When The Real World Was Real

“This is the true story…of seven strangers…picked to live in a house…(work together) and have their lives taped…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real…The Real World.”

MTV had an idea in the early 90s. The concept was to find seven vastly different young people, typically in their early 20s, have them move into a home (or some type of dwelling) for a couple of months, and film their interactions. It was a completely fresh idea, something that would later be called “reality television”. It was a first in this new category of TV, and it did start out as real reality television. We all know that reality TV is no longer real; that a lot of what we see is fabricated and edited to keep us enthralled. Shows like The Real Housewives, Keeping up with the Kardashians, The Bachelor, etc. are incredibly fake and unreal, but that wasn’t always so.

In the beginning, The Real World was like watching people you knew having a crazy life experience. The audience got to see the whole process from start to finish. Their first steps into a new home, first introductions and impressions, choosing which room to occupy and with whom, figuring out household duties, deciding which roommates would get along and which would bump heads, and then watching it all unfold until the end of each season.

Witnessing the roommates arrive was always fun because we got to see the house that the cast was going to be living in. The homes were always decked out in the coolest Ikea finds, and the roommates had so much fun going through the place to see the differently styled rooms and common areas. Of course, by the time filming wrapped at the end of each season, the houses were pretty much pigsties. This was a common source of contention for many of the cast mates because when you’re thrown into a living situation with six other people, it’s going to get messy, both literally and figuratively.

We also got to see how the roommates got on with each other. We were watching real moments, real conversations, real relationships, and a moment in time that these young people will forever be tied to, for better or worse. Some cast mates ended up either hooking up, or dating during the duration of their respective season. Some people were just there to create drama, or always seemed to be involved in the drama. Some of them were the voices of reason when things were getting too chaotic. This social experiment was being televised to millions of households, and we were glued to our screens.

Sadly, as the seasons went on, everything became fake in The Real World. The people that they cast were stereotypes and tropes: the jock, the pretty girl, the gay one, the punk/alternative weirdo, the dramatic person, the corn-fed all-American kid. The cast members became much more attractive and less like the average-looking person. Our society was also becoming much more obsessed with salacious storylines, so MTV’s production turned the bathrooms into public spaces where we could see multiple pairs of feet in one shower, there were hidden cameras above beds, and hot mics that could pick up any conversation in the house. It was no longer a social experiment, but a voyeuristic one. The show was less and less about living in the real world, and more and more about partying, drama, and sex. This would eventually create the recipe for The Jersey Shore series.

Here are some seasons that stick out when I think about The Real World.

New York (1992)
Top Row (left to right): Kevin, Eric, Andre
Middle Row (left to right): Julie, Heather
Bottom Row (left to right): Becky, Norman

The season that started it all, New York. This season did live up to the intro monologue of seven strangers living together and being taped. This season featured four roommates who were from the area: Kevin, Andre, Heather, and Eric. I think this was the only season that had a majority of the cast be from the city they were filming in. The seasons after this might have one castmate that was from the area, but never two or more. I’m guessing that having too many people on the show that are native to the city it’s taking place in makes it less interesting because they already have their own friends and lives. If a majority of the cast is unfamiliar with the area, they are forced to hang out and spend time together, which wasn’t the case in New York. That was one of the biggest complaints the out-of-towners had; they would not see one or more of the roommates who were from the area for days because those roommates would be at their own places or staying with friends.

Back in this first season, the roommates would have some serious discussions about politics, race relations, sexuality, and other important topics. This was the first time that America was watching these deep talks between everyday, young people that weren’t taking place on a PBS special. One incident that stands out in my mind is the “beeper event”. Kevin, who is African American, has a beeper, and Julie, who is a very naïve country girl, asks him if he has a beeper because he’s a drug dealer. Cue the record scratch and jaws dropping.

Julie’s question comes from the place of a stereotype during that time as many drug dealers were supposedly known to have beepers. Going further into the stereotype, knowing that Kevin is African American, it was also a racially biased perception that all Black men who owned beepers were suspected of being drug dealers. When she asks Kevin if he’s a drug dealer, he, rightfully so, is extremely offended by the question because of the racist and wrong implications being thrown at him. Eventually, Kevin and Julie have a sit-down conversation where he explains to her on how many levels her question was wrong, and she apologizes for it. These were the types of moments that were not happening on sitcoms because they were too real, and American audiences loved it.

