Brace yourselves for the retrospectives, people. It’s been nearly 20 years since The Real World debuted on MTV in 1992. Over the course of two decades and a mind-boggling 25 seasons, the reality series, which began as a kind of radical—albeit low-budget—programming experiment, has evolved into a faithful television standby. It’s become a show that, like Saturday Night Live or The Simpsons, seems uniquely cancellation-proof. The concept itself—stick a bunch of attractive young people in a house and let the cameras roll—now seems almost quaint in its simplicity, yet it’s precisely this timeless formula that’s allowed the show to persist for so long.
Like many others in my demographic, I grew up watching The Real World. The first season premiered when I was 12, by which time I’d been watching MTV obsessively for years. I was a fan from the very beginning and tuned in faithfully every Thursday night. Corny and trite as I know it sounds, I learned a great deal from the series. For all its ‘90s political correctness, The Real World did open my pre-adolescent eyes to a number of issues: abortion, gay people, racism, AIDS, the importance of not eating your roommate’s peanut butter after picking your nose. I watched, repeatedly and religiously, until somewhere around Hawaii, when the narcissism and overall skank factor became too much to bear, then gave up completely after Chicago. 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. My expertise on the series is really limited to the "Golden Years" which, by my definition, include New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and London. Despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that it’s been a decade since I watched the show with any regularity, it holds a powerful place in my pop cultural understanding. Julie, Eric, and Kevin, not to mention Puck and Pedro, are, to me, potent emblems of the ‘90s. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, collectively, they define the decade at least as much as Kurt Cobain or Shannen Doherty did.
The original goal of The Real World was not to capture the zeitgeist; this reality television pioneer was, like so many innovations, influenced by the bottom line. Following the success of youth-oriented shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, MTV wanted to develop its own scripted soap opera but quickly discovered that paying writers, actors, costume designers, and make-up artists costs lots and lots of money. A much cheaper option, it turned out, was casting a bunch of “regular people” to live in an apartment and taping their day-to-day lives. Producers Jonathan Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim converted a massive, 4000-square-foot duplex in Soho, plucked seven cast members from 500 applicants, paid them $2600 for their troubles, and let the cameras roll.
From February 16 to May 18, 1992 the roommates lived together; three short days after they cleared out of the loft, the series premiered, and the reviews were mostly unfavorable. In USA Today, Matt Roush blasted the series as “painfully bogus,” a cynical and exploitative new low in television: “Watching The Real World, which fails as documentary (too phony) and as entertainment (too dull), it's hard to tell who's using who more.” The Washington Post's Tom Shales fired off an even more withering critique. “Ah to be young, cute, and stupid, and to have too much free time,” he wrote. “Such is the lot facing the wayward wastrels of The Real World, something new in excruciating torture from the busy minds at MTV.” Oddly, Shales’ biggest issue was the cast members’ creative career choices. “You might want to think about getting a real job,” the television critic (!) advised viewers. What’s so curious about the show’s somewhat chilly critical reception is that, compared to today’s reality fare—Jersey Shore, the Kardashians, the various Real Housewives—The Real World: New York now seems incredibly, achingly earnest, bracingly raw, and sweetly idealistic.
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. Mostly, they’re just the young, creative types who’ve come to New York to pursue their proverbial dreams for the past century or so.
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. I can’t help but wonder what today’s youngins, who never knew MTV when it actually played videos, might think of the original Real World. Do they even know it exists? And do the people on it seem like hopeless squares compared to the ex-porn stars of today’s cast?
Enough with the context. Now, to the episode itself. The first person we meet in The Real World is Eric, though his appearance is brief. In a talking-head interview, framed against the iconic fish tank, Eric recalls his anxiety about taking part in the series. “I thought, this is never going to happen. They can’t do this to seven people. At first, I thought they were going to put us in a little box, and everybody was going to be, like, a nightmare,” he says.
Then we cut to the credits: Oh my, the credits. It goes without saying that I can recite the opening lines of The Real World: New York—complete with interjections—by heart. “This is the true story (true story) of seven strangers picked to live in a loft (guitar pluck) and have their lives taped (snare drum) to find out what happens (what?) when people stop being polite (Could you get the phone?) and start getting real: The Real World.” Intercut throughout are shots of an already bygone New York City—the exterior of CBGB’s, boxy old yellow cabs, the Twin Towers.
