'Real World' at 30: An originator becomes an imitator

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

There was an important moment on this week's episode of "The Real World" — "important" being, of course, a relative term when it comes to this week's show.

Following a nasty brawl between three castmates, producers called a house meeting. In the past, the behind-the-scenes team intervening and gathering the cast was a major deal and would have resulted in some form of discipline, or even the possible ejection of a houseguest. There were no such repercussions this time. The cast was shown the footage, which they treated like a highlight reel, chuckling at it before going about their day. It's surprising they didn't ask for popcorn and to see it again, this time in HD.

The incident is a distillation of where "The Real World" is at, 30 seasons in. It's not surprising, just a sign of the times. "The Real World" is no longer "the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real." It's the true story of what happens when an entire generation is raised on reality TV and doesn't know a real world without "The Real World."

The MTV reality series was once the upper crust of reality TV, effectively launching the genre back in 1992. It simple premise was groundbreaking at the time, and for better or for worse (mostly for worse), "The Real World" spawned countless imitators over the years. Long story short: No "Real World," no "Real Housewives."

Early on, "The Real World" held a mirror up to young America in a new way and showed people and situations that weren't typically seen on TV. Its first season, in New York, showed how a young girl from Alabama dealt with racial prejudices ("Do you sell drugs?" castmember Julie asked when her roommate, Heather's, beeper went off); its third season featured an HIV-positive cast member whose work on the show as an AIDS educator was praised by President Bill Clinton.

"The Real World" wasn't perfect, but it was a thoughtful series that focused on the real lives of its cast members, before those cast members became reality TV archetypes. It wasn't a nonstop drama factory; it was several years before sex between castmembers was even implied on the show. By today's standards, those early years were downright boring — the tawdry stuff was left to "Melrose Place" and "90210."

By the time the show hit Las Vegas in Season 12, that early idealism was out the window, traded in for hot tubs and hard bodies. Self-awareness crept in and people became "Real World" characters, rather than real people on a show — a problem faced by any long-running reality series, from "Survivor" to "Big Brother."

Instead of dialing down and retooling, producers responded by turning up the heat. The current season of "The Real World" is rigged for drama: Its title is "Real World: Skeletons," and the premise finds each of the seven castmates being surprise-visited by an enemy from their past. Where entire seasons used to revolve around whether two castmates would kiss, this season multiple hook-ups occurred on the castmates' first night in the house. And where there was once a strict no-violence clause on the show, now it's as if castmates are scolded for not getting in fights with one another.

This is not to decry "Real World: Skeletons," which is highly entertaining trash. But watching the show morph into one of its competitors is odd, the same way it's difficult to watch Madonna try to keep pace with the young pop stars who wouldn't exist without her. It's disruptive to the natural order.

Watching "The Real World" now, it has little in common with real life, but plenty to do with a perception of reality it helped popularize. Perhaps "The Reality World" would be a better title.

'The Real World'

10 p.m. Tuesdays