Reflections from 20 Years of 'The Real World'

Remember The Real World? It first came out 20 years ago, on this very day back in 1992.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Remember The Real World? It first came out 20 years ago, on this very day, but in 1992. Yep, May 21, 2012, is the 20th anniversary of The Real World. Chorus it, friends: We are old. But somewhere back in our deepest darkest memory lairs, we have glimmerings of feeling about this show, which has gone on to become the longest-running program in MTV history and one of the longest running reality series in plain old TV history. It's also largely credited with launching the genre. Remember when MTV was just videos? And then, it wasn't.

To date, there are 28 seasons of The Real World planned; the current one, season 27, is set in St. Thomas and premieres June 27. But remember the first? Via

In 1992, The Real World spawned a new genre of television with its fresh documentary/soap opera formula. Seven diverse young people from all over the country moved into a New York apartment in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. All seven pursued their own dreams in the big city--a model, a dancer, a writer, a rapper, a rock singer, an artist, and a singer--we witnessed their triumphs and failures. A possible romance developed between two of the roommates, Eric and Julie, the lone gay castmember, Norman, embarks on a serious relationship, and racial tensions heat up between Kevin and the roomies.

Way back when, with Season One, the show introduced us to a number of concepts that were not only pretty new, they were sort of groundbreaking. The show empowered boring old almost-everyday (if more attractive than the usual) people to be on TV as themselves. They were chosen not only to be attractive and interesting but also to showcase diversity—racially, sexually, socially, religiously, politically—and to make us and each other think. But they were to do so not by acting, but by being who they were.

Now, the idea of putting seven strangers in a house together and filming them is commonplace—we expect more than just that: competitions, scripted realities, a fight for their very own survival, something. Back then, though, that simple concept was enough to surprise. Still, even in the old days, the show was pretty good at "surprising" beyond its premise alone. We got gay and lesbian characters who introduced some of us, in our small home towns, to topics that would have otherwise been verboten. We learned about prejudices, and that it was not OK to judge people at first or second or even third glance, and that even though we might fight amongst ourselves, we should give everyone an opportunity to show who they are before we begin to battle—and throughout the war. Sometimes we might have to live with those people; maybe in our college dorms or when we had our first real jobs, maybe sooner than we'd thought. This was an example of growing up and living on our own, albeit with roommates, and it was one of the few "real" ones those of us without older siblings had as a reference point. It seemed real, at least, though through the seasons that authenticity was replaced with a more shiny reality-TV semblance of the truth. Or, possibly, we just got more jaded.

Later episodes (particularly the Las Vegas season, a possible nadir of the series in terms of the gratuitous glamorization of drinking and sex) may not always have been so morally accountable or teaching in nature. And in the years since the beginning there have been lawsuits and plenty of criticisma of topic or the way the show's been done (for example, brutally stringent contracts). There was the particularly gruesome recent lawsuit over the alleged rape of a cast member via a toothbrush, for example. The series isn't perfect, nor was it trying to be.

But early on, it seemed, the show was morally simpler, those behind and in front of the cameras less practiced, maybe. The episodes largely functioned to vilify the bad and legitimize the good who might not have been so accepted otherwise. And the subject matter meant we were having conversations about oft-controversial topics in our homes and schools. Remember Puck, and how much we hated him in the third season and following, or his co-cast-member, AIDS activist Pedro Zamora, who was so beloved? Zamora, one of the first openly gay men with AIDS portrayed in pop-culture media, died on November 11, 1994, hours after the final episode of season three aired. This was unbelievable (people we'd grown to love on TV did not die, not like this) and heartbreaking. It's no less heartbreaking now—but more believable, having grown up as we have on reality TV.

In some ways, the early years were almost like a particularly risque after-school special, accompanied by what would become a household catchphrase:

This is the true story... of seven strangers... picked to live in a together and have their lives taped... to find out what happens... when people stop being polite... and start getting real...The Real World.

Later, the show veered into second- and third-generation "reality TV" territory, with scandals and dramas unfolding for sometimes stupid rather than substantial reasons, and the ante forever ratcheted up in keeping with a glut of competitive TV shows and societal acceptance of whatever controversial subject matter has come before. To the credit of the producers, it seems there's been a continued focus on reflecting diversity representative of broader society—at least, that of MTV-watching society, of certain ages and looks. And while the Vegas season was pretty dark, more recent seasons, for example, San Diego, have returned to social issues like those that made the first seasons so good in terms of not how they titillated but how they taught us. Of course, the cast members are still pretty and shiny and muscle-y and irascible, prone to arguments and drama and intermingling. But that's why we wanted to watch it back then, too.

Maybe it's silly to give so much credit to a show, but it did a lot, if you think about it. It provided us an example of a modern, hybrid "family." It turned faux celebrities into real celebrities, and provided a franchise opportunity on the channel unprecedented before that time. See Eric Nies of The Grind, the spin-off that had him dancing on a box in front of a studio audience (our tastes were so simple then), and also, of the Road-Rules-Real-World mashups. This was all pre-Jersey Shore, pre-Kardashians, pre-Laguna Beach and The Hills, pre-, even, What Not to Wear. Presumably, it informed all of them in some way or another.

Another thing The Real World established was the location-based reality show, where a bunch of folks were stuck together not only in a new city but in the home of their dreams. The houses, oh, the houses, and the locations, too—Sydney, Hawaii, L.A., back to New York! The lodgings seemed to get fancier each go-round, or at least, more perfectly on-trend. How much did The Real World do in terms of IKEA marketing? All I know is, that's where we shopped. And that initial episode in which the "characters" arrive and all meet for the first time in their new abode, running around and shouting their amazement as to their great fortune and calling dibs on their beds and roommates is at this point something of a reality show classic. The confessional-to-the-camera; the under-covers make-out under seamy camera glow and, when they emerge, the raccoon-like eyes of the subjects; the late-night kitchen cook-off after drunken bar-going; the fights that sometimes get physical, those are all reality TV standards now, too. As is the boundary line between audience and cast members, private and personal lives, that this show continues to test.

At some point in watching the show I realized that I'd out-aged the maximums set for participants (18-25, also assumed to be the key viewing demographic), and, slowly, I stopped watching as well. But for all the time that's passed between the first season and now—Eric Nies is about to be 41—I haven't forgotten the very first episode of that new, bizarre program, one that my parents weren't quite sure that I was old enough for or what it even was, but let me watch anyway.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.