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Stop Being Polite and Start Being Real

Mary-Ellis Bunim died last month. Her name may not ring an immediate bell, but trust me -- you are no doubt very familiar with her body of work. Bunim, along with her producing partner Jonathan Murray, created The Real World, which has alternately entertained and annoyed America since 1992. Other credits include Road Rules, assorted combinations of The Real World and Road Rules and, most recently, The Simple Life, or, as it's known in some parts, Seven More Episodes of Paris Hilton Than America Needed to See.

The obituaries for Bunim contained the requisite plaudits from colleagues and collaborators. MTV Networks Group president Judy McGrath took time out from apologizing for MTV's Halftime Salute to Nipples to eulogize, "Mary-Ellis opened our eyes and our hearts to a whole new way of looking at young adult programming." Fox entertainment president Gail Berman hailed her as "an extraordinary talent who pioneered an entire genre of television." Fan sites were suitably reverent and mournful. Even sites known more for their snark than their sentimentality had a few kind words to say.

It's human nature to want to be generous with our praise when someone passes away. Maybe it's because we're all going to be stung by loss sooner or later, and we want to offer the same comfort to the grieving that we would want for ourselves. Or maybe, by remembering the just-deceased fondly, we're hoping for the same courtesy when it's our time. Whatever the reason, I have a hard time offering up anything but the most rudimentary of condolences for Mary-Ellis Bunim for the simple reason that I didn't know the woman. I like to think she was a good person and a fine mother and a respected member of her community. In the end, though, I'd only be guessing, same as most of you. I can only judge the work she left behind.

And, unfortunately, the work she left behind was singularly awful.

I don't mean awful in WB sitcom sense, where someone's ambition usually exceeds their talent level. Mary-Ellis Bunim was anything but untalented. No, her work was awful not because she was in over her head, but because she knew all too well what she was doing -- putting together shows that pandered to viewers' worst instincts and paving the way for dozens of copycat programs, some of which she also produced, to do the same.

A lot of ink could be spilled chronicling all of The Real World's many faults. It's a very unchallenging show. It doesn't engage its viewers or force them to think about what's happening on the screen or ask them to do anything but sit passively on the couch, watching other people bloviate about their lives. Even worse, The Real World has the occasional nerve to try and dress up its contrivances as an anthropological study of how the kids today are interacting. And it delivers an annual influx of C-List pseudo-celebrities who stubbornly linger on the stage long after their 15 minutes are up.

Then again, a lot of shows are guilty of those wrongs. What sets The Real World apart, what makes it the king of its particular garbage heap, is the thing that makes the program so damn watchable in the first place -- the conflicts and contretemps between the ever-changing cast of housemates.

Bunim recognized this. "Producers don't necessarily recognize why they put people together," she told Mediaweek for an interview quoted in her Los Angeles Times obituary. "They don't understand it's for the purpose of conflict."

Trouble is, as the years have worn on, The Real World has had to ratchet up that conflict. And increasingly, the producers have populated their homes with people who should be working out their assorted issues miles away from the nearest camera. Instead, they're thrown together in a house, usually well stocked with alcohol, and instructed to hold nothing back -- all while Bunim is in the control room pressing the Record button.

There's a scene in "The Wild Bunch" -- right at the beginning of the movie, just in case you're looking for a good DVD rental tonight -- in which a bunch of kids are gathered around a hole in the ground. The kids have thrown a couple of scorpions into the hole, where a mess of fire ants just happen to be waiting. The fire ants swarm over the scorpions, who flail about helpless while the children giggle maniacally -- at least until they get bored with the whole scene, drop some flaming straw on the scorpions and ants, and move on presumably to cause some more mayhem elsewhere.

The only difference between those kids at the start of "The Wild Bunch" and Mary-Ellis Bunim is that Mary-Ellis Bunim figured out a way to drop a bunch of scorpions into a hole filled with fire ants and get paid for it. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, though it does pretty much preclude you from membership in The Good Guy Club.

Some shows exist because their creators have a story to tell and a unique gift for bring characters to life. Other programs are more simple diversions, with no larger purpose other than to entertain. Mary-Ellis Bunim's work was neither of these things. The Real World, Love Cruise, The Simple Life -- these programs made it to the airwaves simply because we like to see our train wrecks televised, from a distance, and involving other people. For the past dozen years, everything Mary-Ellis Bunim has put on the air has lowered the bar just a little further. And television is the worse of because of it.

If that's an asshole thing to say about the recently deceased, then so be it. There are worse things in life than being an asshole.

In my book, being involved in the production of The Real World would be one of them.


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