When it first aired on MTV in 1992, The Real World was viewedand in some quarters, pooh-poohedas a grunge-era version of An American Family, the seminal 1973 series that documented the breakthroughs and breakdowns of a household in Santa Barbara, California. An American Family, often cited as the first reality show, really did qualify as a paradigm shift. It aired on PBS, of all places, and exposed a gasping national audience to scenes of uncomfortable intimacytwo parents deciding to get a divorce, a son revealing that he was gay.
Once upon a time, stuff like that was new. People weren’t yet accustomed to the idea of private domestic pandemonium being capturedlet alone offered up willinglyon camera. Almost 20 years would pass before producers would reach back into that Pandora’s box of reality programming, and when The Real World’s immortal greeting (“This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a loft . . . ”) sing-songed out of our tubes on May 21, 1992, nobody could have predicted what it would usher in.
What it would usher in, of course, was a New America.
If that sounds hyperbolic, go back to that first episode and see what the Old America used to look like. First there are the antiquated modes of communication: Kevin composes his articles and poems on a manual typewriter. Eric, upon arriving at the Manhattan apartment, calls his bros on a landline.
Then comes a subtler signal that we’re inspecting a relic from a lost age: all that earnestness! Consider how incredibly serious Becky, Heather, and Andre are about their careers in music. This is what Generation X was like before everyone decided to have their lives taped. Becky, Heather, and Andre see themselves as artists, not seedlings for a future bumper crop of reality shows. They all seem to be under the impression that they’re taking part in a high-toned documentary. On that first night together they launch into a furrowed-brow discussion about race and class. The episode opens with glacial, Grey Gardens–style pacing: The camera crew follows Julie, the innocent Christian from the sticks, as she makes her way from her family cocoon in Alabama to the blaring, polyglot orgy of New York City. Before she leaves, Julie gets into a spat with her father, a red-nosed drawler who could’ve stepped out of a Tennessee Williams remake of The Dukes of Hazzard. Big Daddy fixes a stare on his daughter and confronts her with a question: “When did you start sayin’ ‘butt’?”
How quaint. The Real World is now, amazingly, entering its 20th season, and it long ago made the transition from grappling with issues to, well, groping for butts. You can buy a DVD devoted to nothing but The Real World: Hook-Ups; it’s packaged like soft-core porn. “Before, there was a sense of real people,” says Melissa Padròn, part of the 1996 Miami cast. “Now everyone’s beautiful, everyone’s ripped, everyone’s ready to jump into bed with everyone else. They know already how it works and what’s expected of them.” It’s easy to accuse MTV of letting the show degenerate into a bed-hopping mating game, but the more complicated fact is that The Real World is just doing what it has always done: taking a snapshot of how it feels to be floating between adolescence and adulthood. If the show is fixated on coupling, the New America is too, from the cover of Us Weekly to the latest political sex scandal to the “most viewed” menu on YouPorn. “When you have Tila Tequila coming on afterward,” says Parisa Montazaran from the Sydney season, “it’s boring to just watch people sit at a table and discuss politics.”