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Pop Torture: The Real World Season 1

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In honor of The Real World: Las Vegas, I revisited the season where it all began.

I was lounging on my couch last weekend when I saw the trailer for The Real World: Season 25. I had two thoughts: first of all, holy shit — twenty-five seasons of this? And second of all, what the hell happened to it? The one-minute-fifty-eight-second-long trailer manages to squeeze in shots of stripper poles, girls making out, hot-tub make-out sessions, grinding, more making-out in bed, three more shots of make-outs, wall-punching, a possible sex tape, and a maid cleaning the apartment in a bikini.

Now, I watch The Jersey Shore with as much guilt and as much pleasure as the next girl, but that doesn't mean I want The Real World to become its clone. Wasn't The Real World once kind of a serious TV show? What happened to the days when The Real World was about real people with real issues — like Pedro, an openly gay man with HIV who actually got married on television in 1994? Was I remembering correctly?

Instantly, 1992 exploded all over my face.

My editors wanted me to find out, but with the new season premiering this week, it had to be fast. They proposed I test my theory by watching the entire first season of The Real World in one day. I accepted, feeling curious and a little cocky. I once watched twelve hours of Lost back-to-back, with no editorial mandate spurring me on. Marathoning The Real World would be child's play.

9:53 a.m. – Episodes 1-3

Ah, the first utterance of the famous intro: "This is the true story of seven strangers…" I curled up on my couch, pulled a blanket over me and waited for the joy. Instantly, 1992 exploded all over my face. I forgot over-sized khakis and baggy turtlenecks weren't always accidents; sometimes they were fashionable choices for ladies. In the first episode, we meet the cast: Julie is a wide-eyed nineteen-year old from Alabama, Heather B. is a black rapper from Brooklyn, Andre is a musician with terrible, flowing grunge hair, Norman's a gay painter, Becky's a musician, Erik is a model, and Kevin is a black poet. Good to see that The Real World got their cast formula figured out early — though it's interesting that they're all creative types. They're also all way older — the average age is probably twenty-five, whereas nowadays cast members have just graduated from high school.

Right off the bat, we're into the serious stuff: Julie, did you have to ask the one black woman on the show if she was a drug-dealer because she had a beeper? (Also, beepers!) Jokes aside, there's an amazing amount of candor around race. Who today would admit their father doesn't like black people? Julie does! So far, I'm really impressed: in the first ten minutes they're calmly discussing race, and Kevin the black poet says, "A large part of my history was denied from me" — to which Julie the naïve nineteen-year-old replies, "Your history is my history." Heady!

This must be the most intensive documentation of mundane shit ever.

The second episode brings a flirtation — Erik shows Julie how to eat pasta, very Lady and the Tramp — but otherwise, it's low-key to the point of boring. Heather's rapping in the studio, Julie's twirling around in a dance class. This is unbelievably PG so far: the roommates are literally having water-gun fights. I'm about two hours in and no one's gotten wasted, made out, or fought yet. In fact, they're currently at a roller-rink. Julie does call her brother and say, "I went skating today. There were a lot of homosexuals there." Again I'm impressed by how different this show is from what it’s become now. The roommates go to art openings. don't even really do that. 

The third episode is called "Tempers Flare." "Thank God!" I think. But the titular incident is a real let-down: all the roommates come into Kevin's room and jump into bed with him while he's trying to sleep. Scandal! In the confessional, he looks quietly at the ceiling and says, "Yeah, I was pissed." Imagine what would've happened on Jersey Shore.

1:56 p.m. – Episodes 4-8

My initial excitement about Season 1's documentary realism is waning. All these people do is argue in very respectful, tame ways, and talk about race, also in respectful, tame ways. I'm all for calm discussions about race, but watching four hours of them back-to-back is starting to get to me. Also, my ass hurts. I've been fantasizing about what to eat for lunch for the last two hours. That's how you know things are slow. I'm on a diet, so I order an egg-white veggie-scramble wrap. It seems unfair that I have to pay for it when it arrives.

