It's official. MTV’s "The Real World" is now twenty. The show it the milestone last month. It was the fountainhead of a new style of reality TV and, as such, it was the start, some say, of something seriously stupid.
But while highbrows might disdain the arrival of reality TV as a barbarian invasion on American mass culture, May 21, 1992, stands as an important date in the history of Western dramaturgy. On that day, "The Real World" introduced a whole new way of telling stories, as innovative and influential, in its own way, as the development of the novel.
Documentarians, of course, had been following regular people around with cameras since the era of silent movies. One of the more notable later results of this practice was An American Family, a 1973 PBS miniseries that revealed the most intimate tribulations of the family of two “regular” Americans, Bill and Pat Loud. It was this program, in fact, that inspired producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray to create "The Real World".
What Bunim and Murray did, however, was something completely different. The Louds were a real family and they really lived in that house we saw on TV. The members of the “family” on "The Real World", on the other hand, had never met each other before and were placed into an apartment and a city that had been carefully selected by the producers. It was a striking blend of fiction and nonfiction, and it allowed for an innovative collaboration between the subjects of the show and the people who were making the show: the “cast” provided the dialogue and the producers shaped it into a story. It was a kind of television jazz.
Like "An American Family" (and "Cops" and other documentaries), "The Real World" features people without scripts who are presented not as characters but as “themselves.” Unlike previous documentaries, however, the settings, situations, and personality combinations are entirely contrived. "The Real World" is a documentary about real people in an artificially designed environment. This was something new when it started twenty years ago, and it was something worth paying attention to.
This new kind of reality show had the potential of gaining a much wider audience than conventional documentaries because it could stack the deck to ensure maximum dramatic potential. "The Real World" always features groups of outspoken people deliberately assembled to guarantee conflict. A good season is like a child’s first chemistry set: it’s most fun when the combined elements blow up. The casts were designed for volatility, following a theatrical principle akin to putting a bunch of kittens in a room with a jar of nitroglycerin.
It was perhaps surprising, then, that the show also exhibited a positive element of social responsibility. Those who are unfamiliar with the early seasons of "The Real World" may be unaware of the sincere and earnest conversations that could be heard on many episodes. The celebrated third season, for example, may have done more to raise the consciousnesses of young people about AIDS and tolerance than any public school curriculum was doing at the time.
What was more surprising was that the major broadcast networks remained oblivious to the innovations that were going on at MTV. Even after the debut of "Road Rules," a 1995 "Real World" spinoff that introduced the important and innovative idea of giving specific challenges to the cast, none of the networks picked up on the extraordinary possibilities that this emerging genre was offering.
Not until the summer of 2000 would CBS ignite the reality era on network TV with "Survivor" and "Big Brother," both of which were inspired not by "The Real World" but by post-Real World shows from Sweden and the Netherlands. (It should be pointed out that many of the elements of "The Real World" had been evident a year before its debut in a single-season Dutch series called "Nummer 28" that followed the lives of seven young people living in student housing in Amsterdam.)
Needless to say, after the extraordinary success of Survivor, the narrative innovations of "The Real World" spread to every corner of the network and cable schedules. Reality TV became the universal donor: it could mate with any programming idea, it seemed, and produce viable offspring. And while it is easy to mock the genre as a whole, many (myself included) would have to admit that these programs have supplied a good deal of Barnumesque amusement, and sometimes even some real insight.
The first season of "Survivor," which made stars of and gave voice to a Wisconsin truck driver, a grumpy old former Navy SEAL, and a Machiavellian gay exhibitionist, was a brilliant work of television artistry.
The cheesy "Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" series more accurately show the silly, paranoid, nasty nature of modern American courtship than the most literate of cinematic romantic comedies. And while I’d never nominate it for a Peabody Award, "Temptation Island" provided some of the most delicious fun I’ve ever had watching a television show.
The full potential of the programming style developed by "The Real World" two decades ago, however, has yet to be realized. Still, the historic recreations that aired on PBS---like 1900 House, Frontier House, Colonial House, and 1940s House---and some of the less popular network series like "Kid Nation" and "Amish in the City," have given some hint that these programs have the potential of combining fiction, documentary, and social experiment in ways that can go way beyond the zoological high-jinx of "Jersey Shore." Given the versatility and innovation of this new genre, we should hope and expect that it will one day deliver a few masterpieces.
Robert Thompson is founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University and a trustee professor.