Televising New Orleans in 2010…or Why Sonny isn’t Watching The Real World: New Orleans

July 21, 2010
By | 7 Comments

In an early episode of Treme, street buskers Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Sonny (Michiel Huisman) are asked by a group of bright-eyed tourists to play a tune. They are in New Orleans, they explain, to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward with their church group. Sonny, whose role as elitist hipster is signified by his man-scarf and skinny jeans, sneers at the tourist-volunteers, who are from Wisconsin of all places, and asks them if they had ever heard of “Lower Ninth” before Hurricane Katrina destroyed it. He then asks, in a mocking tone, if they’d like to hear “When the Saints Come Marching In.” The tourists are pleased with Sonny’s suggestion, even though “Saints is extra,” and seem unaware of Sonny’s disdain.

Though his behavior is rude, Sonny’s frustration with the tourists’ pitying gaze is understandable. In the months following Katrina the complexities of the spiraling disaster were overly simplified. As David Simon puts it, the Lower Ninth Ward became “symbolic of the whole city.” Nevertheless, Sonny makes his living primarily by capitalizing on the sentiments of tourists who are looking to hear something “authentic.” Sonny resents the tourists’ simplified view of his city but he caters to it as well.

I cite this scene because the cast members of the latest edition of The Real World, also set in New Orleans, is a lot like that group of Wisconsin tourist-volunteers: naive outsiders with seemingly good intentions. According to The Real World executive producer Jon Murray, the group will be tasked with rebuilding homes during their stay in the Big Easy because “we’re hoping our cast members and the series can play a small role in the city’s rebirth.” Helping others is noble but make no mistake: these kids are in New Orleans to help themselves. More specifically, they are there for the “journey”—a term Real World cast members have historically used to refer to the combined experiences of getting drunk, learning not make racial/ethnic/sexist/homophobic slurs (at least not while on camera), and breaking up with the significant others they left at home. Thus far New Orleans appears in the series as the colorful backdrop for the casts’ bacchanal undertakings.

MTV’s vision of contemporary New Orleans is best exemplified by the décor of the Real World mansion, which is filled kitschy signifiers of its home city: seafood, feathers, brass instruments, and lots and lots of Mardi Gras beads. And when a cast member accidentally (or not so accidentally) reveals a breast or rear end to the camera, the forbidden body part is blocked out with a tiny purple and green Mardi Gras mask. This final touch would probably induce Sonny to commit seppuku.

But me? I’m not so bothered by all of this touristy-ness. In fact, Treme’s “authentic” vision of the city and the Real World’s seemingly inauthentic one serve as useful counterpoints on the contemporary televisual image of New Orleans. David Simon’s series is mournful and nostalgic, a scarred landscape of restaurants that can’t stay afloat, potholes that don’t get fixed, and bodies that don’t get buried. By contrast, MTV is showcasing a New Orleans that is tentatively getting back on its feet, a city ripe for tourists who want drunken nights on Bourbon Street, live music, and women who will bare their breasts for trinkets. Sonny might not approve of MTV’s version of New Orleans, but beloved New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins clearly does—he pops up several times during the season premiere.

Furthermore, since filming of the series wrapped in April, just before the devastating Gulf oil spill, this season of The Real World depicts a New Orleans frozen in time, wholly unaware of the disaster about to be unleashed on its shores. After watching a sobering series like Treme this winter, followed by the devastating coverage of the oil spill throughout the spring, it’s comforting to spend the summer with this tourist’s vision of New Orleans: where the beignets are hot, the Mardi Gras beads are flying, and everyone is dancing, happily, to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

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7 Responses to “ Televising New Orleans in 2010…or Why Sonny isn’t Watching The Real World: New Orleans

  1. Jon Kraszewski on July 21, 2010 at 4:33 PM

    Amanda,

    Nice post. I find the cast this season to be extremely vacant. The DC season had some interesting and complex people, but I’m fairly sure everyone in this season of New Orleans has a single-digit IQ.

