Monday, November 23, 2009

The Real World

Last weekend, sometime between my many hours wasted watching For the Love of Ray J, World's Strictest Parents, and MTV Teen Cribs I got to thinking where exactly reality TV has veered off course. We all know it's far cheaper and easier for networks to produce reality shows that actual scripted TV shows with content and purpose, but somewhere along the way the phenomenon has spun out of control. While now we're now looking for the greatest American dog and giving Brett Michael's most curious female cast-offs their own half hour of television, in the 90s reality TV was still a burgeoning idea. It may shock and amaze you now, but the modifier "reality" once preceded the noun "TV" without even a trace of irony.

The Real World is still on of course, but we can all agree it's gotten a whole lot less real over its 22 seasons-to-date run. Now at open casting calls I imagine they have check boxes with labels like "Drunken Frat Boy Likely to Pick an Ignorant and Poorly Thought-Out Fight" or "Frustrated Psuedo-Intellectual Racial or Sexual Preference Minority Prototype", but in 1992 when the show premiered the show was a fresh concept.

Producers (and now reality show moguls) Jonathan Murray and Mary Ellis-Bunim initially considered making The Real World a semi-scripted soap opera, giving the preselected cast members a blueprint of their character development and storylines. You know, like they do nowadays on reality TV. If this idea had come to fruition with the quickly dissembled so-called "Season 0" cast, we could have seen Tracy Grandstaff (the then-future voice of MTV's Daria) play out as a character on The Real World. The pilot was soon dropped and exchanged for an actual set of seven strangers, forming the 1992 premiere season of The Real World.

In 1992, we first heard of MTV's grand social experiment, as the New York season premiered with these now-familiar words:

This is the true story... of seven strangers... picked to live in a together and have their lives taped... to find out what happens... when people stop being polite... and start getting real...The Real World.

For your viewing pleasure, a montage of Real World Intros. I couldn't find them any other way. The first one on there is New York, my favorite part of which has got to be when they intone "...and start getting real," after which we hear a cast member yell, "Can you get the phone?" This was them not being polite/being real in 1992. Amazing.

So, what exactly happened when people stopped being polite and started being real? In 1992, this was actually a provocative and novel question. MTV brought in Becky, Norman, Heather, Julie, Kevin, Eric, and Andre to help us find out. I'm going to go out on a limb here and side with pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman in declaring the first season to be the only season of TRW that was actually "real" by any definition of the world. There was no meta self awareness going on, nor was there shameless self promotion in pursuit of low-tier fame. The first cast was the only one with no idea what was in store, what would get them screen time, or how the show would look as a finished product.

This was a short-lived phenomenon, of course, and soon the show was riddled with the kind of drama producers and sponsors salivate over. Here are just a few of the many, many ratings-skyrocketing dramatic moments that characterized the show in the 90s:

Puck vs. Everyone, Especially Pedro (San Francisco)

Sometimes good heartedness and good TV just don't mix. David "Puck" Rainey was a prime example of this phenomenon. No one could deny that watching his puzzling, over-the-top, and frequently unhygienic antics was entertaining. His worldview, however, was not quite as appealing to viewers as his penchant for picking his nose and eating peanut butter from the jar with his fingers. Puck was a notorious attention hog who represented the brazen new class of wannabe fame-seekers who made up the rising underclass of reality TV. He came to blows with pretty much everyone in the house, but the most memorable and shameful was his confrontation with Pedro Zamora.

Zamora had been diagnosed with AIDS, and his kind spirit and desire to battle ignorance against his disease made him the ideal target for Puck. Essentially, Puck became incensed that Pedro was a far more interesting character than him and thus was receiving far more attention. The only logical solution in his deluded mind was to attack Pedro constantly, instigating unnecessary confrontations. Pedro, in all his goodness, was ready to leave the house under the siege of torment until the other cast members decided to evict Puck. Sadly, Pedro died almost immediately after the airing of the San Francisco season finale, but his triumph over an asshat like Puck was a well-deserved minor victory.

Melissa and Dan Fight Over Postal Rights (Miami, 1996)

I don't know about you, but I take the US Postal Service's code to honor the privacy of my mail very seriously. Which is why it came as no surprise to me when Dan exploded upon finding that Melissa opened his letter containing pricey materials for his work. He goes so far as to call her a stupid bitch, which seems a little harsh for some innocent housemate mail-tampering. Things escalate quickly, as they tend to do on The Real World. In retaliation, Melissa flung some anti-gay slurs at him, which in retrospect was probably not a wise move. The drama just oozes from this clip. It's ridiculous TRW at its finest.

