‘Skeletons’ United ‘Real World’s’ Guilty-Pleasure Present With Its Socially Conscious Past

The 30th season of The Real World had to be something special. It was not only a milestone in reality television (the big 3-0!) and the follow-up to a strange, “shocking” new format (Real World: Ex-Plosion), but it also had to justify the show’s continued existence. To accomplish this, MTV introduced Real World: Skeletons, another format change in which the basics are the same (seven strangers in a gorgeous house), but there’s a twist: Each of the roommates is visited by a “skeleton” from his or her past. MTV opted to bring in not just exes but other kinds of skeletons, too — reuniting the roommates with enemies, siblings, and even an estranged father. The decision often made for compelling television, especially for a franchise that has been slowly fading out for years.

Skeletons, a Real World season that I watched with a voracity that I haven’t felt for any season since 2000’s The Real World: New Orleans, featured plenty of of typical Real World fare. Virtually every episode featured the cast getting too drunk and either hooking up or fighting (screaming matches, some broken furniture and household items). The arguments ranged from the hilarious — roommates drunkenly and intensely screeching about towels to the point where their arguments had to be subtitled in order to be understood — to the worrisome, as in last night’s episode, when a relatively large dude named Jason physically attacked his good friend and roommate Nicole.

It’s unclear exactly what occurred because it was edited out, showing the immediate prelude and aftermath (and subtitling Nicole off-screen while the camera focused on the group of security guards rushing into the house). This is especially notable considering how rarely MTV chooses to step away from capturing violence rather than showcasing and sensationalizing it. But it was enough to see Nicole to get incredibly, viscerally upset (a 180 from her established personality on the show) and completely write off Jason — and to have the producers bring in a therapist specializing in domestic violence to talk to the house, with MTV airing a PSA about violence before the commercial break.

vlcsnap-2015-03-11-11h35m24s31Generally, though, the most interesting bits of the show centered on the skeletons. Two of the roommates are faced with sort-of enemies: Self-proclaimed bully Violetta is visited by two peers who were victims of her harassment, while Sylvia’s skeleton is a hated former boss. Tony’s skeleton is, as expected, a girlfriend (sorry, “a girl from home”) who conveniently arrives the morning after he sleeps with his roommate Madison, but — and here’s the great twist — he gets a second skeleton at the same time: another ex-girlfriend. This effectively leaves Tony jugging three different women. Surprisingly, Real World doesn’t focus on Tony’s misadventures. Instead, it’s the editing that seems to condemn him, implying that Tony is an asshole for the way that he treats all the women in his life.

There are some surprising skeletons thrown in the mix, too. Nicole gets a visit from her fellow triplets, the idea being that their dual upcoming weddings will shocker into settling down, but mostly she’s just happy to have family around. Madison’s visit from her sister is also sweet, if much heavier: The sisters stopped being so close when Madison developed a drug problem (her real skeleton isn’t her sister or the ex who also appeared but her history of addiction), and the show captures their long, enlightening, and honest talks and the steps they take to heal their relationship. Who knew MTV could do something good? Real World hoped for a similar resolution between roommate Bruno and his estranged brother Briah — the two hadn’t spoken in years following an argument over food, no joke — but Bruno, who should’ve been kicked off early for his violent actions and rage fits, shrugs away Briah’s visit (and shows that he’s uncomfortable with his brother’s sexuality, if not outright homophobic).

By far the most surprising, strangest, and heaviest skeleton of them all arrived in last night’s season finale. Jason has always stood out among the Real World roommates. Sure, he spends an awful lot of time trying to hook up with women at bars, but his “narrative” is mostly about fathers. He nervously awaits the birth of his daughter, and when she’s born, the cameras follow him home to meet her (this part is adorable) and record his worries about whether or not he’ll be a good father. He’s not with the mother of his child, though he has promised to be in his daughter’s life, and a lot of this worry stems from his relationship with his own father, who left the family when Jason was a baby.

In Real World‘s boldest move (or possibly most shameless, depending on your overall view of the program), Jason’s skeleton is his father, Lafayette, who shows up and has to introduce himself because he’s been away for so long that Jason doesn’t even recognize him. It is a remarkably dramatic and emotional moment — not just for Real World and MTV, but for reality television in general. What follow are real and tear-filled conversations between Jason and Lafayette, a runaway father trying to make amends and give advice to a new father, who, to Jason’s credit, tries his best to find the good in the situation. It’s awful that Lafayette has been gone for 24 years before returning with more excuses than explanations or apologies, but Jason accepts this all and allows himself to be happy with the experience of finally meeting his father — though he also makes sure to show up his father by explaining how involved he’ll be in his own child’s life.

vlcsnap-2015-03-11-11h35m44s249It’s hard to figure out what MTV is aiming for here. The optimistic answer is that the Real World producers are trying to do something admirable, harking back to the program’s earlier seasons that were focused on important issues like race and AIDS. After all, the network has recently been making an effort to balance its ridiculous programming with more serious specials. And it’s undeniable that may of these reunions (Madison and her sister, Bruno and his brother, and definitely Jason and his father) might not have ever happened without MTV’s interference, even if both parties were willing. Still, this is The Real World, a show whose goal often seems to be nothing more than to create the ideal conditions for an extended spring break. This season was designed to mix that raunchy silliness with heavy storytelling, from Madison’s battle with addiction to Jason’s fatherhood storyline, but the raunchiness clearly remained a priority.

There are two ways MTV could move on from Real World: Skeletons. It could introduce a new direction for the franchise, ushering in a reboot that isn’t so reliant on montages of the roommates clinking their glasses together in a dark nightclub. On the other hand, maybe it’s just a bold swan song. There appears to be no requisite reunion special on the calendar (are you kidding me?!), which could be an indication that this is the series’ last season — it hasn’t been renewed yet, and 30 is a good number to go out on. Either way, Real World: Skeletons was a worthwhile experiment, and a mostly successful way of uniting the two different incarnations of the Real World franchise: the guilty-pleasure fun its later years and its socially conscious beginnings.