Back in a world that is potentially even more boring than my own life, Julie is completely scandalized because Kevin has forgotten the name of someone he's slept with. They're having a snowball fight. They're shopping for their family dinner, a Mexican fiesta! Erik is just staring at the shelves saying: "Tuna! Beets! Cheese!" Erik is pissed because Norman ate a Twinkie right before dinner; it's the closest we’ve gotten to an argument in two hours. This must be the most intensive documentation of mundane shit ever.

Finally, eons later, Kevin and Becky start fighting, about race again, and Becky says "You're full of shit." Kevin loses his cool and says: "Your mother's full of shit, you stupid bitch!" Episode 7, first curse word.

Then the roommates head down to Washington for a pro-choice rally. A pro-choice rally! On The Real World!

For some reason, only the lady roommates get to go to Jamaica. Their mission — which Julie reiterates three times in less than a minute, bless her virgin heart — is to meet men. Cue shots of '90s men with rat-tails, sunglasses on a string (remember those?), and Speedos.

Julie has the exact same body as Sandra Bullock in The Net. Back at the loft, the boys are bored and Kevin pens the song "Ja-Ja-Jamaica." I, too, am bored, Kevin. I feel you. But one interesting thing happens in Jamaica! Becky and a Real World director named Bill "get close," which is apparently a '90s term for having sex.

7:32 p.m. – Episodes 8-13

Wine time! I'm cracking a bottle of Petit Syrah which I bought just because I knew I'd be writing down what I was drinking and a magnum of Citra just doesn't have the same je ne sais quoi. Meanwhile, Norman's on a perfect first date with Charles, which turns into the perfect first weekend. Norman is in a relationship after three days! I'm kind of pining for the easy commitment of the '90s. I'm also prompted to take a break to stalk my ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend. Yep, she's still pretty. 

Julie takes the dog on a walk and discovers a colony of homeless people. She stops to talk — of course — since she's the resident angel. Then she goes a step further and spends the night, on the streets, with the homeless group. When was the last time anyone on The Real World came close to exhibiting that amount of curiosity or empathy? Or even awareness of the world around them? Then the roommates head down to Washington for a pro-choice rally. A pro-choice rally! On The Real World!

For a minute, I speculate on what has changed. While it would be easy to bemoan some sort of grand turn towards apathy, I don't actually think that the reproductive-rights movement has slowed down particularly since the early '90s. It has, however, disappeared from MTV. TV in general (even a number of cable news programs) has been slowly but definitively turning away from complex debates towards pure entertainment.  

Maybe I should blame The Real World for failing to hold my attention.

And then I get pulled from my reverie when Kevin throws a candlestick at Julie and yells, "Suck my dick!" (I must have fully reverted back to the genteel standards of the '90s, because I'm kind of scandalized.) Later, Heather supposedly "assaults" someone at a party and gets arrested. The funny thing is that MTV really hasn't figured out how to document things yet — the cameras miss both Heather's assault and Kevin throwing the candlestick. You probably don't prepare for candlestick-throwing shots if you're supposed to be documenting a talky social experiment about race, but don't expect the cameramen on Real World: Las Vegas to fumble like that.

Erik threatens to kill Heather's cat because the cat knocked over his vitamins. Alone in my apartment, I chuckle and spill some wine on my couch.

Sweet Jesus, the last episode. I'm shaking in excitement. The producers and roommates switch places, with the producers imitating the cast members while the roommates film them. I'm so excited to see them hugging — that means this is over, right?

Conclusion:
I have to be up at 8 a.m. tomorrow and it's 2 a.m. I'm drunk and angry at myself for dragging this project out — if I hadn't taken so many breaks, I could have been done hours ago. I pull myself off the couch and stumble to my room. 

Going into this, my hypothesis was that The Real World was once a more realistic and thought-provoking program than it's become. I was right. From Season 1 to Season 25, we've traded discussions of actual social issues for slapping fights and Jell-O shots. In the process, the show's also gotten a whole lot more fun.

Maybe I'm a child of my generation, pre-conditioned to like my reality TV with a heavy dose of cat fights. Or maybe that's just better television. In either case, if we're going to mourn the loss of nuanced discussions of social issues, we should probably start with the nightly news, not MTV. Maybe today's MTV is on to something with its whole "watch seven teenage idiots get drunk, grope each other, and punch things" approach. While the premise of watching real life on TV might sound interesting, in practice, it's pretty dull.