When ‘The Real World’ Gave Up on Reality

The true story of the exact moment in the mid-Nineties when reality television morphed from its best self to its worst.

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | June 2018 | 9 minutes (2,208 words)

 

The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.

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The most appropriate single epithet for MTV’s unscripted housemate drama The Real World is pioneering. Granted, given what the show and the oeuvre it birthed have since become — an indistinguishable procession of aggressively vapid ab models who take turns getting alcohol poisoning in a hot tub, no matter the show’s setting or purpose — the positive connotations of that word make it painful to use.

But alas, pioneering is accurate. Before producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray had the idea in 1992 to choose seven strangers at random, deposit them in a New York City loft, have their lives “taped” at a totally grungified 42-degree angle, and find out what happens, the very thought of someone going on television for no other reason than to live in an apartment with a bunch of randos was extremely novel.

What we so easily forget now, in an age where the country’s only housewives are Housewives, is that The Real World‘s early seasons were beloved by young adults precisely because they showed the largely-unremarkable exploits of largely-unremarkable (if mildly telegenic) young people. By “early seasons” I mean 1992-1996 — the 1997 season, shot in Boston, would mark the show’s transition from unscripted soap opera to unapologetic grotesque, a.k.a. what we now consider the reality-television standard. This transformation is one of the most notable — possibly most ignominious? — legacies of the ’90s, perhaps even more so than the mushroom cuts, black chokers, and off-kilter camera work.

These young people’s skirmishes — about such timeless wedge issues as the acceptable hours to chain-smoke in the house and the name under which the single landline phone bill should be — were precisely the kinds of things emerging adults were themselves navigating in the early ’90s. This was a time where both ambitions and rents were low enough that the urban den of curated slackitude was considered a model living situation. When I moved into a smoke-clogged industrial loft in Berlin with five German strangers during my junior year abroad, I referred to my life — unironically and with relish — as The Real World: Kreuzberg.

The earliest seasons of TRW already displayed flashes of the explosive conflict that would later come to define the genre. Fighting — i.e., people no longer being polite and instead getting real — was always the show’s lifeblood. It’s just that the method of the fighting has changed so drastically in the show’s near-three decades on air. 2018 TRW fights are largely about who puked in the jacuzzi and gave it gonorrhea. Or I assume so, at any rate — I haven’t been able to stomach more than thirty minutes of Real World Seattle: Bad Blood, even for “research.” In the show’s OG 1992 season, fights were straight out of a sophomore dorm room at Antioch.

This was a time where both ambitions and rents were low enough that the urban den of curated slackitude was considered a model living situation.

That first season was filmed in the run-up to the 1992 election, and in the midst of a conversation that was supposed to be about Jerry Brown’s presidential run, the serious-minded poet Kevin Powell gets into it about race in America with a brassiere-averse singer-songwriter and avowed Becky named, unsurprisingly, Becky Blasband.

“This is a great country,” says Becky as she lolls on the couch, adjusting a regulation-sized Cat in the Hat hat for reasons that are never made clear. (Perhaps in 1992, the reason for a Cat in the Hat hat in one’s living room was self-evident.) “This is a great country,” she repeats. “Don’t you agree?”

Kevin, fresh off a bout of police harassment in his Harlem neighborhood, does not. Becky counters that because she’s a woman, “a lot of crap” is also denied her, and the conversation devolves into ad-hominem accusations about who is moodiest, a grievous 1992 insult and the only thing that keeps it from being a verbatim transcript of every fight on 2018 Twitter.

The early seasons also experimented with the sort of jackassery that later came to define MTV programming — like the 1994 casting of David “Puck” Rainey, who would be evicted from the San Francisco house halfway through the season. Everyone of a certain age also remembers Puck’s near-constant sparring partner: The lovely Pedro Zamora, the first openly gay man living with AIDS ever to be portrayed in a recurring role on a television show, who passed away hours after the final episode of Season 3 aired. (For all the subsequent evils The Real World has helmed, the program may just make it to television heaven for this.)

