It is not solely because of longevity that, now in its twenty-third season, MTV’s The Real World continues to hold serve as television’s greatest reality show. First broadcast in May 1992, the program is indeed modern reality TV’s Rose Bowl, the genre’s Granddaddy of Them All. And as it and every other reality show enters the century’s teen years, The Real World remains an anachronistic survivor, an un-retooled, gimmick-free enterprise where most of the social engineering is unabashedly blatant and where a cast member’s mission is only to survive in relatively plush conditions for three months without alienating everyone. Refreshingly, no one in a Real World cast has to sing or dance for a sarcastic panel of experts or complete an international scavenger hunt faster than anyone else.
The Real World, a palatable, made-for-TV experiment born of those quasi-tolerant days of the early ’90s, debuted three weeks after the LA riots. Cynicism and self-absorption had yet to take political correctness captive. Back then, no one could honestly answer Rodney King’s famous lamentation, "People, I just want to say… Can we all get along? Can we get along?" In the first decade of its existence, The Real World labored hard to find a response.
For this most recent season, which premiered on December 30, The Real World is set in Washington, DC, in a $6 million mansion about four blocks from Dupont Circle. Part of the fun of the show has always been the sheer ludicrousness of MTV’s conceit that the house supplied for its cast members is actually a place where real twentysomethings would live, and the DC-informed kitsch with which the house is saturated doesn’t disappoint. Each bedroom, for example, gets a presidential portrait to rule the roost: Lincoln, Kennedy, Washington and Reagan. (The selection of two Republican icons, a famous nonpartisan and one Democrat is perhaps a conciliatory gesture on MTV’s part to viewers who might take issue with the network’s use of President Obama’s likeness as a metonym for the city. Make no mistake about it–The Real World takes place in a "Yes We Can" Washington, and the show’s producers have enough shots of "Change" posters to prove it.)
More than any other season (with the possible exception of season twelve’s legendary three-month-long bachelor/bachelorette party in Las Vegas), The Real World Washington relies quite heavily on its location to provide drama. Twenty-two seasons have proven that, indeed, with enough cajoling, self-righteous browbeating and yelling, we can all get along; that is, the shock of corralling an openly bisexual man from Colorado and a Reagan-loving Texan at the same dinner table isn’t, well, all that shocking anymore. Producers have recognized that the hip urban location, and not the atypical living arrangement, is the milieu more unfamiliar to its viewers than the house itself. If The Real World is beginning to show its age, it is perhaps most apparent in the show’s subtle assumption that the march of progress has made its viewers’ tastes less voyeuristic and more touristic.
The city, then, is the ninth roommate, more character than backdrop. "I almost cried when I landed," says Ashley, a 22-year-old from Fort Bragg, California, who readily admits to being "kind of obsessed" with President Obama. "This is where bills get passed," she gushes. "This is where laws change. This is the Mecca. This is the mother ship, and I made it here!" Interestingly, Ashley’s Mr. Smith moment is far more memorable than the battle royal over the legitimacy of Christianity that erupts during the cast’s first dinner–and in 2010 it comes across as far more authentic than the stupefaction she later expresses upon learning that Mike, another regular churchgoer in the group, likes to sleep with men as well as women.