I’ve reviewed The Real Unreal in a previous post. While I hinted at the story and space in that review I did my best not to spoil anything.
This post is all spoilers, so stop reading now if you want to go in fresh.
After going through the security checkpoint there’s a gift shop on the immediate right and the lockers are on the left. The cafe and bathrooms are on the hallway on the right.
The entrance to the exhibit is straight ahead. They will give you an introduction spiel if you arrive as part of a timed group, but may wave you through otherwise.
We’re told the house is from a small town in Illinois, but upon entering it’s immediately obvious that it bears many similarities to The House of Eternal Return, which was originally said to be located in California.
The family that lived here are clearly missing, but where did they go and why? The story doesn’t seem to answer this although we can make some educated guesses.
All of the secret passages from the house are basically the same as the ones in The House of Eternal Return — but they lead to different places.
Most notably the refrigerator in the House of Eternal Return that led to Portals Bermuda has been replaced by a fridge from the brand “Brrrmuda” which leads to a strange room connected by refrigerator doors.
Which takes us back to the story… sort of.
Due to technical issues during my visit I’m not sure I absorbed the entire story, but here’s the gist.
Food entrepreneur and vlogger Carmen Delaney, who proudly describes herself as Black and bisexual, lives with her semi-retired jazz musician father Gordon in a big old house in Bolingbrook, Illinois. They’re both mourning the death of Gordon’s wife and Carmen’s mother, Ruby.
Ruby was the first one to notice there was something… odd about the house they lived in, but in her mind it was a positive force that helped care for the family.
Since the house is pretty big, they’ve allowed Carmen’s close friend LaVerne Fuqua to share a bedroom with her young son Jared as part of a business arrangement.
Seemingly because the house was so similar in design to the House of Eternal Return (see: spoilers here) it somehow collided with the “metaverse” created by Lucius Selig and his psychic/sonic powers. This is confirmed by a note left by Morgan Pastore in the laundry room and a video from Lucius in the Brrrmuda-verse through one of the fridge doors.
Unfortunately these inexplicable changes to the house have lead to the disappearance of Jared. They’re all trying to find him and his older sister is visiting from her college dorm to help investigate.
An email on Carmen’s laptop in the dining room also confirms this story takes place in the same narrative universe as Omega Mart. This seemingly means that all Meow Wolf installations are connected.
As far as immersion goes, this installation needs better connections between the story and the physical space. The main question in any immersive story is “who am I?” and I was never clear on this.
The next question is of course where this family went and why we’re going through their home. All we seem to know is that Jared disappeared, but where is everyone else?
The cafe at this location is a bit boring, and given that the installation is partially food related it seems like an obvious opportunity for a crossover.
But perhaps the most obvious gap between the story and the installation is Gordon’s music. Aside from a record player in a bedroom we don’t hear much of the jazz he’s known for, which seems odd considering there’s a unique background soundtrack throughout this and every other Meow Wolf attraction.
The most surprising aspect of The Real Unreal is its location — inside of a massive shopping mall. These days malls aren’t doing particularly well, so if Meow Wolf can make it work then more power to them.
But will this work in a mall setting long term? I have no idea. Seems like an odd choice to me but I’ll admit that I don’t know Texas, nor have I ever set foot in a mall of this scale before.
However, the most obvious aspect of this entire attraction is that it’s physically so similar to the House of Eternal Return. That’s incredibly bold — perhaps too bold? It suggests a commitment to the strength of the story, which isn’t quite there yet.
As I said in my general review, The Real Unreal feels a bit unfinished. There’s a pretty big disconnect between the story in the house and everything that happens behind it. This criticism could be applied to almost any Meow Wolf installation but it seems particularly obvious here in Grapevine. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of cool rooms to check out, I just don’t see any connection between them and the story. I don’t know if the current Hollywood WGA writer’s strike applies to Meow Wolf or not, but this seems like an easy enough problem to fix.
Grapevine Mills has a number of entertainment options, with a movie theater, a Legoland playground for kids, etc. The Real Unreal is by far the most expensive entertainment option in the mall. On the other hand, it feels like the one thing in the mall you have to go see. The larger question is if people feel the need to return.
There is one trick Meow Wolf has up its sleeve: just like the House of Eternal Return, there’s a big stage and dance floor area within The Real Unreal. As far as I know it hasn’t been used — yet. If they were to host live music it could very well be the thing that gets people coming back again and again.