Last night Variety reported that MTV is bringing its seminal reality series The Real World back to San Francisco for the show's twenty-ninth season, twenty years after the show's third season filmed in the city. (Twenty years. Holy moly, the world has gotten terribly old.) But the real info in the article is Variety's assertion that this is a "make-or-break season" for the venerable (well, sorta venerable) institution. Yes, The Real World might be ending. Is it about time?
The ratings have slipped in recent years, which is presumably in direct relation to the show's decline in quality. Producing twenty-eight consistently interesting seasons is an impossible feat for any show, let alone one that has to rely on a bunch of civilians to be interesting, but The Real World's near-ruination is less the fault of time and more of MTV's cynical tweaking over the years. They meddled with the show, made it cheaper and crasser, and it became largely uninteresting, a passing diversion if anything. While there have been a scattered few reasonably compelling seasons in the show's latter years — Brooklyn was a return to relative restraint and thoughtfulness, both Denver and San Diego offered some gunkier entertainment — the show was forever damaged by the infamous Las Vegas season in 2002, when alcohol and intra-roommate hookups became the main focus of the show.
At that point audience expectation, but more importantly cast member expectation, changed irrevocably. The kids who saw the Vegas season, and then the kids who saw the seasons starring the kids who saw the Vegas season, felt they had to perform, in a particularly unpleasant way. And so we've had a nearly uninterrupted succession of self-consciously sloppy boors, people who came loaded with explosive tempers and other issues they themselves dragged to the surface before heading into the house, in the hopes that they would come bursting out once the cameras turned on. And indeed they did. There have been some undeniably arresting moments in this uglier, dirtier mutation of The Real World, but they stand in sad contrast to the earlier, simpler, more introspective seasons of the show. Of course, the early installments are now bathed in the rose-colored glow of nostalgia. Things weren't actually so earnest or optimistic or squeaky clean even then — we mustn't forget Puck or Tami vs. David, after all. But they were nothing like the boozy shriekfests of today. (For more perspective on the evolution of the show, consult Joe Reid's excellent ranking of twenty-seven seasons of the show on Vulture.)
So in that regard, it might be a good thing that MTV is considering pulling the plug. It's been 21 years of this thing, and I just don't know who the show really holds any weight for anymore. What was once viewed as strange and revolutionary, a hip and frank look at the lives of Today's Youth, is now mostly a joke, if thought of at all. (My 23-year-old colleague said she had no context to write about the show. Fair enough. She was 12 years old when the Vegas season aired.) But there's one thing that advocates for putting The Real World to pasture are perhaps forgetting. Those booze-filled shriek monsters degrading a once-proud-ish series? When they stumble out of whatever mansion they've been destroying for three months, they go stumbling right into the casting pool for The Challenge, a vital and necessary show that still performs pretty well for MTV. Do we really want to put The Challenge in danger?
Though mostly a crude cross-section of the worst of young America — brawling, greedy, vain, unthoughtful — the large cast of recurring Challenge players is still a fun group to watch, and one we've gotten to know pretty well over time. But the old-timers can't do it forever — even immortal witch Beth quit after "The Gauntlet: III" — so we need a continual stream of new blood. Therein lies The Real World's usefulness. I suppose they could bring in a new crew of "Fresh Meat" randos, like they've done once or twice before with some success, but that's not as fun. It's better when they have existing relationships going into The Challenge.
For that reason alone, I say more Real World, please. But for all other reasons, which are far more valid and pressing in terms of the health of our broader culture, yeah, the show has probably had its day and no longer serves much of a purpose. In many ways it peaked with the dark, strange, marvelous Seattle season. And that, my friends, was fifteen years ago. Sigh.