San Francisco (1994)
Top Row: Rachel
Middle Row (left to right): Pedro, Mohammed, Judd, Pam
Bottom Row (left to right): Puck, Cory
Not Pictured: Jo (Puck’s replacement)

The San Francisco season was the third of the series. I don’t think my parents were aware of some of the topics that The Real World touched upon, otherwise, I doubt they’d have let me watch it. This season, audiences were watching one of the roommates, Pedro, deal with living with AIDS. It was powerful, to say the least. This is the only season that I can remember my mom watching with me, and it was only the episodes that dealt with Pedro’s life when he was losing his fight to AIDS towards the end of the season. She, along with myself, were touched and captivated by Pedro and his story.

Pedro’s existence in the house, and on national television shed more light on the epidemic of HIV and AIDS, and what life was like for people that were in the same situation. For me, watching a gay man on TV wasn’t too big of a deal; my childhood best friend’s dad is gay, so it wasn’t anything new to me. But, I can understand how this could be eye-opening to people that were unfamiliar with gay people, or unfamiliar with HIV/AIDS.

Watching Pedro educate his roommates, give lectures to young people, fall in love, have fun, and just live his life in those final months was beautiful. He knew that his time was going to be cut short, but he refused to let the stigma, as well as his inevitable death, hinder his life. I have so much respect for his bravery of putting his story out there when, during the time, there were so many stereotypes and so much hatred towards gay people. Most of his roommates, besides Puck, who got kicked out, supported and loved Pedro until his final days and beyond.

Seattle (1998)
Top Row (left to right): Rebecca, Nathan
Middle Row (left to right): Irene, Janet, Lindsay
Bottom Row (left to right): Stephen, David

The seventh season, otherwise known as the season of the “slap heard ‘round the world”, and this was way before that Will Smith incident. I think this was one of the last real seasons before things started to get too wild and unbelievable. Something that was different about this season was that two of the roommates already knew each other from Virginia Military Institute, David and Nathan, so it went against the “strangers” rule of the show.

This was kind of a sleepy season that didn’t have too much drama. Maybe the constant rain in Seattle made for a more mellow cast. There were the usual disputes and bickering amongst the people in the house, but it wasn’t anything that audiences hadn’t seen before. The “slap” occurred towards the middle to end of the season.

Essentially, Irene had begun to act strangely and she revealed that she was suffering from Lyme’s disease. In her revelation of having this disease, she realized that the stress of living under the bright lights in the house and feeling very unwell meant that she was going to be leaving the season early. On her way out, she got into a confrontation with Stephen that some of the other roommates didn’t witness. She basically tells him that they could never be in a relationship because he’s “a homosexual”. It was a very low blow that Irene took, one that triggered Stephen into slapping her across the mouth as she was leaving to go back home. It was a very shocking moment for audiences to see, and one that also threw the remaining cast into an upheaval.

As was the case in some of the previous seasons, the roommates sat down to decide if Stephen should be kicked out of the house for his actions. The producers actually let the cast watch the slap footage to determine what the outcome would be. Ultimately, they let him stay, but it really created a negative ending for this season. Years later, Stephen did come out as gay, but Irene’s comment during the time was uncalled for. This does not excuse Stephen’s behavior in any way, but it sheds light on why he impulsively lashed out at her during her departure.

All good things must come to an end, although this good thing probably should’ve ended a lot earlier. The series ran from 1992–2019 and created many spin-offs, most notably Road Rules and The Challenge. Ultimately, The Real World evolved into fakery and tomfoolery after Seattle, which is a shame because it had an interesting run for a while. But, many shows kind of go off the rails when they hit that seventh season mark. Although MTV is no longer making the series, at least for now, I could see them trying to revive it. I wonder if they went back to the original idea, how successful it would be? I guess that would be in the hands of the reality TV gods.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store