While Season 3’s Pedro-Puck blowouts made for good ratings, TRW’s producers seemed conflicted on whether that was the right direction for the show — out of human goodness, or because of some other business strategy, I’m not certain. What is certain, however, is that the season that directly followed — set for the first time outside the United States, in London — was (not unlike like its host city) the mildest-mannered, jolliest, and generally most conflict-averse of TRW’s entire run. Some people — including, I guess, Bunim and Murray — apparently judged this to be a boring failure.

Needless to say, London was, and remains, my favorite outing in the entire series by far.

At the time, this had something to do with my crushes on two cast members: British punk-rocker Neil Forrester and Berlin DJ Lars Schlichting. (My decision to spend my junior year abroad in that Berlin loft was at least 42 percent Lars-based, and my flatmates and every single person I met that year were at least 42 percent Lars-esque. I regret nichts.) Getting to see their unremarkable exploits up close — Neil’s girlfriend cutting his awful hair; Lars struggling to make drunk pasta at three in the morning — made it feel like I, too, was living with those two jobless hotties in a constant state of platonic sexual tension. London’s only proper telly-dramatic moment, as it were — Neil’s tongue getting bitten half-off by a heckler — was, for me, its least compelling. More good-natured ribbing of jazz singer Sharon Gitau for hogging the phone, please!

Their very presence in the dungeonesque Notting Hill flat was so weighed down by decade-appropriate irony that all anyone did was, well, nothing — which, being the Nineties’ most important activity, made the London season the realest of all Real Worlds.

These days, when I manage to track down pirated VHS episodes of Season 4 (it is apparently too boring even for the MTV streaming archives), I’m struck with just how affably Peak Nineties it all was — five of the house’s seven residents (Lars, Neil, Sharon, Jacinda, and Jay) were too cool for the conceit of the show they’d applied to be on. Even with a stilted flirtation between be-girlfriended Neil and fencer Kat Ogden thrown in, the London flatmates simply refused to devolve into dramatic bickering for the cameras, instead often seeming to temper their behavior instead. Their very presence in the dungeonesque Notting Hill flat was so weighed down by decade-appropriate irony that all anyone did was, well, nothing — which, being the Nineties’ most important activity, made the London season the realest of all Real Worlds. Not even doofus St. Louisan race-car driver Mike Johnson and his Quixotic search for ranch dressing could provide enough clash to cramp the London season’s style.

But something else could: After four years, the simple voyeuristic pleasure of watching people bicker about the same things you and your roommates bickered about (only in a much nicer house) had grown predictable, and the producers realized that the show’s future depended upon the Pucks and not the Larses. After a failed attempt in Season 5 to force the housemates to start a terrible business together in Miami, the series finally settled upon its formula, and the subsequent formula for every “successful” reality-television “character” since, in Boston in 1997: Trauma equals drama. Or, more accurately: trauma plus sudden fame equals pain as a spectator sport, equals successful, cheaply produced television.

By the sixth season, savvy viewers of TRW had discerned that fame-an-sich was the Real World alum’s most direct route to self-sufficiency, and that the more memorably a cast member acted out during filming, the more sustainable that self-fulfilling notoriety would be. As the ’90s rounded their final bend — in a Miata that was beginning to look worse for the wear — the lessons of the aggro-yuppie ’80s so prevalent in TRW‘s earliest seasons, populated as they were by painters, musicians, AIDS educators, and cartoonists, had flamed out. Now, a new rough beast, bare vacuous reality-TV ambition, lurched its slow thighs toward Boston to be reborn.

Not everyone in the Boston Real World house was handpicked for being a ticking time bomb or a vacuous douche. Teetotaling Stanford student Kameelah Phillips, for example, remains one of the series’ smartest castmates. But it was hard to pay attention to her amidst the constant scrapping of Genesis Moss and Montana McGlynn (the aforementioned time bombs), and of Sean Duffy (the aforementioned douche, who is now a douche Republican congressman representing Wisconsin).

Moss and McGlynn, in particular, seemed to have been cast based on their brutal upbringings (which figured prominently in their audition videos), and the conflicts in the house largely revolved around how a non-fully-formed adult might play out that trauma under duress. It was shameless, it was obvious — and it worked. The entertainment industry clearly noticed: within two years, Survivor, an entire franchise based on filmed human suffering for sport, would become the most popular show on television, its 51.7 million-viewer finale in 2000 eclipsed in eyeballs only by the Super Bowl.

