August 2nd, 2011
04:08 PM ET
We can attribute at least one thing to MTV as it turns 30 this week: “The Real World” may not have been the first reality show, but it was arguably the most groundbreaking. In it, you can find the blueprint for many of the reality formats that dominate today’s TV landscape.
It was a simple idea - put a group of strangers together, turn on the cameras and see what happens – that yielded an addictive, engaging result. The show became a sensation, a part of our cultural consciousness that gave Generation X a rallying point and a shared experience.
I can still rattle off the names of nearly every cast member from the first 10 seasons. I can tell you when and why that famous introduction sentence changed from “seven strangers” to “seven people.” I know when producers stopped casting people who lived in the city where the season took place, and when they started forcing the cast members to work together as well as live together.
And sadly, I can tell you when I stopped caring as much about “The Real World"... which was when it stopped being about the real world.
From its outset, the show was a social experiment, and it took on important issues. Race relations, abortion, sexuality, alcoholism. All the sensitive topics that we knew were out there, but we may not have known how to discuss.
In 1994, AIDS was a frightening constant in our society, but one that few people had direct experience with. That is, until “The Real World” producers cast Pedro Zamora, who was openly gay and HIV-positive. Zamora, who worked as an HIV/AIDS activist, used the show as a platform to educate. When he died following the season, President Bill Clinton made a speech honoring Zamora declaring that now, no one could say they had never known a person with AIDS.
Think about it: The sitting U.S. president commented on the impact of a reality show on MTV.
But somewhere along the way, “The Real World” shifted. Yes, there were always parties and alcohol and scandal. But now, that’s ALL the show is about. It’s permissive debauchery, where cast members are more concerned with hooking up and getting trashed.
Look at pictures of the most recent cast, and then look back at photos of the original cast members. Now tell me if any of those original seven would be cast in today’s “Real World.” (OK, maybe Eric Nies.)
It’s possible that “The Real World” still holds up a mirror to our society, and maybe the generational shift in cast members just brought a different tone to the experiment. But the show that launched a thousand reality series doesn’t hold the cultural weight that it once did, and it certainly doesn’t challenge our ideas about who we are and the world that we live in anymore.
We’re never going to be at a loss for reality shows filled with beautiful people doing wild things. And reality shows won’t be at a loss for viewers who want to watch beautiful people do wild things. But there was a time when “The Real World” strived to be eye opening, not just eye candy.
It may be a harsh criticism for such a long-running franchise, but that’s what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.
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