    Anyway, I find myself watching because of the differences between the way this season and season 9 film New Orleans. It seems like season 9 didn’t show the city as much. Instead, we got lots of scenes of the house. In this recent season, lots of the scenes are of folks going out. I think your points about the tourist perspective of New Orleans and the need to show that the party city is up and running again are really great.

    I also think the folks are out on the town this season because the show now tries to sell music in the episodes, and recently seasons show the cast dancing at clubs (usually for no narrative reason) so they can encourage viewers to buy the song. That wasn’t a feature of The Real World back in season 9. Hence, the new season has the folks going clubbing to sell music.

    Great post.

    Jon

    • Jon Kraszewski on July 21, 2010 at 6:17 PM

      Amanda,

      Actually, let me amend my comment some. This season of The Real World spends little time fleshing out the actual characters. The series gives them no depth, and I don’t tune in to watch the people. (Who knows if these people are complex in real life, but the series doesn’t portray them as such.) I tune in to watch how the season presents New Orleans, which is why I find your post so good. The city was not as prominent in prior seasons set in New Orleans.

      Jon

    • amanda klein on July 22, 2010 at 10:36 AM

      Hi Jon
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments! I’ve definitely noticed MTV’s attempts to promote the purchase of certain singles (this also occurs on programs like The Hills and The City) by mentioning the title and artist as a non-diegetic song plays. But I did not realize that this also occurs with diegetic music–very interesting! I wonder if this is planned out ahead of time, with MTV and record companies working with certain clubs in New Orleans–i.e., if you play this single while our cameras are here, we’ll compensate you.

      And, D.C. is one of the few seasons (including Back to NY and Chicago) that I have not watched (quitting is hard!), so I can’t comment on that particular cast’s complexity. But since Las Vegas it seems that cast members are chosen based on their emotional instability–which is pretty irresponsible of MTV, I think. For example, it seems clear that Knight will have a some sort of relapse in the house.

  2. Jon Kraszewski on July 22, 2010 at 5:14 PM

    Hi Amanda,

    Quitting is hard. I’ve seen every season, but I did miss the second half of Philly. I can’t believe I’m a 36 year old with two kids and I still watch The Real World!

    Anyway, I think last night’s episode exemplified your points about the touristy nature of this season very well. The entire episode seemed to be about what New Orleans has to offer—great sports, great parties, and great bars. So much of the season is out of the house and on the town.

    The connection between The Real World and tourism extends to other seasons, too. I’m thinking of the Paris and Cancun seasons where the casts had jobs in the tourist industry. But certainly there are moments that are less explicit but just as planned—like the Las Vegas season being set in a hotel. The connection between reality TV and tourism is really important. You see it on other shows such as The Amazing Race that takes you to vacation locales and also incorporates ads for the tourist industry.

    Oh, I’m not sure if the music in the clubs on the Real World is diegetic or non-diegetic. I’m not sure if the producers take random dance shots and mix it to singles they want to promote or if the producers make deals with clubs to play the music. But I did notice that The Real World started incorporating pointless club scenes after the Hills starting selling singles.

    Yeah, The DC season is pretty cool and a throwback to seasons 1, 2, and 3 where interesting people did important things. The season got terrible ratings, but I found it to be much more interesting than other recent seasons where unstable people get drunk. The DC season is worth checking out.

    Thanks again for the great post,

    Jon

    • amanda klein on July 22, 2010 at 6:47 PM

      I’m a 33 year old with 2 kids who still watches the Real World. I’m sure there is a support group for this somewhere…

      • Jon Kraszewski on July 22, 2010 at 8:30 PM

        I hope. It’s so hard to juggle raising a family, starting an academic career, and watching The Real World. I have to make so many sacrifices to keep up with aesthetes such as Knight.

  3. Vicki Mayer on August 2, 2010 at 4:20 PM

    MTV isn’t inventing anything new in terms of NOLA representations. Just remember New Orleans is also the birthplace of Girls Gone Wild, which did more to boost and hype Bourbon Street in the 90s than anything else.