As I see it, there are two compelling reasons to revisit the first season of The Real World. First, it provides a fascinating glimpse at the dawn of reality television, back in those naive days before the genre had taken over the airwaves—and, in the process, convinced an entire generation of Americans that going on reality television was a viable career option. But nearly as enjoyable, at least to me, is that The Real World is a time capsule from the early '90s, an era that holds a special place in my heart (I freely admit to my own nostalgic bias). Sure, there was that recession thing, but in hindsight, the controversies of the era seem relatively minor compared to today's endless litany of horrors—terrorism, entrenched unemployment, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, climate change, the Kardashians.
Consider this week's episode of The Real World, titled, rather unsubtly, "Julie and Eric…Could It Be Love?." The main subject of this installment is the possible romance between Julie and Eric, but what's more interesting to me are the mini-controversies that bubble up over the course of the half-hour.
Hot Button Issue Number One is nudity in commercials, which was, apparently, a very urgent matter in 1992. The roommates, looking adorably sleepy and unkempt, wake up to watch Eric’s appearance on A Closer Look, a short-lived early ‘90s daytime talk show (here’s a review if you’re really, really interested). Eric, decked out in his tightest boxer-briefs (the producers originally asked him to come out in a G-string, but he declined “because that would just be like setting me up to be humiliated”) is there to discuss his role in a “racy” commercial for Jovan musk. “The ad is so graphic it won't appear on this network,” says host Faith Daniels, whose stiff blond bangs and war paint make-up are a reminder that the aesthetic of the ‘80s lasted well into the actual ‘90s. In the ad, Eric and a female model take each other’s clothes off; there’s some sexy giggling and tribal music in the background. It is, of course, hilariously dated—both Eric and his female counterpart start out wearing oversize, brightly colored suits that appear to have been borrowed from Heavy D. But more than that, it's also pretty tame. Sure, they're in their skivvies, but otherwise the ad isn't even vaguely raunchy. It's a reminder that the '90s were, all in all, a pretty prudish era.
Eric’s appearance sparks a debate among the roommates, most of whom are still in their jammies and clearly haven’t had their morning coffee yet, about whether or not Eric, a model, should use his sex appeal to get ahead professionally, which is a little like asking whether it’s OK for an engineer should use his math skills in the workplace. But hey, it’s the ‘90s, and back then all anyone wanted to do was talk, apparently. “I think you should keep your clothes on, guy,” says Kevin, a.k.a. “Mr. Serious,” who seems to forget that Eric is not a professor or a politician. Julie is less judgmental. “Those Obsession commercials? I don’t see a thing wrong with those,” she says, referring to Calvin Klein’s infamously sexy—and often hilariously oblique—perfume ads from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Heather’s also on board with Eric’s disrobing. “I’m trying to tell you it's about the dough,” she says. Word up.
Later, the subject of debate subtly shifts: is Eric vain? Heather seems to think he is. “Eric has a serious problem with his image. He’s too concerned with how he looks,” she says. Not surprisingly, Eric does not see it this way. Just because he’s a model doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings. “People take a different attitude towards actors and models, ‘cause they think that they’re like a step up from everybody. In reality, we're no different than anyone else. We're human too,” he says, in complete earnest, wearing what appears to be a hybrid fez/turban on his head.
We arrive at Hot Button Issue Number Two—date rape—though Heather, who gets a fair amount of airtime in this episode. Julie accompanies Heather to a studio session, where she’s about to lay down her latest track, a song about date rape called “The System Sucks.” (Sample lyrics: “He raped me/he raped me/ she began to shout/I thought this was the shit you only read about.”)
Rewatching this episode, I was immediately struck by how date rape—though a real and terrible thing, to be sure—was also a very ‘90s concern, the same way that worries over acid rain, latchkey children and forest fires seemed to wane once the ‘80s were over. That’s not to say that date rape has gone away, merely that the cultural fixation the phenomenon is very specific to this time period. This episode was filmed sometime in the spring of 1992. Less than a year earlier, TIME magazine ran this famous cover story on date rape. In December 1991, William Kennedy Smith was acquitted of raping a woman at his family’s Florida compound and in February of 1992—just as the roomies were settling into their sumptuous Soho digs—Mike Tyson was convicted of raping Desiree Washington. The idea that rapists weren’t always crazy predators lurking in back alleys, stalking their anonymous victims, was, at this point, still novel. In this light, Heather’s awkward rhymes seem slightly less ham-fisted—but only slightly.
It’s also interesting that in the early ‘90s, hip-hop had not yet to become the lingua franca of America’s youth. Heather explains she “first got into rap” listening to the Sugar Hill Gang. As a rapper, Heather was, in 1992, still vaguely threatening, at least to a certain segment of the population—a segment which includes Julie, who’s surprised at the anger in Heather’s lyrics. “When I heard her rap, I thought, ‘Heather, this is all so heavy and you don’t really come across this way’,” she says. Julie is actually impressed by the depth of Heather’s passion, not put off by it. Heather helpfully provides Julie with a glossary of hip-hop slang. (Some of the terms it includes: “frontin’,” “skeezer,” “dope,” “fat,” “slammin’,” and “diss.”)
