Just like American Idol with Simon Cowell and The Simple Life with its blonde and bland starlets, The Real World has made its mark in television history on the heels of its own cast of colorful characters.
The Real World San Francisco had Puck, a bleached and spiked loudmouth whose dining and social habits were tantamount to that of an acid-flipped caveman.
Ruthie, the boozing bisexual from The Real World Hawaii, busted loose on the very first episode by getting alcohol poisoning and pretty much stayed drunk for the rest of the season.
Then there's Flora from the Miami season... I mean, Jesus.
When the first season of The Real World premiered in 1992, a new genre of mainstream television was born. Filmed in New York City, the heavily stylized, documentary-style show was a fly-on-the-wall view of seven 20-somethings searching for their respective identities in the troubled waters of young adulthood.
Andre and roommate Heather were both working the local music scene, attempting to jumpstart their budding careers; Kevin used his poetry and status as an educator to allow people glimpses into the life of the young black man; Eric was an up-and-coming model; Norman, Becky and Julie were all looking for something to focus their passions on, hoping they would find it in the bustling metropolis.
The first three seasons of The Real World (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco) represented a bona fide microcosm of life in the United States not previously seen on national television-actual young people with actual struggles trying to make their mark in the world.
From the first five minutes of the first episode, the MTV suits knew they had a hit on their hands; they wasted no time capitalizing. The Real World proved that reality-style programming could be a profitable endeavor for the music channel, and would eventually cut deeply into the station's around-the-clock music-video format.
Besides Cops, reality programming was barely kicking up any dust on the television landscape, and it had yet to find an audience of young television viewers. The Real World's kinetic camerawork and video-vérité grabbed attention of the 18-to-35 set right away, and continues to keep audiences in its grip.
The basic structure used in those first seasons of The Real World is still there in the current San Diego-based edition: real people (not actors) in a big house with cameras everywhere.
What has changed is how the production has switched gears from being a pseudo-serious reality soap opera to a mishmash of half-plots and asinine behavior caught on tape-all crammed together to create as much scandal as possible in the allotted 22 minutes of weekly air time.
The first episode of the 14th season of The Real World premiered on Jan. 6 and introduced the country to the city of San Diego and its seven soon-to-be-famous residents. In the span of an hour (the first episode was a double episode), “seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped” met up, drank a bunch of booze, showed off their abs, almost fucked, drank some more booze, threw up in their sleep, drank more booze, broke up with their girlfriend, cried, drank more, went fishing, drank.
Riveting television, no?
The cast members of The Real World are no longer an assemblage of ambitious young go-getters. Pam the doctor and Judd the cartoonist (who eventually got married) from The Real World San Francisco are nowhere to be found. John, the aspiring country crooner from The Real World Los Angeles-complete with goofy Southern drawl and worn-in Stetson-is the last person MTV would put on the show now.
Through years of market research and focus groups, it appears MTV has standardized a template used in almost all of its primetime programming. The Real World, Road Rules, TRL, Newlyweds and a half-dozen other shows on the network all look fairly similar in terms of the attitudes presented by the cast members. The tenet of the formula seems to be: skin over substance.
(Obviously The Osbournes are a huge exception here, but what they lack in aesthetics they make up for in fame, wealth, tomfoolery and basic crazyassedness.)
The newest cast members of The Real World San Diego are young, sexy and archetypically transparent-right down to their inflated sense of importance and skimpy bathing suits. In the first half hour of the premiere episode, we saw all seven cast members loosening up in the hot tub-water glistening off of their respective curves and ripples, beer bubbles dribbling from their numbing lips.
No one's got to catch the 7 a.m. trolley for work. No one's stressing over a bio-chem final the following day. They are simply seven strangers on vacation, canoodling in front of an enormous, anonymous viewing audience-not a care in the world, nor a care for it.
Work ethic isn't the only thing missing from The Real World. One of the truly powerful aspects of the original episodes was that they brought alternative lifestyles and viewpoints into the homes of millions.
In the first season, Norman became one of the first openly gay central characters in American television. In 1994, Pedro Zamora from The Real World San Francisco taught young Americans what it was like to live with AIDS. Though celebrities like Arthur Ashe and Magic Johnson had given the disease real, human faces, the young and ambitious Zamora was the first person many Americans had ever seen deal with the disease on a daily basis.
On Nov. 11, 1994, Zamora finally succumbed to the disease, just five months after the show premiered. President Clinton issued a press release offering his condolences to the Zamora family and the nation, a portion of which read: “Pedro was particularly instrumental in reaching out to his own generation, where AIDS is striking hard. Through his work with MTV, he taught young people that The Real World includes AIDS and that each of us has the responsibility to protect ourselves and our loved ones.”