By the sixth season, savvy viewers of TRW had discerned that fame-an-sich was the Real World alum’s most direct route to self-sufficiency, and that the more memorably a cast member acted out during filming, the more sustainable that self-fulfilling notoriety would be.

So how did the Second Coming of reality television — which was, in fact, the first and only coming of reality television as we now know it — come to be? With one made-up word: Genesisisms.

After a particularly tense group dinner in TRW Season 6, during which Moss and Duffy called time-of-death on their friendship — Moss’s identity as a lesbian exploring nascent bisexual feelings did not sit well with Duffy — Moss worked through some of those feelings by writing a manifesto-of-sorts on the house’s ancient, un-Internetted, beige box PC. She called them “Genesisisms” — they were the sort of trite, benign aphorisms your least-woke aunt posts on Facebook with a beach-sunset background — put them into Lucida Blackletter, printed them out, and Scotch-taped them to the wall.

Insisting she was merely put off by “someone else’s dogma,” McGlynn then led a counter-charge, deploying beefy ladies’ man Syrus Yarbrough to rip the aphorisms down while a heartbroken Genesis sat with a baseball cap covering her face, looking limp and numb.

Syrus’s ripping, meanwhile, was spliced in editing to look as if it took place concurrent to a nasty whispered conversation in an adjacent bedroom, wherein McGlynn proclaimed it “so sad” that Moss spent “her whole life going to gay bars and listening to techno music.” In saying this, McGlynn either ignored or — worse — intentionally dismissed the fact that the gay techno scene was one of the only places in Boston where Genesis felt safe. Indeed, Genesis decidedly did not feel safe in the Real World house; her every moment there was tinged with the pain of the wrenching poverty and neglect and eventual homophobia of her Alabama childhood. She was a wounded young woman whose wounds were being prodded and prodded and prodded for the fun of viewers at home, and McGlynn was the prod the producers were all too gleeful to provoke.

In hindsight, of course, the Boston fights seem tame by reality-television standards. There is mild crying and a lot of sacrificed printer paper, but no scratching, punching, hair-pulling, or table-upending. Even though TRW is quintessentially American television, nobody gets shot. But make no mistake: The noxious personality cocktail that gave the entire season the distinct vibe of oozing toxicity also brought about a seismic shift in TRW’s milieu, which became only too apparent in the following season, set in Hawaii.

In the span of two short years, The Real World went from a sanitized, but largely sincere documentary of young adulthood in the ’90s, into a grotesque spectacle of young-adult pain.

What could have made the constant simmering tensions in Boston even more delicious, producers wondered? Aha: A climate where nobody has to wear clothes, and — for the first time — a house that comes pre-stocked with alcohol. This particular feature would, in fact, become a Real World mainstay after Hawaii, despite the fact that the very presence of that unchecked booze caused bisexual Rutgers student Ruthie Alcaide to leave the show for treatment.

As Hawaii segued naturally into the Millennial seasons, the show would never again return to a format where the housemates had outside jobs and ambitions that did not involve milking their Real World antics for the rest of their lives, and where they didn’t spend most of their on-camera time having intercourse in jetted water. And just to be Crystal-Pepsi-clear: Without the cynical meanness of Boston, Hawaii would not have been possible — just like Boston itself would not have been possible without London’s object lesson that well-adjusted individuals make for cratering ratings.

In the span of two short years, The Real World went from a sanitized, but largely sincere documentary of young adulthood in the ’90s, into a grotesque spectacle of young-adult pain. As English professor and reality TV scholar Amanda Ann Klein writes in The New Yorker, it’s a spectacle that “helped train us to see our daily lives as a continual acting out of identity in public.”

The current iteration of The Real World is only reflective of the actual real world in that today’s television watchers clearly prefer the grotesque spectacle. Isn’t it ironic (don’t you think) that the 1997 shark-jump is itself now a documentary of the birth of spectacle television?

Forgive them, Lars, for they know exactly what they do.


Previously:
You’ve Reached the Winter of Our Discontent
It’s Like This and Like That and Like What?

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Rebecca Schuman is a St. Louis-based writer and translator, and author of ’90s memoir Schadenfreude, A Love Story.

Editor: Ben Huberman