The wide-eyed optimism of the series premiere stems mostly from Julie, who almost immediately becomes the show’s de facto protagonist. Once the credits end, we meet Julie and follow her all the way from her hometown to big bad New York City. None of the other cast members gets anywhere near this kind of attention in the premiere, which is, for all intents and purposes, the Julie show.
In her first talking-head interview, Julie, dressed in a lime green polo shirt and bandana headband, looks like she was the most popular girl in the Class of 1990. Filmed in her childhood bedroom, Julie exudes youthful innocence. You can even see a Cabbage Patch Doll sitting on top of her dresser. She’s the cast ingénue, but she’s not a dim yokel or a prude. Against the wishes of her elderly father, who wants her to be a “computer operator,” Julie, the youngest of seven children, dreams of becoming a dancer. (We see her in action for a few seconds, decked out in a hideous flowered crop top and some bright green high tops, and it’s kind of a shock to see that Julie’s got a hot bod underneath all her boxy outfits.)
Before she leaves home, she fights with her father about their differing world views. “I think it’s OK to wear whatever you want to wear and not cut your hair and grow it down to your butt if want to, whereas you don’t think that’s OK,” she says. His response? “When did you start saying ‘butt?’” With his puffy face, thick-as-kudzu accent, and tumbler full of who-knows-what, Julie’s dad—there’s no polite way of saying this—seems like a Southern racist straight out of central casting. After he tells Julie, “I could give a damn how you feel about things,” you half expect him to polish off his drink, put his hand on his holster, and say, “Boy, you best get a move on. We don’t take kindly to coloreds in these here parts.” In other words, Julie’s dad is scary as shit, so her willingness to stand up to him is all the more impressive.
While Julie is en route—first via a plane, then a cab with a conspicuously gregarious driver—the other roommates arrive at the loft. Of course, the first to get there is Eric, since he’s the second most prominent cast member after Julie. Resplendent in a Raiders Starter jacket and a floppy brown velvet hat borrowed from the wardrobe department of Blossom, Eric reacts to the loft as if he’d just been set loose in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. In what’s now become a stock sequence, he freaks out over his luxurious new digs which, in retrospect, look pokey and claustrophobic. It’s hard to believe anyone could get this excited about a few lava lamps and some Ikea couches. And couldn’t MTV afford bedspreads? Just look at this:
But Eric’s exuberance cannot be tamed. He quickly stars dialing up all his friends and family to gloat about his new apartment but is interrupted when his new roommates begin to arrive. First up are Becky and Kevin; they are followed, in quick succession, by Norm, Heather, and, finally, Andre. “The door opened, and I saw nothing like me or most of the people that I hang out with,” he says, his slacker-y disdain evident.
Of course, the iconic moment of controversy from this episode occurs shortly after Julie arrives at the loft. As the roommates sit around the table, Heather’s beeper goes off, and she jumps up to answer it. Julie, clearly joking, asks, “Why do you have a beeper? Do you sell drugs?” This being the ‘90s, everyone takes the offhand comment very, very seriously, and a conversation about Julie’s purported racism ensues—though, tellingly, the discussion takes place mostly via talking-head interviews, which to me suggests that the roommates may have understood Julie’s joke for what it was and that it was the producers who forced the issue. Kevin isn't overly perturbed by the comment but expresses his hopes that it's not followed by questions about his basketball prowess.
Otherwise, the roommates’ first night in the loft is uneventful. Rooming arrangements are decided based on sleeping patterns—night owls Heather and Andre at one corner of the apartment, early birds Kevin and Eric at the other. There’s some getting-to-know-you chat down in the kitchen, though the confessions are somewhat contrived. Andre reads aloud questions from a book of sex and love questions, and Becky, Julie, and Eric sit around discussing the answers For the record, Julie would like to double her sex drive, whereas Becky would like to cut hers in half. (Marianne, meet Ginger.) Andre would rather go deaf then lose sensation in his crotch, and Eric claims he can remember the first girl he kissed but not the first girl he slept with, which to this day I still don’t believe.