The opportunity for the country to witness Zamora's struggle awoke an entire generation to the severity and relevancy of AIDS, allowing for positive dialogue to take place in more isolated parts of the United States that had previously dismissed the disease as “not something that happens around here.”
The San Diego season has its own potential health advocate in token weird girl Frankie, but without the same impact. Frankie is afflicted with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease afflicting more than 3,900 newborns each year in the United States. The defective gene causes the body to produce abnormally thick mucous that can effect respiratory and pancreatic functions, and it isn't unusual for sufferers to die before the age of 30.
Though the severity of this disease is dire, Frankie (a redhead with a knack for almost cheating on her boyfriend with the male cast members) doesn't let it affect her life in the least, but without the noble crusader badge so associated with Zamora. Not only does she glibly indulge in self-destructive behavior (she smokes-tar plus thick mucus equals big-time dumbass), but neither Frankie nor the show's producers use her situation to educate viewers about the disease.
She and MTV choose to downplay it. They focus instead on her outright laughable case of megalometallophobia (a fear of large, metal objects-mostly cruise ships, in her case).
Rather than focusing on the real, much less sensational disorder (More phlegm than average, huh? We'll pass.), they opt to hone in on the oddball psychological disorder that plagues a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the population:
Watch the hilarity ensue as a woman afraid of cruise ships goes to work on a sailboat in the Pacific Ocean! It'll be hi-larious!
In essence, The Real World has become a parody of itself. The show's original intent to show real people in real situations has devolved into a showcase of Brad and Randy's rock-hard abs, yelling matches between Robin and random bar patrons, and all manner of other conflict for the sake of conflict.
Cast members seem purposely selected to act as one another's foils. Robin and Cameran come from the South, where they don't think twice about dropping “nigger” in conversation. Jacques-obviously the sanest one on the show-is a proud, intelligent black man who ain't gonna take that kind of shit from ignorant white chicks.
Cameran hates loudmouth Yankees and Brad is as loudmouthed and Yankee as George Steinbrenner. Frankie, Jacquese and Jaime automatically brand themselves as outcasts before the show's second week because the really attractive white kids (Brad, Randy, Robin and Cameran) are canoodling in the hot tub without them. (It should be noted that Frankie, Jacquese and Jaime aren't exactly freak shows of physical deformity).
Americans love this type of conflict, especially when it has to be dealt with on television rather than in real life.
Dr. Kristin Moran, professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego, says the producers of The Real World know exactly what their audience likes and what it takes to draw them in to this kind of reality programming.
“It seems like producers are eager to promote conflict and feel that is what will attract audiences,” she says. “[It's] what makes the show.... The development of friendship would make boring TV!”
With cast members strategically placed for maximum sass mouth and booty shakin', The Real World San Diego fits right in with every other infomercial for suntan lotion that makes up the reality television schedule. In fact, the show is more popular now than ever.
The premier episode of The Real World San Diego was the second-highest rated premiere episode in the series' 14-season history, bringing in over 4.5 million viewers, according to Kimberly Hale of the San Diego Film Commission. Over the 183 production days spent on The Real World San Diego, $8.2 million was spent creating the show's meticulous sets, filming San Diego's sun-kissed skyline and showing off America's Finest City to the rest of the country.
“You can only imagine someone sitting back on the East Coast freezing right now looking at sunny San Diego, and it's beautiful,” Hale says. “We had everything from Balboa Park to the Gaslamp to the big bay-I mean, it was definitely a great commercial for San Diego.”
Periwinkle sunsets and sweeping views of cloudless downtown skies may make San Diego the real star of The Real World, but that didn't stop the cast members from stepping into the limelight on more than a few occasions.
On the Jan. 27 episode of The Real World San Diego, cast member Robin Hibbard was arrested for assaulting a Marine the same night roommate Brad was arrested for public drunkenness.
According to TheSmokingGun.com, a young woman came forward in November and alleged that she had been raped inside the Real World house at the North Harbor Drive location. The accused man, known only as “Justin,” was reportedly a friend of cast member Randy. This series of events, though embarrassing and troubling to the community of San Diego, isn't likely to deter future host cities from welcoming the show into their backyard.
“Before Real World came here, we pretty much called all the other cities that they had been and talked to their film commissions there and so forth. We received nothing but positive feedback about the experience of having The Real World in their cities,” Hale says.
The bottom line is that exposing the degrading behavior of real humans on TV will continue to be popular. We love watching The Real World and shows of similar caliber because we love the scandalous activity-not only for its cathartic value, but to satisfy our own voyeuristic tendencies.
In the grand scheme of things, the conflicts and people presented on The Real World have minimal similarities to what is really going on in San Diego, and minimal differences to the scripted characters and situations on any other television drama-at least not as far as the viewers are concerned.
It's happening inside the box, not outside of it. There is nothing Real about it.