It's been 21 years since Jonathan Murray and the late Mary Ellis-Bunim struck gold for MTV with the creation of "The Real World," which is not only the longest running series on the former Music Television channel but has been a winning template, for better and worse, for other shows like "Washington Heights," premiering Jan. 9 on MTV.
Created by Cheryl Horner Sirulnick's Gigantic! Productions," "Washington Heights" differs slightly from "The Real World" in that it's about young, hormonally hyped-up young adults who already know each other. "Real World" participants are always strangers who can get even stranger once they're forced to cohabitate.
Otherwise, though, this kind of show is potentially compelling because people in their 20s can't seem to spend much time together in groups before they start fighting, falling in love, drinking too much and/or throwing jealous fits.
Unlike the denizens of "Jersey Shore," the nine members of the "Heights" are more complicated, interesting and, well, real, at least in the two episodes made available to critics. You may have watched "Jersey Shore" to see Snooki collapse in a drunken stupor or The Situation hook up with random women. You'll watch "Washington Heights" because, regardless of occasional brawls and jealous outbursts, these young men and women really do care about each other and consider themselves family, in a way.
That's because the real "star" of the series is Washington Heights itself, a densely populated neighborhood in northern Manhattan with rich ethnic diversity. The main cast members include hip-hop artist JP (who goes by the professional name Audubon), an ambitious young man as devoted to his friends and his mom as he is to his career; Frankie, a spoken-word artist who wrestles with her feelings for Ludwin, a young artist who's been involved with the beautiful but sullen Diane for several years; Reyna, beautiful, tough and readily confrontational; Jimmy, a would-be ball player with hounddog eyes who has cleaned up his act since doing time for drug sales and whose dad, although incarcerated, always has his back; Eliza, Jimmy's girlfriend, who has trouble fitting in because she's from New Jersey; Rico and Fred, a pair of brothers who live with their mom; and Taylor, who admits to having love-hate feelings for Rico.
The first two episodes introduce us to the characters and focus on bad blood between Eliza and Reyna which isn't very interesting: It's just the kind of nonsense that you expect from this kind of show. It's far more compelling when Jimmy drives Eliza upstate to meet his dad in the visiting area of the prison. It's touching and real in many ways.
His dad may be in jail, but he hasn't forgotten his paternal responsibilities. He is happy to meet his son's girlfriend and proud that Jimmy is determined to do the right thing after his own prison stint. There is genuine love between father and son, and each is brought to tears as they talk about Jimmy's hopes for the future.
Equally compelling is JP's devotion to his friends and career. He's the peacemaker of the "family," a thoughtful young man who is distressed that the rift between Reyna and Eliza has kept Jimmy away from the group of late.
It's possible that "Washington Heights" will devolve into "Jersey Shore-North," and become unwatchable. But it's hard to imagine young people like JP, Frankie and Ludwin going off the rails to that extent. As long as they don't, "Washington Heights" may be an exception to the apparent rule for this kind of show by keeping it legitimately real.
"Washington Heights" airs at 10 p.m. Wednesday on MTV.