The subject of race comes up once again later in the episode, when Julie just so happens to go to dinner with Heather and Kevin. With a touch of youthful hyperbole, Julie claims that she’s “just as much pre-judged” as either of her new roommates, which seems highly unlikely. But to her credit, Julie is frank about her own background, confessing to Heather and Kevin that her father “doesn’t really like black people.” (Gee, you don’t say.) Both Kevin and Heather are impressed with Julie's open-mindedness, though not with her street smarts: They double over with laughter after she asks for a refund on a subway token after a train mishap.
The only other character who gets much airtime in this episode is Becky, the aspiring musician who’s got a gig on one of the first nights in the new loft. All the roomies come out for the show and Becky, and, in an extremely back-handed compliment, Norm (who, for some reason, is sitting in a bubble bath) says, “I wouldn’t say that she was the most impressive singer, but it moved me.” Becky’s performance is interesting to me for two reasons. First, there’s her outfit, a clingy black spandex number. More importantly, her gig is presented with relatively little explication. We don’t know where it is or what it is, really—just that she’s performing. There’s a relative lack of expository voiceover in this episode, which, if I’m being honest, probably wasn’t out of some commitment to vérité storytelling. Chances are it had more to do with the fact that the producers hadn’t yet mastered their manipulative craft just yet (please also note the lack of a “confessional” room and that in their talking-head interviews, none of the cast members talk in the present tense, which is by now the hoariest of reality TV conventions).
Julie’s overwhelming centrality is something that I either didn’t remember or didn’t strike me quite as dramatically back when I watched the show in the early ‘90s. (There’s a good chance I didn’t notice, so transfixed was I by Andre’s luscious locks and pouty lips. What can I say? I was 12.) Julie is, in my humble opinion, maybe the greatest reality show character ever, the perfect combination of idealism and curiosity, confidence and bashfulness, guilelessness and pluck. Norm, who’s only slightly more present in this episode than Andre, says as much. “She’s a really open person. She’s really open to experiences… I’m really excited about her energy. Things are so new at her age, and everything was just so fascinating,” he says, still soaking away in the bathtub, his fingers no doubt shriveled up like prunes. We see Julie and Norm, taking a walk around their new neighborhood. She sweet-talks her way into a ride on the back of a vintage Harley. The episode ends on a light note. “Hope she has birth control with her,” says one of the bikers, as Julie rides off, her arms wrapped around a stranger.
- Annoyingly (and stupidly, if you ask me), MTV does not make old episodes of The Real World available online. But, for now anyway, you can watch most of season one via YouTube starting right here or on Hulu Plus. Otherwise, the DVDs are available for super-cheap on Amazon and elsewhere.
- The fashion. My God, the fashion. I am going to have lots to say on this subject in the stray observations to come, so please, bear with me.
- Julie’s mom outfits are so amazingly unhip. She arrives in New York wearing pleated khakis, running shoes, and a tucked-in denim button down. Later on, she strolls the streets of Soho in a fleece pullover and frosted jeans.
- Becky is so fucking cool, I can’t stand it. She shows up at the loft wearing a white mock turtleneck—and somehow manages to make it look good.
- As a New Yorker, I confess that one of the more pleasant things about re-watching this series is catching a glimpse of the city before it had been scrubbed clean by Giuliani.
- Consider the building that the roommates lived in, at 565 Broadway, on the southwest corner of Prince and Broadway in Soho. Although this was already an extremely cool and pricy neighborhood by the early ‘90s, back then it at least looked a little grimy, unlike now, when it’s a sterile shopping mall. For a little context, this is now a Victoria’s Secret:
- Likewise, I also love the scene when Kevin, Heather, and Julie take the subway and use a token, and how the windows in the cars open manually. How quaint!
- Julie’s skip down the airport tunnel is adorable.
- Oddly, the preacher at Julie’s church quotes Talking Heads lyrics in his sermon. “This ain’t no party; this ain’t no disco,” he says. Right on, man!