or five "Challenge" cycles, making them as familiar as scripted show characters. Just as you know Jack McCoy's hard-nosed idiosyncracies on "Law and Order," so too do regular "RWRRC" viewers know these contestants: flirty Kenny, unstable Robin, stubborn Evelyn, honorable Derrick. There's also the catty bonus element of seeing how the contestants have changed since we last saw them. This often involves ridiculous plastic surgery for the girls.
2. Familiarity breeds contempt. This is a big one. You have to understand that "RWRRC" contestants have tangled off-screen lives that are more salacious than most soap operas. They date each other, break up with each other, cheat on each other (with each other), start lame dead-end businesses with each other. And they know everything about each other. When you join the cast of "The Real World" or "Road Rules" it's like you're becoming a part of the world's most dysfunctional family. So when contestants gather to compete for "RWRRC," they're coming into it with pre-existing relationships, friendships, and grudges. It's not like "Survivor" where total strangers must trust each other from scratch. For this reason alone, the alliances on "RWRRC" have a subtext you don't find on other shows. Every strategic decision seems all the more dramatic and emotional (e.g. players refuse to backstab a friend even if it means losing the game; players eagerly conspire to find creative ways to double-cross enemies; players find it difficult to show contrition or apologize to enemies even if it means winning the game) because of the long-term relationships the contestants have outside of the show. It's "Survivor" on crack.
3. The appeal of snobbery. The "RWRRC" contestants are all in their 20s and they do what all 20-year-olds do on MTV. They have sex, they drink, and they curse. And sometimes in the midst of all of this, especially when alcohol is involved, things get heated. Insults fly (the best being when the older contestants are jeered for being, gulp, 30), fists are sometimes thrown, and you're sitting at home gobsmocked that people actually act this way. On purpose. With a camera in their face. There's a delicious feeling of smug superiority watching "RWRRC" because these people are all completely nuts in a way that you can only vaguely comprehend. It's the theater of the rude and the lewd.
4. Envy. We're not going to lie. These are all very attractive people, in far better shape than you, getting a lot more action than you ever did. And they're getting paid, maybe even earning a living, to run on obstacle courses in the warm sand of a Central American beach every six months.
Okay, so what have we learned? We're not proud of our devotion. "RWRRC" is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. And if you ask us about it in person, we'll pretend we don't watch.