For 22 years, The Real World remained a staple in reality television without ever drastically changing its original format. The Real World never needed any tweaking. It is often considered the first reality show — though it was predated by identical Dutch program Nummer 28 and, most notably, PBS’ An American Family, a documentary series that directly inspired Real World co-creators Jonathan Murray and the late Mary-Ellis Bunim. Yet The Real World is known as the television series that launched this massive reality-genre world. It was beloved by its viewers, built for office water-cooler conversations, and, during earlier seasons, hailed by critics for its groundbreaking format and depiction of serious issues. The series was a runaway hit for MTV (and is its longest-running program to date) and managed to stay that way for 28 seasons without any major changes. Until now.
This isn’t to say that the show hasn’t experimented with small adjustments before. 2008’s Hollywood marked a switch from 30-minute episodes to hour-long ones and brought the show back down to no more than 14 episodes a season. Some seasons have seven roommates, others have eight. Sometimes the roommates are required to get jobs (either together and assigned or separately but approved by the show’s producers), sometimes they have free time for outside interests (such as The Real World: Brooklyn, which hilariously featured one roommate trying to pursue his dream of being the next TRL host, only to visit the studios and learn the show has been canceled). These have all been relatively small and barely noticeable changes, which haven’t had an important impact on the overall narrative of the season (if you can call whatever The Real World has a “narrative”). At its core, it remained the same: the true story of seven (or eight) strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped.
Th current, 29th season has introduced the biggest (and most “shocking!!,” as MTV puts it) twist of the show’s entire run. This time, the seven strangers would eventually be paid a surprise visit by each of their exes — not just temporarily but for the remainder of the season.
There’s no denying it: this change is drastic and desperate. The Real World hasn’t been the ratings hit that it once was. It’s still popular, but it’s in decline. There could be many reasons for this. Maybe it’s because the show has strayed away from its original, inspired casting choices and is now basically a three-month vacation for a group of 20-somethings whose job is to behave stupidly and immaturely while we all watch. Maybe it’s because everything feels like déjà vu; the situations and cast members are all interchangeable from season to season — if you’ve seen one guy drunkenly swing a fist or one drunk girl holding her heels and crying on the sidewalk, then you’ve seen them all. Maybe it’s because The Real World has been on for so long that the current cast members have seen all the previous episodes, particularly those from the last decade or so, and are now just imitating the behavior that they know worked for roommates in the past. Or maybe it’s just as simple as reality-show fatigue.
Whatever the reason, MTV knew that it had to do something — anything, really — to keep viewers intrigued if they wanted this show to hit that milestone 30th season (or continue forever, which is more likely the network’s intention). MTV knows that its bread and butter is fistfights and relationship drama. Surprising a group of people with their exes is a surefire way to escalate everything. And it’s working. The Real World producers waited a few weeks before introducing the exes, to ensure that relationships had already formed: Jamie and Thomas are officially dating when his ex-boyfriend shows up; Cory and Jenny have cemented their friends-with-benefits status when both exes show up, both seemingly intent on getting back together.
What happens when the exes show up is, predictably, a total shitstorm, and it’s only going to get worse. Everyone is surprised and in disbelief that their exes have arrived (except Jamie, whose ex-boyfriend smartly remained at home), and only Ashley and Arielle are happy to see each other. Cory and Brian are immediately at odds with each other over Jenny — and will most certainly come to blows before the season is over, probably as soon as tonight’s episode. Hailey has already declared her plan to win Tom back from Jamie. Lauren jumped in the shower with Cory practically the second she arrived, leaving Jenny high and dry. According to previews for this week’s installment, one of the roommates is pregnant (the smart bet is on Jenny). Everyone is fueled by liquor, hormones, jealousy, and the intoxication of reality television. It’s exactly what MTV wanted.
For the network, it’s a success. Not only does MTV have enough material to create a Real World: Fight Club DVD if they decide to (please decide to, MTV), but the show has also seen a significant ratings spike. The “big twist” episode boosted the show’s ratings to a 1.5 (a 10 percent increase from the ex-less episode the week before), and, according to the network, it’s on the road to becoming the highest-rated Real World season since 2011’s Real World: San Diego. For the viewers, it’s a little more complicated.
In addition to the big twist, there are smaller changes running throughout this season, even right within the title. Every previous iteration includes the house’s location, but this one forgoes that in favor of the title Real World: Ex-Plosion. It’s no longer of any interest where these cast members are; all that matters is that they are all primed to explode at point or another. There are even stylistic differences: gone is the original black-and-white Real World logo, replaced by gaudy, bright-green type constantly flashing on the screen while hearts explode in the background (subtle!). The roommates’ names are plastered in the corner of the screen practically every time they’re shown — maybe because there are so many of them, maybe because MTV finally realized that they are all so blandly similar that viewers can’t differentiate.
There are other jarring differences for longtime viewers, such as the producers’ increased involvement. We’ve rarely seen the crew in previous seasons, save for a sound guy in the shot once in a while. Now they are openly guiding the interviews in the confessionals, blatantly grilling the roommates on past relationships or whether they used a condom. They call the house to ask where the roommates are going that night; later, they watch Ashley tear apart her home in search of a purse and call to inform her of where she threw it the night before. It’s well known that producers coach The Real World roommates to do and say what the editors need, but now MTV no longer has any intention of being secretive about it.
It’s hard to say if these changes make the show better or worse. I continue to long for the earlier, smarter seasons of the show, but I also still look forward to new episodes every Wednesday because there is a silly part of me that secretly loves to watch people act like idiots on television. I hate that they changed the format. I love that it’s going to be a crazy season. It’s also a make-or-break season for the show. If this succeeds (and all signs point to yes), there is no telling what MTV will do to screw with the formula next. If they fail, we might finally see the end of The Real World — and I still can’t imagine that happening.