On Wednesday night, another group of people in their early 20s boards the drunken party train to MTV stardom as the cable network debuts the 20th season of "The Real World," the first modern reality series.
Arguing that the show is a mere shadow of its former self is almost cliché now, and there's plenty of evidence to illustrate its decline. "The Real World" has been eclipsed by "The Hills" in ratings and media coverage for its stars, despite revelations about the newer show's lack of authenticity.
Its spin-off, "Road Rules," was cancelled years ago, only to be resurrected briefly last year for a disastrous real-time season before disappearing again. And other reality series offer their interpersonal conflict alongside much more substance and depth.
Yet MTV stubbornly stands by the world's first modern reality series despite the show’s downward spiral, and has even renewed the program for a 21st season.
Lack of actual lives
Those of us who watched the show in its early years — before reality television fueled all of television, popular culture and the media — recall a series that cast people with actual lives. My love affair with reality TV began with the second season of "The Real World," which included a stand-up comedian, three singers, a journalist and an engaged courtroom bailiff, and like the 20th season, was set in Los Angeles.
The producers finally acknowledged their cast's lack of actual lives, and cast for the new season by "searching for cast members with career and life goals that they want to pursue in a major metropolitan city," according to the casting notice. (That's not limited to this season, as producers want activists and people with "depth" for season 21.)
While still searching for its seven strangers, the show's casting director, Damon Furberg, told me, "We're definitely trying to avoid casting people who are just looking at this show as a big resume for themselves."
Relentlessly narrow focus
"The Real World Hollywood" starts with the cast members telling us what they hope to do with their lives. One is a bartender who wants to be a reporter on E!; another is a trainer who wants to be an actor; one was in the top 45 on "American Idol 5" and still wants to be a singer.
Soon, though, someone cries out, "Let's start the partying," and they're drunk and naked and arguing. It's enough to make one wish that they were, in fact, trying to pad their resumes rather than just destroy their reputations.
Even with the attempt to cast people with goals, the show continues its relentlessly narrow focus on people whose lives will be created by the show. Goals are very different than, you know, jobs, and reality series such as "American Idol" and "Project Runway" have proven that talent and personality together can be far more engaging than just personality.
But this sort of casting has been the status quo since long before even the 10th season, which debuted in 2001. Back then, I argued that the show's self-selecting cast of people with limited life experiences was to blame for its quality atrophying.
Watching the roast and awards show MTV held on the occasion of this 20th anniversary, however, I relived moments in my voyeuristic life via clips from past seasons, and was surprised by what I saw:
- Boston cast member Montana's boyfriend Vaj screaming at her on the phone after learning she was cheating.
- Seattle's Stephen throwing Irene's stuffed animal into the bay before opening a car door and slapping her in the face as she left the show.
Those memories led to others, like the confrontational cross-country trip where Dominic, Jon and Tami experienced culture shock via one another on the first episode of "The Real World Los Angeles." Also that season, there was a fight during which David pulled a blanket off of barely clothed Tami, and she retaliated by putting his shoes in the toilet. David ultimately left the house after the cast sided with Tami, who later had an abortion and, separately, her jaw wired shut to help her lose weight.
This is what I look back at fondly? This is what I insist is higher-quality television than the drunken, stupid antics that now fills more than 20 episodes of MTV's iconic series every year?
How is "The Real World" becoming more unwatchable by the year if nothing's really changing? And is there really a difference among people with life experiences and pre-existing careers arguing with each other, and self-selecting wannabe reality stars arguing with each other?
At 30, I'm still in the show's target demographic of people ages 12 to 34. Those at its lower end weren't even born until "The Real World" was well into its run, however, and I'm pushing against the upper end of the range, never mind that a full five years have passed since I was eligible to appear on the show.
Perhaps this is just what "old" people do: We complain about the past and forget that it was very much like the present.
Now, we get our "Real World" fix from the interpersonal conflict on "Big Brother" and the physical altercations that come within the confines of the challenges on "Survivor." Over-the-top personalities clash on "Project Runway" or "Top Chef," and it actually makes their competition more watchable. And "The Hills" offers a desirable fantasy version of reality that's extremely polished because that's what happens when you get to do retakes on scenes from your life.
These shows have simply built on the foundation of "The Real World," which audaciously refuses to camouflage that often ugly core. By presenting reality TV at its most bare, maybe it does us a favor, forcing us to remember what really prompts us to tune in. For that service alone, "The Real World" lives on.