The Real World: Key West (MTV, Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET) is the 17th iteration of a reality show that began airing in 1992. We are thus entering a critical new phase of a program that's been increasing in self-awareness since its second season: The youngest of these seven people having their "lives" taped have known of the show for perhaps longer than they've known how to spell television. Reality TV isn't just a trend or a genre but an option. Spending a few months on The Real World is simply a thing that an elite corps of young adults does, like studying on a Marshall Scholarship or enlisting in Teach for America. They've been waiting 14 years for these 15 minutes, and getting them must feel like destiny.
The hetero boys here are, on balance, less boorish than the meatheads who have become staples of the series; Jose, 20, and Zach, 22, are each presentable enough to take home to mother. As if to compensate, the gay roommate, 23-year-old Tyler, declares near the outset that he enjoys the company of "people that are just as loud and obnoxious as me." Yet it is John, 23, who is charged with greasing the show's wheels by supplying memorable boorishness. The lad arrives at the house with a blow-up doll in tow. Her name is Judy.
And what of the fairer sex? The girls of Key West are just as likely as their recent predecessors to locate their identities within the bulging cups of their brassieres. During last week's casting special—on which battle-scarred Real World veterans handicapped the current field and wherein Ernest Hemingway was name-checked as "one of American literature's biggest party-boys"—Janelle, 22, brought a chiming singsong lilt to the declaration, "I had my boobs done." Tonight, Svetlana, a 19-year-old representative of suburban Philly, proudly tells us that hers are real. "See, they jiggle and stuff," she jigglingly avers. "If anything, I would get my nose done."
Then there is Paula, at 24, the oldest and least-wise of the housemates. "I need a fresh start," she says in her audition tape. "I recently became kinda a little bit bulimic." And because there is no place like basic cable to work out one's health problems, MTV rolled out the red carpet for her and she scrambled upon it. During the cast's inaugural night out on Duval Street—a chance to unwind over a few Jell-O shots—Paula listens as John tries to engage Jose in some speculative conversation: "Would you mind seeing her with about 10, 15 more pounds on her?" This touches off what promises to be the first of a record number of crying jags. "When I drink, I just turn into a sobbing mess," Paula later says. "Unfortunately, right now I'm with six other people who have probably never seen a girl act like this." No, dear; of course they have—they've seen this show before. If they pause before trying to console you or control you, they are either waiting to make sure the camera's got a good angle or thinking up a way to vary this theme.
It is probably the former. Most of The Real World's tropes are just about played out. Consider the traditional scene in which the housemates take their wide-eyed tour of their deluxe dormitory. There are only so many ways to say "enormous" and "sweet" and "Oh. My. God." Perhaps next season seven jaded strangers will prance into their fishbowl only to scoff at the art in the poolroom, to whine that the hot tub suffers in comparison to the previous Real World Jacuzzis, to sneer at the fridge for not being a Sub-Zero.
But these kids know their duties. They're spoiling for drama (Janelle: "There will definitely be a little bit of clashing. … It's gonna get real catty") and looking to play My First Infidelity (Svetlana on John: "I definitely have respect for his body"). They leave us with only the usual, apocalypse-of-the-week kind of questions: Is there no decency? Will the younger generation demolish the grammatical distinction between "less" and "fewer"? Why haven't we taught our children how to hold their liquor?