Angels and Demons: On the MTV ‘Real World’ Marathon

Real World Los Angeles Ahead of the premiere of the twenty-eighth (!) season of The Real World, set somewhat curiously in Portland, MTV has scheduled a weekend marathon of three “classic” seasons of the trailblazing reality show. Starting Friday night at 8pm MTV will air the first entry in the series, the groundbreaking Real World: New York, followed by the booze and sex soaked Las Vegas season Saturday at 2pm, and rounded out by the Puck and Pedro-fronted season three, Real World: San Francisco, beginning 8am Sunday. While we applaud the selection of NY and SF as 66.6% of the marathon, we cannot support the further promulgation of Las Vegas, especially at the expense of more worthy, important, less debaucherous seasons like Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle, or even the underrated Miami.

Choosing New York to lead off the marathon is a no-brainer. It was not just the first season of the long-running series, it defined what the series would be. Like Richard Hatch on the maiden season of Survivor, The Real World: New York set the mold for what this show would be, and, in many ways, set the course for Reality TV for the next twenty years. It’s cultural relevance and impact cannot be understated. Likewise for San Francisco, which was even more captivating and controversial for its inclusion of Pedro, an HIV positive Cuban-American, and Puck, a bellicose bike messenger with questionable hygiene and even more questionable social skills. This season – with its portrayal of a gay man (living, not dying) with AIDS and the caustic, boorish punk who alienated his housemates to the point of eviction – truly launched the show, and as well as awareness of the deadly disease, into the public consciousness, establishing The Real World as an MTV institution and a cultural phenomenon with immense significance. Nearly ten years later, Las Vegas began to undo everything that San Francisco and its peers has established.

Set in the penthouse suite of the Las Vegas Palms Casino and Resort, foreshowing (and encouraging) the decadence and hedonism that would take place, the twelfth season of the show signaled the decline of the program, solidifying its fall from a show about seven strangers who are picked the house to have their lives taped – lives that they still led normally with day jobs and responsibilities and obligations – to a show about seven strangers who are picked to live literally and figuratively in a house of sin, to have their lives taped while they get drunk, party, hook up in the hot tub, sleep til noon, and then rinse and repeat (if even the former). We don’t intend to sound like prudes or teetotalers – certainly not our stance – but Las Vegas took what was so interesting and significant about the show – real people with diverse background going about their real lives – and reduced it down to a group of camera ready 20-somethings who were looking to get lucky and live rent-free. And whereas attempts were made in previous seasons to give the housemates some kind of group project or purpose – like working at an after-school program in Boston or producing a public access show in Seattle – the cast of Las Vegas was given the tenuous assignment of working for the Palms, fulfilling such enriching, character building  tasks as “promotional work for the night club, Rain in the Desert, cocktail waiting, and go-go dancing.” You can make the argument that the dye was cast, that the Real World had gradually been slipping from sociological experiment to voyeuristic pseudo-reality with no redemptive value, that Vegas was just the fuse that lit the powder keg. And that may be true. But if you’re looking to draw a line from the evolution of MTV programming from The Real World: New York to The Jersey Shore, Las Vegas just might be your missing link. Trishelle, you were the harbinger of death.*

And what we find so upsetting, so galling about the inclusion of Las Vegas is its presence at the exclusion of the show’s second season (originally titled The Real World: California, but changed to Los Angeles when Bunim/Murray realized they’d be returning to the Golden State on multiple occasions for the next two decades). If you’re going to start the marathon with the pioneering first season and end it with the truly remarkable third season, then it really makes sense to install Los Angeles as the meat in that sandwich, and not just because it fits sequentially (although that doesn’t hurt). By scheduling NY and SF, two iconic early seasons, MTV seems to be indicating that this marathon will be some kind of history lesson; more than a walk down memory lane, it’s an education about the series’ beginnings, the primordial ooze from which the other seasons evolved (and not to be confused with the primordial ooze likely found in unfortunate quantities in the Vegas jacuzzi). To truly paint the picture of what the Real World used to be it would have been logical, prudent, to present the show’s first West Coast edition. 

