When I got home from my freshman year of college, in 1992, I almost immediately fell into a routine of watching MTV, which was not available on the cable system in Ashland, Ohio. Back then, it really was Music Television, but they had a few shows, including something new called The Real World. The premise was simple enough: Throw seven people into a loft, living together, document their interactions, and see what happens when "people stop being polite, and start getting real."
I was completely infatuated with the show, in part because documentary filmmaking was interesting to me even then, but also because it involved people my age who were passionate. They were people I wanted to be around. Everything going on in the world then, and the focus in the show on race, was a conversation not being had anywhere else. There was no reality TV back then, so we were seeing a genuine experiment at the time, which of course the critics hated. Even then, us Gen-X'ers were pretty skeptical of everything, and to avoid being called naive, I think we all felt like it was a little contrived. I mean, what could possibly happen when you put a Black activist and a southern white girl who never left home together, right?
But going back and seeing clips of the show now, I don't believe it was contrived at all. Sure, the producers had to expect some level of conflict, but what they captured was raw and I think very real. The casting brilliance wasn't the diversity as much as it was the fact that every last one of them were artists and performers. They were deep feelers, naive themselves, and vulnerable by nature. The intense arguments were memorable, but even with the immaturity of that age, they had real, important conversations about race. It's literally everything coming back to the forefront in the last year, but the difference I think is that they were willing to go there back then, whereas now, people don't. In fact, that context, seeing history repeat itself, makes me feel like my generation really dropped the ball. Many of us were pretty "woke" in those days, but as life happened, we didn't do much with it. Talk about white privilege.
Paramount+ (not sure why all streaming services have to end in "+") is doing a short series putting the roommates back in that loft for a few days, and they put the first episode for free on YouTube. Maybe if there's a free trial I'll binge it, because I'm super curious. Every one of those people were flawed in different ways, but I really did like them all. Like everyone my age, we're at that spot where we are contemplative about the choices we made then, and how we choose to proceed. There's more past than future, and fucking around without consequence isn't a thing anymore.
I had a lot of feelings that summer, and it was lonely. But I had the roommates on The Real World. It was the right thing at the right time. And because there was no blueprint for that sort of thing, it was probably the only time that a reality show was real, not a mess of attention whoring. Subsequent seasons never had the integrity or authenticity of that one, perhaps with the exception of half the San Francisco cast, as Pedro Zamora really put a face to the AIDS crisis.