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Friday, June 12, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mtv's Series Appears `Real' In Name Only

Time to get real.

Not "real" as in the way MTV defines the word, but real as in authentic.

For the next few months on "The Real World," the meaning of reality will become relative.

Another "reality" is beginning to unfold in the aftermath of MTV's visit to Seattle. Comparing my personal notes from behind the scenes, Internet messages from cast members and what's shown in the premiere, it's becoming clearer that what we see on the air is further from reality than the network would have you believe.

Conflicts are gold mines on "The Real World" - especially if they fit the storyline. In the casting special that aired last Tuesday and in the hour-long season premiere, which runs Tuesday at 10 p.m., it's apparent the producers have their favorite cast members, which means some are bound to come out cleaner than others.

Most of this season will probably revolve around David Burns and Nathan Blackburn, classmates at the Virginia Military Institute, close friends and GQ model material. (Burns pumps iron, and behind the scenes, the producers take glee in zooming in on his flexing pecs.)

The cameras also loved Lindsay Brien ("A real firecracker!" as casting directors gushed on move-in day) and Janet Choi, practically joined at the hip from the start. Listen to the background music for clues, too: Brien gets a bouncy ska song behind her, Choi gets an Asiatic techno groove because, hey, she's Asian and she's a party girl. They took a shine to bright and innocent Rebecca Lord as well.

That leaves Stephen Williams, the black Jewish guy (backed by a Yiddish lounge theme in the casting special), and Irene McGee, the cynical girl from New York state. Every "Real World" has an outsider, and Williams was a natch for the Seattle bunch.

The premiere paints Williams as needy and whiny. From behind the scenes he simply seemed earnest.

You will see Brien screaming out a joke about Williams' "big pickle," and Williams bluntly asking Lord if she's a lesbian. What you probably won't see is Brien's phone discussion of how Williams has an inherent knowledge of rhythm and dancing, simply because he's black.

You will see, as the press was told, that Williams made many friends outside of the house. Will we see that the reason was he was shut out by the other roommates?

And in future episodes, you'll definitely see the stuff "The Real World" lives for, a physical altercation between Williams and McGee. If past seasons are any indication, this is what will stick in viewers' minds - not, say, the fact that Williams volunteered at Chicken Soup Brigade.

Less information has surfaced about McGee. Mary-Ellis Bunim, who co-produces the show with Jon Murray, stressed in an interview that McGee gets as much time and focus as the others. That wasn't the case in the premiere, but since she ends up leaving the show, her story should make for the most interesting to watch.

Sure, there are other "unreal" aspects of the show Seattle critics are more likely to be concerned about, such as their Pier 70 digs. Anyone who watches the show knows that an upscale pad is one of the perks you get in exchange for allowing cameras total access to your life.

The beautiful casts are another accepted unreality: Odds are slim you'll ever see on "The Real World" anybody with a visible deformity or a physical disability, or even an average Joe, no matter how extraordinary their lives are. You might see "real" Seattle landmarks such as the Fremont Troll, but don't hold your breath.

It's the "real" situations with "real" people that most will be looking for on "The Real World." But if you honestly believe the situations you're watching are real, then, hey, I have a sweet loft on a pier I'd like to sell you.

Melanie McFarland gets her money for nothing and her chicks for free. She can be reached at 206-464-2256 or by e-mail at mmcfarland@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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