To celebrate the latest season of their Real World franchise, MTV recently aired a “retro Real World” marathon, starting with every episode of the original season of the show from 1992. I haven’t watched any recent iterations of Real World, partially because of the overwhelming amount of reality TV that is pumped directly into my television. But beyond just a personal OD on “reality,” it’s been at least 20 years since the show has been about “what happens when people stop being polite and start being real,” unless you define “being real” as muscular, vapid, and having herpes.
The franchise seems to revisit New York every ten years or so; first to a loft in the West Village in 2002, then to Brooklyn in 2009. Comparing the three New York season doesn’t really seem to do justice to how the show has changed. Instead, it’s worth looking at the characters on the show, who would soon become archetypes, and how they’ve evolved from three to two dimensions over the years.
Julie - “The Naive One”
THE ORIGINAL: Julie was young, Southern, and somewhat sheltered, but never afraid to stand up for herself; she tried new things and met new people without ever losing sight of who she was. She was a dancer, but she dressed in the baggy J. Crew styles of a contemporary prep school student. She flirted with Eric (the model, later of MTV’s The Grind) and went on a weird date, but was more interested in exploring the city and making friends than hooking up. She spent the night with a homeless girl she met by the Hudson, to know what it was like to be in her shoes, and became closest with Heather B, the rapper in the house and her diametric opposite in almost every way.
THE NEW JULIE: Still young, Southern, and somewhat sheltered, but a lot more eager to win the approval of roommates by trying to be someone new, and that someone is a lot more naked. His or her (although it’s usually her) personality rarely remains intact, because at this point, her personality doesn’t go beyond the southern, sheltered part (whereas original Julie was smart, funny, and passionate about dance). The only exception is when this roommate’s sheltered nature is due to their deep religious values, in which case struggling to reconcile their urge to fit in and do Jell-o shots with their love of Christ will be all they do for their entire run on the show. New Julie would never be friends with Heather B, if only because there has only ever been one Heather B, and there shall never be another. Alas.
Becky - “The Arty/Crazy One”
THE ORIGINAL: Becky was a singer/songwriter/freespirit, which meant she drank wine a lot, wasn’t afraid to occasionally wear tight clothes, and didn’t censor herself. She was also one of the only people on the show to hook up with someone else on the show, but barely, since he was behind the scenes and lost his directing job because of it. Becky liked to “party,” but in 1992 on MTV, party meant putting on funny beads and doing a weird dance with your gay roommate in a half-empty restaurant.
THE NEW BECKY: She might want to be a singer, but where Becky performed at the old Sin-é and played acoustic guitar, new Becky hopes her producer boyfriend, who also DJs at the stripclub where she works, can get her backing vocals onto Rick Ross’ ex-neighbor’s brother’s new track. The sad fact is, most girls on the show now are extreme versions of Becky; arty has been replaced by straight-up crazy, and now almost every female human on the show is some poor child with borderline personality disorder who will fall in love with/bone/become engaged to/loathe/punch/stab at least one roommate (probably the same one). Like Becky, they like to party, but the wine is hard liquor, the dancing is naked at some genetic frat bar called Sweaty McRapeigans, and the funny beads aren’t the ones you wear or even get for showing your tits at Mardi Gras, they’re the ones that get shoved up your butt.
Andre - “The Musician/Some Dude”
THE ORIGINAL: An aspiring rock star with long hair who is so perfectly grunge 90’s it’s like he was created in a lab. He smoked, drank, but, even though it’s not talked about much, he probably didn’t actually spend that much time at the house.
THE NEW ANDRE: While they tried to do “The Musician” for a few seasons after this, they eventually gave up and just replaced that type with “Some Dude (who likes to party),” and considering that liking to party is a requirement for being on the show, “Some Dude” is descriptive enough. He might get angry once or have something sad happen to his mom, but really, he exists as filler to listen to everyone else complain about what The Becky did last night and whether they should sue.
Norman - “The Gay”
THE ORIGINAL: Norman’s sexuality did define him a bit, but mostly he was just the beloved, arty painter/dog owner/chatterbox of the loft. He got along with everyone, and even though he had a boyfriend for about two minutes, he isn’t put into a box of only being shown talking about coming out or worrying about AIDS. Norm definitely seemed like the coolest kid in the loft, but he never had that attitude; the scene where he lovingly cradles Heather B at the dinner table like the baby Jesus while she calls Eric immature is just so priceless.
THE NEW NORMAN: Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay. Nobody on the show is really arty or interesting anymore, so new Normans take their shirts off all the time, talk more about hooking up and working out and how blow jobs work. In real life, I’m sure they have dreams and emotions and fears, but for MTV’s purposes, they exist as hot, young sodomy machines. (The obvious exception to this is Pedro from the season in San Francisco, whose career as an AIDS/HIV activist wasn’t allowed to define him entirely as a person. He was portrayed fairly as smart, caring, and a good friend, which almost allows you to forgive how the The Real World has treated gay cast members in some seasons since).
