I used to not have a problem with reality TV casting. Really. I took it as a fact of life that without the irritating, the outrageous, and the attention-starved, reality shows wouldn't be worth watching and for the most part I accepted this simple truth. Then I met Paula, insecure, rail-thin, mentally unbalanced Paula Meronek from MTV's REAL WORLD: KEY WEST and I couldn't help but think, "Why is this girl on TV when she should be in a hospital?"
Since arriving in Key West, Paula has confessed to having body issues (she's about a hundred pounds and looks it), starving herself and taking laxatives to maintain her absurd weight - and that's just when she's sober. After a few drinks (few being, like, two) she becomes a violent maelstrom of shouting, swearing, and crying on par with any tropical storm. Calling her "Hurricane Paula" is not too far out of bounds. More disturbing, the brunt of her attacks seem to be leveled at John, the rowdy but good natured frat boy, who vaguely reminds her of her abusive ex-boyfriend. Again, I was shocked to see someone this damaged make it to primetime - yet somehow not surprised. After all, it's not like the show hasn't been playing this card for years.
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The REAL WORLD has been shoehorning "socially relevant commentary" into their shows from the beginning. The producers, who never pass up a chance to self-congratulate themselves for raising awareness of a certain social ill, would maintain that it's their responsibility to highlight issues relevant to its audience. And that's fine, provided a roommate is cast for reasons other than simply being a symbol for their "problem."
Paula's case, however, strikes me as different, partially because unlike other castmates, whose problems manifested slowly over time, Paula's issues were glaringly apparent from the start. Hell, she even admitted to being "a little bulimic" in her casting tape. Now, when someone admits they have a problem, are aware of the problem, but clearly aren't dealing with the problem, shouldn't they be handed the business card of a good therapist, not a plane ticket to Key West? Isn't there a responsibility on the part of producers to put the wellbeing of their potential roommates ahead of their show's potential storylines?
Worse is the insulting way in which these issues are often handled on screen. Paula's problems seem to be linked to some deep psychological trauma, complex issues that can't be resolved overnight with a good cry, and a heartfelt monologue about "bottoming out." Yet rarely does the show examine these issues in any way beyond the superficial, leaving the audience with the false impression that any problem can be solved provided there's a life-affirming pop song playing in the background.
Since filming ended, Paula has come out and praised the show for helping her confront her problems and providing her with a support system she desperately needed. If that's true than I'm glad, but it still doesn't let the REAL WORLD off the hook, because what happens next season when another troubled twenty-something walks through the casting door looking to exploit their disease/psychosis/illness for fifteen minutes in the sun?