Los Angeles took place back before there was any blueprint for what it meant to be a Real World cast member, before the show became a fertile, (STD) breeding ground for good-looking, interchangeable action figures and barbie dolls looking to get wasted, fight and fuck. LA – and NY and SF – had real characters who truly felt like they were from different places, and the demographics didn’t feel manufactured, even though they obviously were. There was Jon, the country music singing cowboy from Kentucky, who was only 18 at the time but seemed like was 35; Aaron, the Republican, blond surfer dude who was 21 but seemed to have a better grasp on life than we do now; Dominic, the drunk Irishman who was an elder statesman in the house at 24, but seemed like he was 45; David, the African-American stand-up comic from DC who had appeared on In Living Color; Tami, the aspiring R&B singer; and Irene, whom we basically never saw because she had an actual job at the SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT, as in an actual, competent adult with serious responsibilities (and in proving that she was actually too responsible for the show, even for this season, she marries and moves out midway). Yes, they were as young as the current cast members, but they felt so much older. Sure, that could easily have been because they were ten years older than us at the time, as opposed to ten years younger like some of the cast now. But it still seems like it was more than that, that these were genuine people with vastly different backgrounds and values who had real hopes and aspirations other than using The Real World as stepping stone to a permanent residence The RW/RR ChallengeFor them – and very much in part because there had yet been no precedents set – “The Real World” was an experience, not a means to an end.

Which isn’t to say that Los Angeles was immune from controversy, or cast members behaving badly. Quite the opposite. What is still burned into our memory from this season is the infamous incident between David and Tami in which David tore a blanket off a laughing but soon irate Tami, a moment of innocuous fun turned intensely serious. 

What began as playing around – you can see both Jon and Beth S. giggling along – soon crossed the line for Tami, as she reflected on the situation and felt violated, that David uncovered her against her will, prompting an outburst of Bad Girls Club proportions (that show being a bastard offspring of The Real World itself). Later the concept of rape was suggested and applied to this situation, and this was one of the first ever discussions about rape that we can recall, and it colored our understanding about what is considered rape and sexual assault (something that is clearly still an incredibly white-hot burning topic today). Did we think then that David had any truly malicious intent in his exposing of Tami? No, not really. Do you we still feel that way? Yeah, pretty much. He clearly should have stopped when they screamed at him to do so, but Tami’s resistance seemed to straddle the line between laughter and fear, and Beth certainly seemed to be egging David on.** The other cast members, if not willing participants, were willing onlookers. They were kids, and it had the feel of a dorm room prank taken too far. But that does not change the fact that Tami felt abused and unsafe, and that was just as an important of a lesson in 1993 as it is in 2013. It wasn’t funny (although, it wasn’t wasn’t not funny), and even among twenty-eight seasons of The Real World, that still stands out as a moment when people stopped being polite and started getting real.

This confrontation led to the first house eviction, as they soon asked David to leave in a vote that was somewhat less unanimous than the ouster of Puck the following season (whose real name, coincidentally, is also David). And that was not the only significant life event for Tami during the show, as she also had her jaw wired shut in order to lose weight and prior to that had an abortion following an unplanned pregnancy. She seemed to live more in three months than must of us had before or after the age of 22 (indeed, it seemed like Tami understood the idea of “reality star” before it was even established, parlaying her notoriety into a string of hosting and acting gigs, before coming full circle and appearing on VH1’s current series Basketball Wivesanother series whose DNA can be traced back to The Real World). Her abortion in particular, along with the blanket incident, showed that there are real consequences to our actions, something that’s not always evident in The Real World today.

And it’s not just these individual moments that should have given the Real World: Los Angeles precedence over a season like Las Vegas, although they certainly help (we didn’t even talk about Dom’s drinking or Glen’s band). It’s that they are part of a different time, a different era, the one to which New York and San Francisco belong, when a house eviction was a revolutionary moment and not a hackneyed plot development, when a drunken hook-up was a scandal and not a Tuesday night, and when The Real World was a fledgling experiment and not a franchise. Back when it was a true story. Or as close to one as we could possibly come.

*We should note that the last season we watched with any regularity was New Orleans, with some smatterings of Austin and portions of Sydney and Brooklyn (having briefly lived in the former and currently living in the latter), so we admit that everything we have written here could be completely off-base. 
**This was a warm-up of up sorts for Beth S., who has parlayed her sad propensity for troublemaking and rabble-rousing into a lifetime spot on The Challenge, depressingly, but fittingly, still trying to cling to her fifteen minutes, long after her contemporaries have moved on. But, somewhat poetically, her record stands at seven appearances and zero victories. 

1 Comment

Filed under Analysis, Nostalgia Corner, The Worst, TV Killed the Music Video Star

One response to “Angels and Demons: On the MTV ‘Real World’ Marathon

  1. Great article. Agree 100%

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