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.
These religious and sexual points of contention, though–which cast members refuse to expand upon beyond childish retort and self-righteous bullying–are by the end of the episode as willfully ignored as they were originally argued at the beginning. It is remarkable how quickly the eight characters agree to disagree, as if after twenty-two seasons a clash about diversity is merely a token Real World event that flares up out of obligation rather than intolerant zeal. As such, it’s easy for a viewer to detect that the tension among the cast members regarding sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll won’t carry the show through an entire season.
Instead, what promises to provide the grist for classic reality show conflict is the disconnect between idealism and realism that Washington offers to anyone who believes this is the place in America where one’s voice can be heard and where one can truly make a difference. Washington more often suffocates than satisfies our dreams, and this more than anything else may prove to be the season’s unwavering dramatic thread.
To that end, perhaps, whiffs of Sister Carrie waft through the sixty minutes of the premiere episode. Viewers get the sense that, as in Dreiser’s classic, though reality can and will intrude upon the characters’ hopes and dreams, their individual lots–carefully interpreted, edited and preened by producers–won’t spectacularly crash in any kind of moral comeuppance. We understand that that the octet’s unfettered optimism won’t last for the entire season, but they will also recognize that, as with Dreiser’s ingénue protagonist, shrewdly rearranging one’s moral priorities isn’t necessarily a soul-shattering path that leads directly to damnation. The producers will toe Dreiser’s tricky line if they can indeed attempt to show how the monumental mass of Washington’s inertia can squeeze and squelch idealism without incinerating it altogether.
To wit, the cushy jobs normally doled out to cast members aren’t forthcoming this season. Ashley, for example, volunteers with DC Vote, a nonprofit organization that works to bring real Congressional representation to the District, and Mike interns at Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights group. These housemates are charged with making the world better instead of tanner (Key West), drunker (Las Vegas) or more inclined to surf (Hawaii). It’s too early to tell exactly what these jobs will entail, but they will be important to monitor; the underutilized DC gofer turned jaded law student, after all, isn’t exactly an endangered species. It is admirable that MTV has chosen to thrust civic engagement upon its effervescent cast; it will be more admirable if that effervescence can last.
Will the Real Worlders be able to demonstrate the potential coexistence of realism and idealism in today’s Washington? To the youthful juggernaut that propelled Obama into office and now wonders what all the fuss and effort was about, cast members like Ashley (an Obama delegate in 2008) have the potential to show the differences between compromise and capitulation, between debating someone and defaming him. After all, Northwest Washington is chock-full of young, jaded Washingtonians for whom residence in the national capital promises not excitement or political awareness but rather "Taxation Without Representation," bad traffic and a strong distaste for Hill staffers who populate the bars and won’t shut up about what they do and why it’s important. It is not The Real World‘s mission to make Washington more relevant or less redundant to its audience; it can, however, make the town–and its number-one industry–more palatable and more accessible. If "Yes We Can" was the symphony, perhaps The Real World 23 can provide some sort of coda.