It’s been 19 years since The Surreal Life first brought celebrities together to clash and connect with each other.
The Surreal Life was an abbreviated, celebrity The Real World with some Road Rules challenges thrown in. Two seasons aired on The WB before it moved to VH1, a cable network that today, along with MTV, barely exists any more, thanks to its parent company’s nonsense.
In 2003, casting well-known people was a novel idea, and finding people at different levels of fame and stages of their career—MC Hammer and Jerri Manthey, Corey Feldman and Vince Neil—created immediate friction, but also yielded fun TV and surprising friendships.
Today, though, celebrities can probably reach more fans on social media than cable TV, though we’re still oversaturated with celebrity shows—so much that we’ve run out of celebrities to be on these shows, which is why the same people hop from show to show.
That’s true with The Surreal Life season 7 (VH1, Mondays at 9): Its most well-known cast members—Dennis Rodman, Kim Coles, and Tamar Braxton—are not new to the genre. Even Frankie Muniz, who left show business for a while, was on Dancing with the Stars and then hosted a spin-off.
That familiarity with the conventions of reality TV could yield highlight affected and stilted behavior, playing to the cameras to cash a paycheck. That, plus the stale premise, did not leave me with hope for this revival.
But The Surreal Life is good time, a casual hang with people we know yet still manage to surprise us.
The cast does know what’s expected of them, whether they’re disclosing things about their lives or quipping in confessionals. But both work: Stormy Daniels rattles off some surprising things about her famous sexual encounter, while Tamar’s confessionals are hilarious and infinitely quotable.
None of them seem full of themselves, either. Manny Mua may be super-famous online, but in this context he’s wide-eyed: “I’m with real famous people, y’all,” he says.
Two of this season’s cast members may be best-known for relationships: Stormy Daniels with Donald Trump (“the worst 90 seconds of my life,” she says), and August Alsina for his “entanglement” with Jada Pinkett Smith.
The eight celebrities—or nine if you count Susan—spend 12 days in a house in Mexico City, leaving for producer-planned excursions.
In the first two episodes, they create their own lucha libre characters, do partner yoga, and ride on horseback through beautiful landscapes.
“I named myself Carne Asada because that’s the only thing I can say really good in Spanish,” Tamar laughs. “I am more than that old Tamar reality TV narrative.”
That’s the biggest surprise: Whether The Surreal Life offers its cast the opportunity to be more natural, or its editing focuses on those moments, the best parts of the episode are just kind of hanging out with these celebrities.
It’s just a fun time, whether Frankie Muniz is sharing that he has to buy boys’ jeans (18 regular) or Manny telling us that Frankie is “just so adorable” that “I want to hold him and crack his back.”
“They’re getting along, huh,” Dennis Rodman asks the cameras after Tamar, Manny, and Frankie bond and laugh on the first night. “I’m a see how long that shit’s gonna last for 12 days.”
That, and the trailer, hint at some conflict, but after two episodes, it seems the show recognizes that the casual hang-out moments are its strength.
The one over-produced moment in the first two hours involves Stormy Daniels’ arrival.
The producers bring her in late—drama!—and as she talks about how Donald Trump promised her a spot on The Apprentice with challenges rigged for her, or how she’s brought along a haunted doll who goes on paranormal investigations with her, they cut away to a lot of reaction shots, and really ramp up the dramatic music.
August refuses to share his room with Stormy Daniels, even though his room has the last remaining bed, and insists “I’m not trying to be difficult” while dumping a mattress over a balcony and dragging it poolside so she can have a place to sleep.
“That’s shit, okay?” Dennis Rodman says. “Why are you sitting in there thinking you are holier than thou?”
Yet those heated moments quickly fade. The cast dresses up for “the family dinner,” which starts with Tamar praying, “please don’t let us get sick or fat,” and goes on to Dennis Rodman trying to order an espresso and later missing the point of two truths and a lie.
While Dennis physically places himself away from other people, sitting behind the dinner table, for example, he acknowledges that. “I sit back and listen a lot,” he tells us.
And sometimes he even gets close to vulnerability in his conversations with the other cast members, before deflecting. “I’ve been in this world so goddamn long it hurts,” he tells them, and later says in an interview that he’s on The Surreal Life in part to show people that, “goddamn it, it’s okay to have emotions, all the sadness.”
Vulnerability doesn’t just come in the form of emotional confession, though. In its best moments, The Surreal Life manages to be informative and ridiculous, vulnerable and silly all at once, such as when Tamar Braxton reveals that she’s afraid of horses—and also birds and mushrooms.
The cast, too, can switch modes, from Manny and Tamar laughing about being single to him sharing the story about his parents sending him to conversion therapy. And then everyone laughs more about CJ Perry’s poolside posing, and she joins in, too.
The editing has fun, poking fun by juxtaposing moments, and even using special effects to make Susan have reactions, like winking or getting mad. But it can also lose the line between over-the-top and heavy-handed, going too heavy on the sound effects or soundtrack to make sure we get it.
I do appreciate the inclusion of fourth wall-breaking moments, like when the cast discusses the number of cameras, or just the sight of a camera operator sitting on a chair in a bedroom filming a conversation. It helps make the cast seem like people rather than stars.
And given that opportunity, these people are able to show us more of who they are. At a barbecue, Stormy Daniels says, “I’m finally able to disconnect and have a genuinely good time.” That’s what The Surreal Life offers us, too.
The Surreal Life season 7
The first celebrity reality show finds new life with a cast willing to hang out and have fun. B
What works for me:
- The cast, and the light-hearted time with them
- The challenges, which get them out of their comfort zones
What could be better:
- Less of a heavy hand with some editing and producing choices
- Giving Stormy Daniels an actual bedroom