Again, it’s worth considering the context. Here’s Julie, a 19-year-old native of Birmingham, Alabama and the youngest of seven kids. She would have been born in 1972 or ’73, barely a decade after the end of Jim Crow. Also remember that, in the early ‘90s, gangster rap threatened to destroy the Very Fabric of American Society, or so we were meant to believe. So Julie’s respect for Heather’s craft, and the unlikely but very genuine bond that grows between the two roommates, is no small thing. For lack of a better word, their friendship is cute, in an Odd Couple kind of way. We see them taking Norm’s dog, Gouda, out for a walk, squealing about picking up his poo, then wiping out on the sidewalk. No, it’s not high drama, but there’s a sweetness and an authenticity to Julie and Heather’s friendship that’s impossible to find on reality television nowadays: the Jersey Shore kids talk about being a family, but their bonds are tribal and volatile, while the Real Housewives actively hate each other.
Speaking of bonds, the real dramatic development of this episode is the increasing flirtation between Eric and Julie. Long before hot-tub makeout sessions—or, indeed, hot tubs—became standard on The Real World, Julie and Eric provided the show’s brief sparks of sexual tension. In my flawed memory, I always thought it was Julie who pined after the swoon-worthy Eric. So watching this episode, I’m amazed to discover that the exact opposite appears to be true: Julie plays Eric like a fiddle. As Becky, dressed like she’s auditioning for a part in Grey Gardens, puts it. “I think there’s definitely a little attraction going on there. I think it’s mainly from Eric’s side.”
And it’s true. Watching Julie at work is like a master class in effective flirting; if only I’d been playing closer attention back in 1992, I might have saved myself a lot of awkwardness over the ensuing years. After looking at Eric’s modeling portfolio, Julie declares, “You know, you’re pretty cute in pictures” (step one: make attraction very clear, but do so in a backhanded way). At hip-hop dance class, Julie looks hot in her pink-striped spandex, and she’s a better dancer than Eric (step two: look good in pink-striped spandex). In a cab on the way home from class, she rests her head on Eric’s shoulder (step three: don’t be afraid to initiate physical contact). “You looked good tonight,” he tells her. Julie just lets the compliment hang there in the air, without reciprocating (step four: send mixed signals). We find out that, most scandalous of all, Julie also crawled into bed with Eric early one morning, requesting that they go out for pancakes with strawberries (step five: make adorably high-maintenance demands), which she denies doing (step six: lie). As the episode ends, Julie attacks Eric, who’s in the middle of a job posing for Gianni Versace perfume at a department store, with a squirt gun (step seven: playful humiliation).
Again, what strikes me about this episode is the looseness of the editing and the nebulousness of the timeline. In the opening scene, Eric tells Julie and Becky about filming his “racy” commercial. Then in the next scene, we’re watching the finished product. It’s unclear how much time has passed. Likewise, we don’t know how quickly Julie and Eric’s flirting begins, or when the infamous pancakes-with-strawberries incident took place. This episode provides character sketches of Heather and Eric, from Julie’s point of view. To be totally reductive about it, the story is character-, rather than plot-driven. Nowadays, reality shows are all about the plot, no matter how contrived it is; the personalities play a part, too, but they’re easily manipulated in the editing to fit whatever the pre-determined narrative arc might be.
- Just as a reminder, you can watch all of The Real World: New York via Hulu Plus, and much of it on YouTube (for now). It’s also available on DVD for a reasonable price, if your ‘90s nostalgia, like mine, is insatiable.
- Andre is completely absent from this episode. All we learn is that he was up late on the phone the night/early morning that Julie crawled into bed with Eric.
- Norm is also basically a non-entity this week, though his bare chest does make an appearance at Eric's early-morning screening of A Closer Look.
- It's worth pointing out that Heather B. wears both Timberland and Champion.
- The outfit Becky wears in her rooftop interview is simply breathtaking: a headscarf, round John Lennon glasses, perfect red lipstick, and an enormous, Davy Crockett-esque fringed leather jacket. I’m assuming it was really cold the day they filmed this interview, which actually makes me appreciate the whole ensemble even more (couldn’t the producers film inside? Did Becky insist on being outside?)
- So far Becky is sweeping the ‘90s fashion awards, but Eric at least deserves special recognition for his hats.
- And let’s not forget Julie’s fashion-forward blanket coat. Laugh all you want, but that shit’s totally on-trend. (The French braid, not so much.)
- I also have to give props to Julie for the roll-neck wool sweater (probably from J. Crew) she wears in her rooftop interview. I think I was wearing these as late as 1996.
- We didn’t get to see a whole lot of the city in this episode, but what strikes me is that the roommates didn’t roam too far. In the dog-walking scene, Julie and Heather are at Spring St., a block south of their apartment. When Julie’s wearing the blanket coat, she and Heather are crossing Houston and Broadway, a block north of their pad. The building on the corner, notable for its blue-green i-beams, still looks mostly the same.
- If you're interested, there are plenty of Heather B. videos on YouTube. Here's one with Boogie Down Productions that played briefly in last week's episode.
- Eric declares that he eats pasta all the time, something that a male model would never, ever do these days.