The Offense of Marriage Act

You mean to tell me these wholesome American youth abuse alcohol and act out before millions of viewers each week? That couldn't be true! 'The Real World: San Diego'

If you're ever feeling down on yourself because you've failed to cure cancer, join J.K. Rowling as a billionaire novelist, or remember your mom's birthday, there is a simple cure: Watch some MTV. No, not the TRL stuff, or any of the beach bacchanals MTV throws. The first has the time-capsule whiff of American Bandstand around it, which will only make you feel old and unaccomplished if you can actually remember watching AB on Saturday morning; and the second has the feel of a bachelorette party in Las Vegas at 3:00 a.m., a sort of forced march toward a gaiety made possible only by trained professionals in beer commercials.

Instead, sink a few hours into watching The Real World: San Diego, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, and 'Til Death Do Us Part: Carmen and Dave. You will not emerge a better person, but you will be convinced that you are. After all, the only way things could get worse would be for you to become one of the hapless bumblers on these unreality shows.

For example, you could be Nick Lachey. In the first series run of Newlyweds last spring and summer, he was the levelheaded, if perpetually frustrated, husband of an organically grown idiot. You couldn't feel too sorry for the guy--he did elect to marry Jessica of his own free will (and raging libido). But you could empathize with him as he tried to keep his house and career from unraveling amid the forces of entropy and his child bride. This season, however, Jessica's stage daddy is keeping a tighter rein on the footage. And so she comes off looking like she's trying to revive the "Chicken of the Sea" incident with an increasingly daffy set of malaprops, and Nick...comes off like he's trying out for the James Mason role in the MTV remake of A Star Is Born.

As a result, the appealing spectacle from the first season--the genuine affection that suggested why his blunt pragmatism and her intellectually arid sincerity somehow worked for them--is completely gone. Although Newlyweds hasn't reached the levels of self-referential inanity that the Osbournes did in season two, it is in danger of killing all its original appeal. Which will die first, the program or their love? Could the death of the latter redeem the former?

The real reason to watch? To see how low Nick will sink this season in the editing eyes of his father-in-law. You'll feel better because you may have issues with your family (or someone else's), but at least nobody has the power to make you look like Norman Maine.


If you're a little more desperate for a self-esteem fix, you could always tune in to 'Til Death Do Us Part: Carmen and Dave. MTV's programming strategy here is only a little less murky and perverse than George Bush's surprisingly intense interest in the partnership rituals of consenting adults. Is the network trying to appeal to a target demographic old enough to legally marry outside the state of Utah? Or does the channel believe that an audience historically interested in dramatic relationships with the life span of mayflies really wants more shows about an institution historically associated with lifelong monogamy (at least outside the state of Utah)? Whatever the reasons, 'Til Death Do Us Part is one of those misfires that's luridly compelling.

People who are trying to plan an alterna-wedding (George Bush?) are on a misguided mission anyway. A real subversive would be less interested in maintaining fealty to some consumer lifestyle niche--for instance, fretting about how to make the wedding cake more "them." But watching Carmen and Dave navigate the tension between their supposedly hip lifestyles and their voracious urge to leap into that most traditional of institutions goes beyond mere hipster hypocrisy and into some weirdly poignant territory. In a way, sitting through this show is like watching the Pam and Tommy Lee video. Yes, that video. The couple's urge to have something safe and centered is so overwhelming and obvious, it explains why these people are driven to do "edgy" things for attention. It also makes their need for unconditional affection seem as opulently, cinematically tragic as any other non-Star Is Born Judy Garland moment.

But then some people aren't going to realize the blessing they've enjoyed by never having to deal with Perry Farrell, Anthony Kiedis, Prince, or Dennis Rodman at any point in their personal or professional lives. Those who know weltschmerz as a constant companion will need to make appointment viewing out of The Real World: San Diego.

Featuring an array of intermittently intoxicated, consistently idiotic twerps who manage to be both breathtakingly self-involved and staggeringly self-ignorant, this show will make you fondly remember your own youthful dramas. Of course, you'll also smugly assert to anyone within earshot that you were nowhere near as stoopid as drunken bartender Robin, needy drunk Frankie, or insensitive and inebriated Randy. And best of all, your arrest was never broadcast on TV.

Real World: San Diego will make anyone feel better about having survived her college years without entering the public record. Similarly, Newlyweds will surely leave you relieved that Nick and Jessica have saved you from the perils of running across either of them on the singles scene; and 'Til Death Do Us Part will make even harrowing grown-up events look like minor obstacles you handled with aplomb. It's kind of funny that MTV's throbbing trifecta of youth-oriented shows will never make anyone feel more grateful to be grown up.

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