The New America has no patience for the likes of Becky and Kevin and Andre, with their solemn disquisitions on art and commerce. They’re squares. Obsolete. The opening benediction for The Real World talks about what happens when people “stop being polite,” but the New America, the land that creates a marathon soap opera out of Britney Spears, lost interest in etiquette a long time ago.
The moment when the Old America began to tip toward the New can be found in the epochal third season, which aired in 1994 and took place in San Francisco. “That’s when The Real World sort of crossed over and became a cultural phenomenon,” says Jonathan Murray, who created the show with the late Mary-Ellis Bunim. Such is the generational significance of that season that it surfaces as a section in Dave Eggers’ 2000 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. “Watching the show,” Eggers muses in the book, “is like listening to one’s voice on tape: it’s real of course, but however mellifluous and articulate you hear your own voice, once it’s sent through this machine and is given back to you, it’s high-pitched, nasal, horrifying. Are our lives that?” Nevertheless, Eggers auditions for the cast, although he’s Gen Xishly conflicted about this. “I convince myself that this is just for sociological or journalistic reasons,” he writes. “What a funny story this will make! But really: Am I just curious? Or do I want this? And if I did want this, what sort of person am I?”
The Old America didn’t necessarily want to be on camera, whereas we now assume that everyone does. “The Real World was very innovative,” says Mike Darnell, the pioneer behind reality shows as diverse as Temptation Island and Joe Millionaire, and now the president of alternative entertainment at Fox. “It felt very real. The rawness was something I’d never seen. Real World is the template for how traditional reality shows are still actually shot.” Back in the early nineties, though, many TV execs were too skittish to follow its lead. “To be honest,” Darnell says, “the thought process at all the networks was, Well, it’ll work on cable, but not on network television.” And yet there appeared, in that pivotal San Francisco season, a cast member who grasped where everything was headed. He was David Rainey, a.k.a. Puck, and he was an assholea germy, damaged bike messenger who enjoyed blowing rockets of expectorate out of his nostrils and offended every one of his housemates. (He was eventually kicked out.)
Puck understood that this “documentary” was starting to morph into a reality show. He also knew, instinctively, that the star of such a show would always be the villain. “He got thrown in jail the night before the show started, so his entrance was coming out of jail,” Murray says. A Miltonian conflict of good versus evil developed between Puck and Pedro, the saintly and thoughtful cast member who would die of AIDS shortly after the third season ended. Pedro’s appearance on The Real World raised awareness of AIDS and gave America a positive, landmark image of a gay mana preview of the Will & Grace mainstream to come. (“It moved me to have to work at MTV someday,” says out-and-proud TV executive Brian Graden, who wound up becoming the station’s president of programming. “Because I thought, If that channel puts on this image, then they really embrace diversity.”) But Puck, just like his Shakespearean namesake, led us down a different path altogether.