The latest season of MTV's long-running program ended last night like a geriatric poodle falling down a flight of stairs. The show and the audience have changed drastically since it started. It is time to put the old girl down.
The most recent season the program, its 23rd and the first one set in Washington D.C., was a crushing bore. When the show helped usher in the reality television age in 1992, it was something new(ish) and completely different. I remember the excitement, the magazine covers, and the buzz surrounding the original sociological experiment. This was the first time a bunch of strangers had been throw together and the results taped. They fought, they loved, the hooked up, they went on vacation. It was just like the program is now (minus the vacation, which D.C. skimped out on) except it seemed that the people had real lives.
Sure, we never heard much from Heather B's rap career or Andre's band Reigndance after the show, but these people seemed less like characters or types and more like actual people. There were ambitious twentysomethings already involved in finding their way in their chosen field. They also had some sort of life in the city where it was being filmed, so outside friends and interests filtered onto the show, much in the same way that sharing a house with a bunch of roommates really does. Over time, the characters calcified into "types"—the angry black man, the gay one, the slut, the conservative, the sheltered zealot—and people were cast less as individuals, but as stock characters who would create conflict.
The serious sociological aspect of the show quickly started to diminish after the San Francisco season, perhaps the shows most poignant and famous thanks to the death of AIDS activist Pedro Zamora and the ouster of his nemesis Puck, who was so nasty the roommates kicked him out of the house. Remember on that season that Pam was in med school while it was being filmed? That was some serious stuff. Now we're lucky if one of the kids works one day a week at something other than exhibitionism and self-promotion. In later seasons, the show started giving the cast projects, like starting a business or working a job, to give the show some cohesion, but even those shortly fell by the wayside.
What do we get now? The people on the show don't seem to be actually doing anything outside of the house. They have silly internships that don't involve much work and seem more like pre-arranged camera dates than documented work experience. Either that or they have little hobbies that the producers try to blow up into a huge thing. Callie is a photographer! Andrew is an artist! Emily is a (really bad) poet! Erika the quitter and Josh are musicians! Ashley is...well, just whiny!
No, they are practically forbidden to do anything outside other than get drunk, go to the gym, party, and hook up with people. Otherwise, they are trapped within the confines of their messy, faux Ikea domicile to claw each others eyes out, sob on the phone, and have petty squabbles and heavy petting. Thanks to the rule-breaking Las Vegas season, which was the start of The Real World's descent into trash for trash's sake, there is only a thin patina of social relevance to the entire enterprise. Ironically, it is that earnestness that makes it seem stodgy and outdated.
Thanks to The Real World itself, we have catapulted ourselves headfirst into the reality television black hole. Now
eight strangers followed by cameras is no longer a novelty now that every two-bit celebrity will mug for the camera and countless shows pit strangers against each other in much more extreme and exotic locations. The audience no longer demands low brow entertainment disguised as high brow documentary. We want to wallow in the muck. Give us the Kardashians. Give us Tinsley Mortimer and her fake racist socialites. Give us the Bad Girl's Club. Shockingly, MTV mastered this art form quickly with Jersey Shore, the crown jewel of the reality treasure chest. If you're going to lock a bunch of people in a house and make them drink, fight, and fuck their way to fame and salvation, that this is the way to do it. No Real World cast ever will be able to top Snooki, The Situation, and crew in unabashed trashiness. With its continued innovation, MTV made their old innovation obsolete.
Maybe we're looking at the original seasons of The Real World with the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia. I was younger when the show started and the mysterious view it opened of a (seemingly) adult world in a big city was captivating. The people on the show were so cool and attractive that they seemed like good role models, even when they were eating someone else's peanut butter with their fingers. Now, watching the latest cast, everything just seems so petty and tawdry. Who really cares if someone throws pizza crusts on the ground? Who cares if a girl leaves the show because she misses her boyfriend? Who cares about any of this? Who cares? Sure, there is plenty of interesting television to be wrung out of the "strangers in a house" genre, but this franchise is irredeemably tainted and broken. Before it limps and hobbles its way through a few more seasons (a return to New Orleans is currently filming), just put the damn thing out of its misery MTV. It's the right thing to do.