How ‘The Real World’ Became My Banner For Reality TV
Before it all became “too real”
It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty-five years since MTV unleashed the very first season of an experimental project that innocently and irrevocably changed the landscape of television — for better or worse.
When The Real World debuted back in 1992 — I was within the age range of the guinea pigs that were chosen to occupy a loft apartment in downtown Manhattan — and aside from my envious streak of anyone dwelling in the city of my dreams — my fascination for this new art form was almost immediate.
It is worthy to note that the critics weren’t that psyched about a show that featured young folks living it up in The Big Apple, as they submitted to the lenses capturing their every move.
A not-so-impressed writer from USA Today, Matt Roush, described the show as “painfully bogus” and called out its “cynical” and “exploitative” nature which in his view marked a “new low” in television.
Another critic from The Washington Post, Tom Shales, had a little more fun with his assessment of MTV’s newest offering:
“Ah to be young, cute, and stupid, and to have too much free time…Such is the lot facing the wayward wastrels of The Real World, something new in excruciating torture from the busy minds at MTV.”
Of course I would absolutely relish the opportunity to pick his brain when it comes to scathing reviews of our clear and present danger in the realm of a genre that has been overused and royally abused.
Would he be willing to take the up the challenge of denouncing the celebrated exploits of The Kardashians? Would he dare to comprehend how The Housewives make a living off of the boredom of loyalists? Or perhaps he would be better off regulating his disdain to the cast and crew of the various offshoots that are currently polluting our screens at rapid speed.
The truth is that the original concept of The Real World was as raw as it gets in the arena of cinéma vérité.
Back in 1973 — PBS took a leap of faith by venturing into untracked territory with the production of An American Family, which intended to convey the non-threatening values of the classic “All-American” brood dwelling in the enclave of Santa Barbara, California.
Miraculously, producers ended up documenting the unexpected collapse of the “American Dream” under the roof of willing participants who seamlessly played into the role of their lives.
As human beings, it’s hard to turn away from anything that heralds the beginning of chaos and mayhem. This explains how Donald J. Trump won the presidency. This is the reason why The Kardashians were able to capitalize on a sex tape scandal in order to establish a still-thriving dynasty while propelling 24/7 streaming privileges.
This also categorizes those of us who believe in reality and the rest of you who believe in the designated orders that create the shield.
I believed in The Real World because for a brief moment — it was damningly real.
The episodes of Real World: New York, were gloriousness gritty and the grainy shots matched perfectly with the sloppiness in motion — not to mention the plainness of the occupants, which by the way isn’t throwing shade, but rather praising the lack of attention to detail.
MTV stumbled upon a revolutionary way to depict the youthful zeal of a climate that was still stuck in the residue of the heightened eighties while also trying to configure the historical unfolding of the nineties.
If you ever want to comprehend how my generation internalized the work ethic of baby boomer parents by reimagining the method of societal acceptance — through the freedom of creative expression — then you must study the early days of a franchise that flawlessly depicted how the “slacker” mentality became a tool of prized existence.
Becky, Andre, Heather, Julie, Norman, Eric, and Kevin didn’t benefit from legions of followers on social media and, they weren’t prompted by the virtuoso of money-hungry producers that instinctively erect the grooves for staged combat.
The disagreements were grown from the complexities that are encouraged when a southern belle (Julie) is faced with the reality of rooming with a Black man (Kevin) — whose strong convictions surfaces racial stereotypes.
The only other African-American housemate — (Heather) also endured the pressures that consistently plague Black women who dare to defend themselves from the the “Angry Black Woman” — a label that is invariably attached.
The rest of the housemates clinically answered the call of duty — to be the banner of organically primed realism — with assistance of societal themes that made their arrival even more generational.
For the college student who switched from being a Theater major because the department didn’t seem to cater to students who looked like her — I was also trying to conform and rebel against the real world — simultaneously.
The truth is that I was the quintessential slacker who respected the world that my parents created and envisioned for me, but my gangly pursuits were staged from the selfish need to hold out for the opportunities that matched my search for what I could never find.
I moved to New York City after graduating as an English major — and way after the premiere of what became my brief obsession — and to my delight, I discovered the sensation of being protected by the awesomeness of a city that makes you feel like a star even though evidence proves otherwise.
In the real world, if you don’t have a concrete plan — you will shuffle around — and succumb to the dizzying effects of being overwhelmed with your initiation into the foreplay of an erratic workforce.
Like so many Generation X-ers, I got caught in the tide of change that made me ill equipped to manage my talent and ambitions — accordingly.
I didn’t feel like a victim and yet looking back it’s obvious that I was.
Now, more than two decades later, when I recall through blurry videos on Youtube — the environment that lay the foundation for my identity — I completely understand why the avant garde formula had to be uprooted to accommodate the glitzy fare that you’re now tolerating.
It’s too real for me too — when I go back in time and see myself grappling with the absence of the tools that we presently coerce as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
But, then I’m struck by the way we related to each other — without the interference of traffic numbers, over-priced iPhones and brands fighting to hold us hostage long enough to erase any trace of our DNA.
The world wasn’t a stage then, but it is now — except we’re not strangers — we’re friends — and it’s all real.