Eric - “The Body”
THE ORIGINALl: Eric was a model, so he was naked more than anyone else, but he was also the one person in the loft, and certainly the one man in the loft, who really gave a shit about his body. And he had to, because why would a journalist or artist worry about being a sculpted adonis? Oh, the ‘90s were simpler times. Either way, he wasn’t that bright, but he had a good heart, which is why he never hooked up with Julie, despite being attracted to her; she had her V card and he sort of had a girlfriend back in Jersey, so he knew it wasn’t right. And that was the last time anyone like Eric on The Real World showed anything resembling moral judgment.
THE NEW ERIC: Like Becky, the current Erics are fairly dehumanized and are most of the men on the show that aren’t just “Some Dude,” i.e., Erics have reputations for being especially girl crazy and allergic to shirts. They also, as mentioned above, rarely possess hearts of gold, just abs of steel, and tend to do best on the endless Real World alumni competition shows that MTV constantly turns out (it’s worth noting that Eric has appeared on more of those, and with more years between himself and his season, than most).
Kevin - “The Angry Minority”
THE ORIGINAL: According to the show’s editors, Kevin was obsessed with racism and his own oppression. Since the show aired, Kevin has said (supported by comments from some cast-members made offhandedly during episodes) that he wasn’t really there that much and they chose to show only his angriest moments. As ragey as Kevin could get, that rage wasn’t blind; they showed him teaching a class at NYU and meeting with a publisher to discuss the collection of essays about race he co-edited, and since the Real World he has written for numerous magazines and been involved in Brooklyn politics.
THE NEW KEVIN: After the Real World: Venice’s David got kicked out of the house (because of the infamous “It wasn’t not funny” incident with Tami, now back on reality TV as a Basketball Wife), “The Angry Black Man” was mostly phased out, replaced by “The Angry Minority,” at least for a while, who wasn’t necessarily black or a man. If there is an angry minority now, I doubt they’re angry for any reasons related to race specifically: they may just have a bad temper. Race is an issue that MTV doesn’t really get into anymore, except maybe on an episode of True Life that’s shown at 1 AM or PM, or on Catfish if someone says they’re a white man and they’re actually a black lady (but it’s OK, because the white man they’ve been talking to is actually white and ginger and trans. Seriously, that happened, and they’re engaged). There’s really never been someone like Kevin since this season, if only because Kevin so clearly had a mind and a career. If you have both of those things now, you’d want nothing to do with this show.
Heather B - “The Best, The One, The Only”
THE ORIGINAL: Unless MTV has decided that what the kids really want to see is a not-skinny, funny, loud-mouthed black lady who writes rhymes about how she’ll “stomp a ho in a minute” and proudly proclaims that she knows which towels are hers because she got them from the JC Penney collection, we will never see the likes of Heather B ever again. Being bigger than your average Real World cast member, even for that season, did keep Heather’s clothes on, but didn’t stop her from being a huge flirt or just a confident force of nature who was never afraid to call people out (and then apologize if she went to far! Never again, I swear).
THE NEW HEATHER B: Like the mighty Brontosaurus, Heather B is extinct. Her species was replaced with the broader genus of “The Agitator,” like Puck from San Francisco, which is maybe what they wanted her to be until they realized she was a complex human being.
The main difference between the Real World then and what it’s become is that all the people on that first season had career ambitions to perform, write, paint, whatever, and now it seems like everyone who goes on the show has one ambition, and that’s to make a career out of being someone who was on the Real World.
As Jon Caramanica points out in his review of the upcoming Real World: Portland season in the New York Times, ”the main Real World is on the verge of becoming a mere feeder for the various alumni “Challenge” shows that keep the Real World brand alive year-round. (Unsurprisingly almost every member of the Portland cast is a former athlete.)” If the archetypes are dissolving, it’s because being a Real World cast member is becoming it’s own archetype involving just the right mix of muscles and mental illness.
In the same way that people mourn the lack of videos on MTV without acknowledging that it’s no longer worth making or showing commercials (videos) for items that people no longer buy (records), I know many olds like myself that miss the original seasons of the Real World. With so much reality out there, MTV has to create its own version of reality to stay competitive, and that version has to have a lot less character and lot more crazy bitches in order to keep viewers tuning in. I miss those original Real World episodes where they went to Jerry Brown rallies and pro-choice marches, but I understand why current seasons just have them going to clubs and Planned Parenthood to find out what that smell is: it’s just mirroring the real world we live in now, and it’s a real shame.