Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thinking about The Real World

I was clued into these reviews of Season One of MTV's The Real World...remember that? The great-grandmom of reality TV? I can't stop reading them.

Now, let me say right off the bat that, like the libbie I am, I used to be contemptuous of reality TV until I figured out the secret to watching it: don't sympathize with anyone on the cast, no matter what. These fools have agreed to make their lives my entertainment, so I am damned well going to gawk and chortle. When Jersey Shore's Snooki got rapped in the face at a bar, I laughed and wished she'd gotten two. When Dr. Zasio on Hoarders tried to connect to poor Arlene, who had been saving her own excrement, I cracked open a root beer and thanked my lucky stars there are people so insane. The cast of a reality show are just jesters who caper for my amusement, and I say, "Dance, monkeys, dance!"

The Real World (at least in Season One) was different. I'll quote the review, which does a better job explaining why:

At some point, the vibe of social experimentation gave way to tawdry cliches, as cast members figured out that the best way to get screen time was to act out—not to sit around having freshman dorm-room-style conversations about race relations.

First, there’s the allegedly underemployed cast, who compared to Snooki and The Situation—not to mention subsequent Real World cast members—seem incredibly ambitious, articulate, and thoughtful. Each and every one has a discernable career goal. Julie, 19, wants to be a dancer; Kevin, 25, is a poet and journalist; Eric, 20, is a model; Heather B., 21, is a rapper with a gold record under her belt; Andre, 21, is in a band; Becky, 24, is a folksy, Suzanne Vega-ish musician; Norm, 24, is an artist. The cast member who most closely approximates the Gen-X stereotype is Andre, who seems drowsy no matter the time of day. Yes, they’re nearly all performers of one sort or another and certainly have ulterior motives for starring in a television show. But in retrospect, it turns out there’s something to be said for ulterior motives. In the grand scheme of things, free publicity seems like a relatively noble reason to open up one’s life to the scrutiny of cameras; in 1992, “reality television star” was not yet a career goal in and of itself.

Indulge me for a second here, but Julie, Kevin, et. al., are defined primarily by their aspirations, whereas today’s Real World cast members are often defined by their pasts. Consider the bios on MTV’s Real World XXV site. Leroy is a self-described ladies’ man who “was 10 years old when he and his sisters were suddenly taken away from their birth mother for her alcoholism and drug abuse.” Nany is a “Hispanic-American sweetheart” who longs to one day meet her father. Nowadays, everyone arrives at the house with their backstory clearly delineated, their psycho-babbly autobiographies down pat. Cast members are never unaware of their own “narrative,” a state of affairs that is the inevitable by-product of two decades of reality television.

This is a remarkably astute comparison of where reality TV began and where it is now. Don't get me wrong; I'm not launching a "in my day things were better rant", because these days I enjoy lots of reality TV. However, where my enjoyment of Real Housewives is purely visceral, whereas my experience of The Real World was more intellectual.


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