The Slap Heard Round the World (Seattle, 1998)

Possibly the most infamous of Real World moments was what MTV dubbed "The Slap Heard Round the World". Even this early in the game, MTV realized the value of branding and packaging TRW's drama and making it seem like news. I suppose it's a testament to the show's resonance that people still remember this moment, though to its credit it is absolutely crazy.

Irene was looking for an out, so she cried Lyme Disease and asked to leave the show. To be fair, she did actually have Lyme Disease, but her claims of its debilitating impact may have been just a bit exaggerated. In what must have been a Lyme Disease-induced bout of insanity, she outs Stephen as a homosexual. Smooth move, Irene. To retaliate, Stephen does what any normal guy would do. That is to say, he throws her prized stuffed animal into the watery abyss and then stops her moving car to slap her in the face.

If he was working to quell those murmurings about his sexuality, this may not have been his best move. All in all, Irene may have had the last laugh, or at least a validation of her character over Stephen's. In the early 2000s he was arrested for prostitution and then for stealing a 1988 Toyota Camry. Smooth move, Stephen. We can only imagine his indisposed clients asking to reenact that fateful slapping scene. Though to be honest, I'd prefer not to.

As many of you well know, these moments are just the tip of the iceberg. The crazy seemed to snowball with each new season, turning the show into a free-for-all frenzy of threesomes, stereotyped character molds, and general drunken debauchery. In the early years, though, it was more of a legitimate social experiment to see what happened what people stopped being polite, and started getting real. Okay, so that reality may have included a verbal pillaging for semi-innocent mail tampering, but it still beats watching The Real World: Cancun.


Scientific Housewife said...

I started watching The Real World when they were in Boston and stopped watching before the Paris season. It used to be really entertaining but now it's gone to crap.

Smart Ass Sara said...

I have watched every season of the Real World and loved it. My favorites are a tie between Boston, New Orleans and San Fran, and my least favorite was London (really, aside from Neil's tongue being bitten off- nothing memorable) and the lame ass Semester At Sea shit. You know none of those people would actually pass.

But what I miss was the orginal Road Rules!! These challenges suck shit. I really liked the first Road Rules where you couldn't kick people off- you just had to deal with their nasty ass's in your too-small RV.

Jenn said...

i used to love this show - and for some reason, i no longer love it, yet still watch it. i've watched every single season - sad huh?

fake or not - i'm a sucker for reality tv!

Jaime said...

The older seasons were soo much better than the ones today...

Anonymous said...

I'll admit that the Real World is one of my shameless obsessions. I love this show! I started watching the New Orleans season and really got into it with Back to New York. I haven't missed a season since. I also love the RW/RR Challenges. My mom and I faithfully watch every Wednesday night!

Couture Carrie said...

Love this tv blast from the past!


Cee said...

I used to have to sneak watch this when my parents wern't around. My little brother used to like to watch it when he was about 4...he would call it "The House"

Kristen said...

This is one of the shows I never got into! I know a lot of people who did and still are!!

Melanie's Randomness said...

I remember catching the Real World season when they went to New Orleans to visit Anne Rice's house but I can't remember many of the seasons. The Real World now is just ridicolous I think, it just seems so planned. BUT i'll admit I've always wanted to be on it, & still would love too.

Queen Mama said...

I remember that slap OH TO WELL! Oh my! I loved the older ones. The newer RW are CRAP! But I admit, I am a fan of For the love of Ray J

Melissa Blake said...

I was waiting for this post! The Real World is, hands down, THE show from my youth! I started watching in '93 when I was 12 and had no idea what some of the stuff they were talking about meant. But I was hooked, and still am! :)

Mrs. Potts said...

I used to love this show! I haven't watched it in years, but used to love it!

Dina's Days said...

Ahh ha ha that slap killed me!!! I remember it!
Stop by Dina's Days, I'm having a giveaway!

Lil' Woman said...

That show is ridiculous now! :)

kelleidoscope said...

Hehe I LOVE World's Strictest Parents. But you're so right.. reality TV has gone waay off course. I sure miss the original Real World

Anonymous said...

The best "reality" TV show ever was the Joe Shmoe show although the second and last season was the best. The concept was to cast wannabe actors to portray the standard stereotypes and then take one person who didn't know it was fake and put them in a reality show type world where one person was voted off each week. The second season was a dating show with both a male and female dupe, but the woman caught on within the first couple of episodes and was recruited to be a member of the cast and fool the guy who didn't find out about the joke until the finale. It was great.

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