Last week, MTV announced that the 29th season of The Real World, the seminal reality TV show that launched not just the music network’s foray into original programming (and eventual transition from playing actual music videos) but also the reality TV boom that carried over onto network television in the late ’90s, would be returning to San Francisco, the setting of the series’ third season. The Real World set up a pretty easy, oft-repeated template that worked with a variety of gimmicks, ranging from romantic competitions to ropes courses set in exotic locales: put a group of diverse young people together in a too-small space, all of whom seek the same goal (fame, or as it was later evident, temporary infamy), and watch all hell break loose. Sources close to the show have told Variety that it could be the series’ last season. To that, I say: Good riddance.
There’s a misconception, which comes with nostalgia for the less offensive yet equally provocative days of MTV in the early ’90s, that The Real World, intended to be a pure documentary-style examination of the lives of interesting individuals as they found their place in the world, went downhill very quickly and barely resembles the show’s first few seasons. But the intentions of Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, the show’s creators, were not particularly noble: when MTV balked at the price of producing a scripted soap opera, the producers came up with a novel idea: what if you hired normal people rather than actors and just filmed them living their lives, only occasionally interfering with their interactions in order to spice up any possibly boring situations? (It was certainly cheap: human ab roller Eric Nies, who would stay on MTV payroll as the eventual host of early-morning dance party The Grind, admitted in Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s oral history of the channel, I Want My MTV, that each cast member was paid $1,400 for their three-month rent-free stay in a Soho loft.)
The first season set up the reality TV tropes we’d come to take for granted: a mixed-race cast, one gay guy, at least one naïve person from Middle America who would find him or herself overwhelmed with the urban surroundings (as well as the eventual confrontations with the aforementioned diverse housemates). It gained popularity immediately — after all, there’s nothing more fun to watch then strangers fighting on television — and MTV immediately had a successful franchise on its hands.
It was, despite the melodrama, an illuminating show that provided a no-holds-barred depiction on how Generation X dealt with issues of identity politics. Race and sexuality were, of course, major factors when it came to how the housemates bonded or fought. And the most powerful images of the series took place in the San Francisco house, when Pedro Zamora became the face of HIV/AIDS for a generation of young adults; at the time, the AIDS epidemic was a terrifying, anonymous cloud of doom, and Zamora’s involvement on The Real World provided a human perspective on the disease that had never really been seen before on mainstream television.
But the bread and butter of the show, of course, remained the fights between the housemates. For the fifth season, which took place in Miami, the producers came up with a novel twist: the housemates had to start a business together, an enterprise that never really came to fruition (but one that certainly provided more situations in which the cast could argue on camera). In Seattle, a fight got physical when cast member Stephen famously slapped his roommate Irene as she was leaving the show; the producers seemingly went into crisis mode with the rest of the cast, who had to decide if Stephen should be kicked out of the house. (He wasn’t.)
By the time the show ventured to Hawaii for its eighth season, the audience thought it had reached peak sensationalism: on the cast’s first night in the house, Ruthie, whose struggles with alcoholism would be a fixture that season, was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. Substance abuse became, seemingly, the Important Issue of the season for the housemates. Ironically, years later (and many seasons after I had given up on the show), the cast’s binge-drinking and hooking up became a necessary precondition for any given episode of the show, which eventually turned from half-hour episodes of little action and lots of chatter to hour-long depictions of clubbing, hot-tubbing, and, of course, fighting. The behaviors of the cast members — who in later years didn’t resemble real Americans so much as super-toned aspiring actors who were betting on later MTV paychecks with appearances on the increasingly popular spin-off, Real World/Road Rules Challenge — became more intensely fake, unappealing, and violent.
MTV got the soap opera its executives wanted, and then some: one could argue that The Real World inspired the much less “real” Laguna Beach and The Hills and those shows’ various spin-offs. Does The Real World still serve any real purpose, now that the show depicts the camera-heightened lives of plasticized meatheads who audition for the show purely as a means to an end? With ratings dropping, and its cultural cachet practically non-existent, it’s finally time for MTV to drop the franchise that did the most damage to its brand as a destination for actual music coverage.