Someone very very smart at MTV made the call to run a marathon of several early seasons of The Real World, including its brilliant and groundbreaking first season set in New York City, ahead of the Season 28 premiere (if you can believe it!) next Wednesday.
After watching a huge chunk of the marathon and loving nearly every moment of it, I spent a lot of time thinking about why the original season of The Real World, produced in the dark and distant year of 1992 (the very year I graduated from high school as it turns out), is an extraordinary reality television product relative to most of what's on the air today. And that includes The Real World franchise in the form it appears in today.
The Real World kept it... well, you know
It took a while and a number of episodes in for me to recognize that The Real World's first season was so engaging because for the most part it was about people who were trying to make it in their respective fields in New York City. I think it helped too that the majority of the cast grew up in the Tri-State area, giving the show an urban flavor that really spoke of New York in the early '90s (and again, as a Long Island native I can speak to the authenticity of this). But really the striving for career, success, and most importantly the pressures of paying the bills and rent immediately after the cameras stopped rolling is what provided a great deal of drama and conflict and excitement throughout the season.
Emphasis on ambitious artists
Heather B., Rebecca Blasband, and Andre Comeau (as the lead singer of Reigndance, the quintessentially best-est '90s band name of ever!) were up-and-coming musicians (and all quite talented at that -- particularly Heather B.'s prowess as an old school/underground rapper), while Norman Korpi, Kevin Powell, Julie Oliver, and Eric Nies plied their craft and skills in art, writing/poetry, dance, and acting/modeling, respectively.
The combination of incredible casting (more on that below) and a majority hometown brew of hungry artists made for delightful chemistry and magic in a show that helped to define what "reality television" is.
It's a bit sad that The Real World and so many of its derivatives over the last 20 years failed to live up to this high standard.
All reality TV shows make it or break it on casting, and this season had a cast that you wanted to spend as much time with as possible. It has something to do with the reasons mentioned above, but I think it also has to do with the fact that because this inaugural season was filmed before the era of reality TV had begun, they were a more authentic and unaffected lot than any reality TV cast could ever be today.
Because there was no concept at all (oh what a sweet, innocent time!) of being a "reality TV star" for its own sake, the cast -- at least for what we were able to see -- kept a laser focus on next steps in figuring out their lives and careers, with money and housing and locale major pieces in this puzzle.
Pre-cookie cutter reality TV
In other words, this group shared the same struggles that most of us do in our early 20s. This contrasts sharply with most subsequent seasons of The Real World, which feature a much more entitled group of kids, and certainly ones who are for the most part not focused on their careers while on the show. Time spent on The Real World nowadays seems to take the shape of an odd post-collegiate frat/sorority internship, a bubble in which attractive and/or volatile and/or super party-Party-PARTY enthusiasts travel from various parts of the country to live in a mansion in a city for a spell.
And oh yeah: there's not a hot tub to be found at The Real World's New York City loft.
Great editing and production
Undoubtedly the editing and post-production of even the crappiest of reality shows takes a tremendous amount of time and effort in the editing room. The Real World's first season stands out in the quality of its editing and production -- and I can only speculate that due to budget or time constraints latter seasons (and most reality shows) have to make due with certain limitations.
But that doesn't stop us from celebrating truly exceptional work. For example, when Eric mentions how competition for the use of the one land line phone in the house causes issues, we cut to a quick montage of eight or nine situations where someone is on the phone, trying to get on the phone, handing off the phone when another call comes through inbound, and so on. It's so rare to see this level of documentary-style referencing in a typical reality show that it -- and many other examples like it -- becomes noteworthy.
And then as with all great editing, it's the things that we don't see that are most important. Kevin and Julie's series of ugly he said / she said arguments were wisely set against an incident that we didn't see. Julie accused Kevin of flipping out, spitting on her, threatening to break all of her fingers, and brandishing a candlestick in an aggressive manner. Because we didn't see what actually happened, like everyone else in the house we were challenged to use what we knew about each (Kevin has a history of aggressive behavior, Julie seems to be a reasonable person who had no reason to make something like this up) to come to our own conclusions.
They were allowed to lead real lives
Not only were all members of the house actively concentrating on their careers while the show was being filmed, but they were allowed to leave the confines of the house to do this.
When Kevin would take off for long stretches of time -- either because he was busy or to escape the obvious tension he had with other cast members -- it became a major issue and story point. Andre was clearly annoyed and disappointed, while other people were happy to see less of Kevin than usual. The point: it was real. Housemates have these kinds of issues all the time, and the latter day seasons remove the possibilities for organic drama to ensue by artificially sealing cast members into something of a hermetic cage.
They weren't afraid to get political
Race and politics play an ongoing role throughout the season. Kevin and Rebecca's arguments about race -- which erupt from Rebecca announcing that she thinks she lives in a pretty great country -- are raw and speak to the combustible state of racial relations in the early 1990s. And Julie's earnest attempts to connect with a homeless woman put a face on an issue that often goes ignored.
It was exciting too for some of the gang to get caught up in the Democratic primary process during the 1992 presidential campaign. It became a pretty great representation of what was going on with young people at the tail end of 12 long years of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush running the White House. The campaign culminated of course with Bill Clinton's victory and a feeling of (at least initial) "hope and change" not to be replicated again until someone named Barack Obama came round in 2008.
They weren't afraid to break the "fourth wall"
On The Real World today, and for the vast majority of reality shows, the production itself is never acknowledged (exceptions: when a brawl breaks out or someone it about to get kicked off the show). Therefore, counter-intuitively there's an artificial sheen over the proceedings when everyone pretends there are no cameras around, or producers asking questions during confessionals, and so on.
Therefore it's refreshing as all get out when we see Rebecca taking her director friend out to dinner, whereupon they openly discuss how he's uncomfortable in front of the cameras. Surely this happens on all reality shows when a non-cast member comes on camera for the first time, but they never let this make air. And the question is: why not?
And during the season finale it's a joyous riot when we see the cast "invade" the production room on set at the New York City loft, followed by the gang "stealing" cameras to film the production team, reversing roles and in effect putting a delightful spin on the broader concept of reality television.
Inventive and free-wheeling
Because of many of the reasons mentioned above, because these were real artists trying to make it in New York City during filming, because they were largely allowed to lead "real" lives and act as they would normally for the most part, the original iteration of The Real World felt like a show where they turned on the cameras and basically waited to see what would happen.
And with an interesting cast filled with passionate and strong personalities (who, strikingly, don't fill the mold of attractive + volatile + party maniac that would come later), it turned out a lot of highly watchable things did happen over a three-month span.
And finally: Andre
He looks like he just walked off the set of Singles or Reality Bites. Too awesome.
In closing, I can't agree with Andy Dehnart of the great Reality Blurred more:
I hope every reality TV network executive and producer is watching MTV right now and deciding to steal from this strange show. #RealWorld— Andy Dehnart (@realityblurred) March 23, 2013