ON a recent afternoon in downtown Los Angeles, a production team was hunched over monitors in a converted warehouse, watching two hyperventilating young women square off on an adjacent stage, surrendering their privacy -- and risking their teeth -- for the sake of what some might call the reality generation.
The women, contestants on MTV's resuscitated unscripted series "Road Rules," played a game called Scorpion. Each player was tied to her opponent's forearm and had to use the free hand to rip nine adhesive tags from her rival's back. Unfortunately for the players, this inevitably meant plenty of sharp elbows and unintentional scratching.
"What about a mouth guard? This is [expletive] ridiculous!" fumed Kina Dean, a hyper-aggressive 23-year-old MTV reality veteran who's known for stirring up strong passions among viewers and her colleagues. Her challenger, a 22-year-old named Angel Turlington, was on the verge of tears, dissing the strapping Dean as a "freakin' transvestite."
"She just poked me in the eye," Kina shouted. "This is dangerous!"
Even allowing for the possibility that the players may have amped up their reactions a bit for the cameras, the "Road Rules" throw-down seemed a lot of agony to endure for 15 minutes or less of fame. But to these exceptionally good-looking and personable twentysomethings, it's, well, reality.
The unscripted TV craze that started 15 years ago with the premiere of MTV's "The Real World" has lasted so long that it hardly seems remarkable anymore that a small band of young people can find community and some measure of notoriety by hopping from one reality show to another. The principal cast members of "Road Rules: Viewers' Revenge," the 14th season of the show that follows a group of road-tripping young people as they compete in far-fetched challenges, are veterans of various other unscripted series and spinoffs, such as "The Real World/Road Rules Challenge"; many have spent much of the last five years living a 21st century version of the carny life, crisscrossing the nation while punching one another in the face, suffering hissy-fit meltdowns and committing other indignities on camera for the vicarious delectation of their peers.
The shows don't mirror their lives; they become their lives. And thus viewers may not be the only ones having trouble separating reality from overlapping layers of entertainment-industry artifice. The contestants dub themselves, with little self-consciousness, "reality kids."
Adam Larson, a casually assertive 28-year-old waiter from Santa Monica who functions as a kind of de facto group leader on "Road Rules," remarked that he and other cast members are so experienced they feel as if crew members are family. "We've seen them come up from [production assistants] to directors and producers," he said. "We've grown with them."
But the reality kids are smart enough to know where they stand, with both the show's producers and the general public. Susie Meister, a pretty 27-year-old blond who left behind her husband and stepdaughter to do the show, spending months on the road in a crowded RV with Larson, Dean and other teammates, summed it up: "It's sort of a strange dynamic. We're reality talent -- the cesspool."
Overhearing this, a teammate cracked: "Yeah, talentless talent."
Of course, if stardom resulted, the hassles might be worth it. But "Road Rules" doesn't draw an audience nearly as large as that of Fox's "American Idol," or even CBS' "The Amazing Race," the scavenger-hunt reality show that it predated. "Road Rules" has struggled for years with low ratings and was even yanked from the MTV schedule for a while until producers sold network executives on the idea of soliciting more interaction from viewers. Last month MTV -- which is in an overall funk as its ratings and cultural momentum have stagnated -- moved the show to 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays, after "The Real World: Denver."
Sprawled in the loft of the RV, Larson said he kept signing up -- after his first "Road Rules," he did several seasons of "The Real World/Road Rules Challenge," as well as "Eco-Challenge: Fiji Islands" -- because of the "experience, and meeting other unique people." He and the other cast members have forged close bonds, although he's still sore at a former contestant who was bumped from the show after getting into a fistfight with him.
"Getting punched in the head wasn't the worst," Larson said, uttering the kind of line that could serve as a reality kid's credo. "He was just -- he had a toxic personality."
Larson even enjoys writing his personal journal on the blog MTV maintains for the show, although he and his RV mates are surprised at the level of rancor they sometimes receive from fans, especially on the Internet.
"At some point, you do have to let go of pleasing viewers," Meister told me. "If you're sassy, you're a bitch, and if you're nice, you're a fake.... We feel like we're in a bubble to a certain extent."