I’m a big fan of weekends spent without too much on the schedule. I like going out and doing things, of course, but I also very much enjoy just hanging around the house with no responsibilities. As it happened, this past weekend was one of those weekends and it thankfully coincided with a Real World weekend on MTV. Instead of doing what you might think they would leading up to the launch of the 28th season of the reality TV frontrunner, the network decided to feature classic seasons like New York (the very first season), the game changing first Las Vegas (which set many of the precedents not only seen on The Real World to this day, but also at least half of all other reality shows) and the epic, heartbreaking and concept-proving San Francisco. I’ve heard here and there that the network doesn’t actually like this dinosaur of a show (28 seasons?!) so I was surprised when I hear about this.
I caught huge chunks of all three marathons. I didn’t get into the show until about 1996 with the Miami season and was hooked from there, so I only really saw the first four seasons when MTV would run marathons. It was cool sitting down and looking back at what had come before with the series.
While watching 1992’s Real World New York I was mostly taken with how driven Heather, Kevin, Eric, Norman and Andre were. Becky and Julie had their moments, but the others really seemed to know what they were going for and doing what they could to do it. A big part of this seems to be the fact that MTV and the production company probably did most of their casting in NYC with just a few other places, hence Julie coming from the south. I’m not one of those people who’s constantly saying that Real World has changed over the years — I mean it has, but is that the show, what they’re now comfortable showing and/or a shift in youth culture? — but it was interesting seeing so many people going out and doing their own thing while still trying to show their roommates what they were all about and reacting to what they thought they were all about.
You know what tickled me the most though? How low rent the house was. I mean, it looks like an apartment in New York. I’m sure it’s even a fairly large one by today’s standards, but look how bland it was. Heck, the ironing board and iron feature prominently in several key scenes! There’s a lot of that kind of charm in this season, but we also get a lot of the stuff that made this show famous: discussions about race, homosexuality, breaking away from parental ideals, politics, education, homelessness and more. I didn’t mention Julie above as being creatively driven, but holy crap, I was incredibly impressed with not only her desire to learn about her roommates, but going even further and trying to experience life as a homeless person. If this season came out today, she would not only be offered all kinds of freelance writing work — she’s a better, more natural interviewer at 19 than I am at 30 — but also probably her own show called Julie’s World where she travels around making connections with people. Yes, she comes off as ignorant at time — something Heather raged against, though I think she was more specifically talking about willful ignorance and plain old stupidity — but she also perfectly encapsulates what I want this show to be about: people coming from different backgrounds to live with and learn about one another. That’s one of the reasons I had such a problem with Zach and Ashley from the second San Diego season, they basically glommed on to one another, shielded themselves off from everyone else and didn’t do or learn anything (or at least that’s how they were presented on the show).
From the innaugural season of one of the most famous reality shows of all time, Real World decided to jump ahead a decade to the first season of Real World Las Vegas which many claim changed the face of the show permanently. This new batch of kids — Trishelle, Steven, Alton, Arissa, Irulan, Brynn and Frank — seemed a lot less focused on going for their creative or career goals and instead just wanted to party. But, what else do you expect from a bunch of 20-somethings sent to live in freaking Vegas? These kids lived and worked in the Palms and the glossy, partially remembered milestones for the show seem to revolve around Steven and Trishelle hooking up on day one, a three way hot tub hook up between those two and Brynn, Frank getting jealous and grossed out by a lot of this and Brynn almost getting kicked off the show for throwing a fork at Steven.
Those are the bits that I remembered, at least. This cast has also been pretty present on The Challenge, so there’s some added baggage there as well because Alton seems completely crazy these days. But even though this is considered the sex-drenched season that changed the series for the worse, there’s also a lot of emotional stuff going on that gets passed over for the more salacious bits. Cast members talk about dealing with sexual assault, Brynn has a mountain of trust and love issues, so does Trishelle and there’s the so-gross-it-made-me-want-to-punch-him dealings with their boss, a guy named Marc who was clearly using his work-related power over them to try and hook up with Irulan and Arissa. I don’t remember what I thought of all that at the time, but I was outraged this time around and hope that things like this being on TV helped people understand what was over the line and that they didn’t have to take that kind of crap from dorks who get the tiniest bit of power and use it to get what they want from the girls who used to make fun of them in high school.
I missed most of the end of this season because, just like the first New York, it’s actually on DVD. I also realized something while watching this particular marathon: these seasons can be tough to watch in big chunks like this. I’m a lot more attuned to emotional states now than I used to be and watched some really troubled people either struggle to deal with their issues or do their best to ignore them with sex and booze hits me in the gut a lot harder these days. Watching something like 14 hours of that in a row is just too much.
Which both thematically and chronologically brings me to Real World San Francisco from 1994. This might have been one of the first seasons I watched, but I remember it more from latter day marathons. I caught it off and on on Sunday as I had a lot of errands to run both on my own and with my wife and unfortunately/fortunately missed the last episodes. Like with all the other seasons from so long ago, I remembered highlights like Pedro’s battle with AIDS, Puck’s bad behavior and subsequent ousting and Cory really not knowing herself, but there’s so much more going on. I also know, of course, that Judd and Pam get together and are married to this day, but I’m not sure if they actually got together on the season or later. I was actually surprised to see both of them with other people. They’re supposed to be together, how can he kiss that other girl?!
The main thing everyone remembers about this season, though, is Pedro and his heroic and inspirational nature. He’s not only a gay man who finds love on this show, but also one whose health deteriorates significantly. To their credit, MTV didn’t shy too much away from all this and put it out there for the world to see. Would they do that these days? I tend to think not, but who knows? They seem to go for more mental disorders these days (I’m looking specifically at you Ryan from New Orleans 2010). What I think the show lacks these days is people who are truly inspirational like Pedro and like Julie, people who put themselves out in the world as much as possible, take in everything they can and try to make things better. I made a similar point on Twitter to which my wife very pointedly reminded me of Ryan from Real World Brooklyn. Very true, maybe I’m letting myself forget the smaller moments and quieter characters.
It’s so easy to boil these seasons down to just a few headlines, but the reason I keep coming back to the Real World — and will be watching and possibly blogging about tonight’s premiere of Real World Portland — is that, no matter how much you don’t like the people involved, they’re still people with all kinds of quirks, damage and weirdness. The show might not be the place that weird kids try to go to show the world how unique anymore — we’ve got YouTube and podcasts for that now — but it’s still an excellent source of humanity in all its weird and wonderful forms. Let’s see what Portland has to offer!
One more quick thing while I’m on the subject of this show and its long history. I mentioned New York and Las Vegas being on DVD, but they’re the only ones to ever be put out in the format. I’ve heard some of the earlier seasons are on Hulu Plus, but I don’t have that service and I believe you can download some on iTunes, but I have a proposal for MTV: take one half hour or hour out of your daily programming and show an episode of Real World. Start at the beginning and go through chronologically and just see what kind of reaction you get from live viewings, social media and DVRers. I bet people will get into it because no matter how funny the clothes might look and crappy the footage might look (yes, your phone shoots better video than the entire first decade of the show) the real worries of 20-somethings haven’t changed all that much over the years and there’s still plenty to learn from the older episodes. Either that or get these things on Netflix Instant already!