Be careful what you wish for. For years, I’ve been wondering what the whole “Real World”-“Jersey Shore” format might look like with more natural footage, some truly interesting people, and fewer contrived situations. Instead of casting for type and twisting material to create plot lines, what if MTV took a slightly more documentary approach? What if it came up with a more honest portrait of a neighborhood, its young people, and its culture?
“Washington Heights,” which premieres Wednesday night at 10, may be the answer to that question. And it’s a bit of a mess. I found myself wishing that the series, which tracks a loosely knit group of nine friends in the Washington Heights area of New York, actually had more direction. It’s a muddle of material in need of a point — nine characters in search of an author — as the gang attend one another’s concerts and barbecues and talk aimlessly about nothing in particular. There’s no narrative drive, no proper introductions, no focus. The show is a glorified version of the random videos we shoot of our lives and our friends, aware they’ll be boring to anyone else.
The promise of “Washington Heights” includes the fact that many of the cast members are unpretentious wannabe artists. JP is trying to get his hip-hop career going, Reyna is a singer, Frankie is a performance poet, Rico wants to be an actor, and so on and so forth. Also, Washington Heights is an unknown quantity to most viewers, so the local footage offers a refreshing glimpse of a neighborhood rather than the Chamber of Commerce-esque tours of “The Real World.” And, most important, the editing is less obviously hokey than most MTV reality shows. I didn’t sense the producers forcing cast members to hook up, or break up, or make up, although the girlfight between Reyna and Eliza outside a bar in the premiere does seem overblown.
The resulting hourlong episodes just sit there, drama-free and inert, with the exception of the rare touching moment. Jimmy, a guy trying to be a professional baseball player, goes to visit his father in jail in the premiere, and the two men cry together. The scene gives us a handle on Jimmy — the kind of handle we fail to get on the others. I began wishing the show revolved entirely around him. As his father promises not to land in jail again after his seven-year term for drug trafficking, I was instantly invested in Jimmy’s dreams.
The producers needed to work harder at distinguishing each of these people for us in the same way they did for Jimmy — a hard challenge if you are also trying to avoid artificiality and contrivance. Alas, after the first two episodes, I can’t say I like or dislike the “Washington Heights” cast members because they still feel like strangers to me, friends of friends of friends who like to post on Facebook.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew