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When, exactly, did The Real World stop being real?

The Real World: Boston
Photo: MTV

To set the first season of MTV’s The Real World against its latest iterations, which include subtitles like Ex-Plosion and Bad Blood, is like looking at a photo of a once-great metropolis while standing in its bombed-out, rat-strewn ruins. It’s no stretch to say that what was a once a novel look at the collision of youthful POVs has since become a sideshow of alpha-male antics and alcohol-soaked hookups. That said, the new seasons aren’t entirely vapid—if anything, they’re more diverse than they’ve ever been—but they still suffer from the sense that all you’re watching is the cohabitation of people you’d find at the same party.

It’s easy to point to 2002's Las Vegas season as the show’s shark-jumping moment, as that’s when the decadence and the exploitation began to blatantly eclipse the relatable poignancy of earlier casts. A smart new Longreads piece from Rebecca Schuman, however, argues that the decline began much earlier. In 1997, The Real World made its inaugural trip to Boston, and it’s here, Schuman says, that the show began its transition from “unscripted soap opera to unapologetic grotesque, a.k.a. what we consider the reality-television standard.”


She writes:

“After four years, the simple voyeuristic pleasure of watching people bicker about the same things you and your roommates bickered about (only in a much nicer house) had grown predictable, and the producers realized that the show’s future depended upon the Pucks and not the Larses. After a failed attempt in Season 5 to force the housemates to start a terrible business together in Miami, the series finally settled upon its formula, and the subsequent formula for every ‘successful’ reality-television ‘character’ since, in Boston in 1997: Trauma equals drama. Or, more accurately: trauma plus sudden fame equals pain as a spectator sport, equals successful, cheaply produced television.”


The article goes on to highlight Genesis Moss, a lesbian with a traumatic childhood that was readily exploited by castmates Montana McGlynn and Sean Duffy, the latter of whom is now a shitty, Trump-loving Republican congressman in Wisconsin. That exploitation culminated with a moment that Schuman cites as “the Second Coming of reality television.”

After a particularly tense group dinner in TRW Season 6, during which Moss and Duffy called time-of-death on their friendship — Moss’s identity as a lesbian exploring nascent bisexual feelings did not sit well with Duffy — Moss worked through some of those feelings by writing a manifesto-of-sorts on the house’s ancient, un-Internetted, beige box PC. She called them “Genesisisms” — they were the sort of trite, benign aphorisms your least-woke aunt posts on Facebook with a beach-sunset background — put them into Lucida Blackletter, printed them out, and Scotch-taped them to the wall.

Insisting she was merely put off by “someone else’s dogma,” McGlynn then led a counter-charge, deploying beefy ladies’ man Syrus Yarbrough to rip the aphorisms down while a heartbroken Genesis sat with a baseball cap covering her face, looking limp and numb.

Syrus’s ripping, meanwhile, was spliced in editing to look as if it took place concurrent to a nasty whispered conversation in an adjacent bedroom, wherein McGlynn proclaimed it “so sad” that Moss spent “her whole life going to gay bars and listening to techno music.” In saying this, McGlynn either ignored or — worse — intentionally dismissed the fact that the gay techno scene was one of the only places in Boston where Genesis felt safe. Indeed, Genesis decidedly did not feel safe in the Real World house; her every moment there was tinged with the pain of the wrenching poverty and neglect and eventual homophobia of her Alabama childhood. She was a wounded young woman whose wounds were being prodded and prodded and prodded for the fun of viewers at home, and McGlynn was the prod the producers were all too gleeful to provoke.


This sort of thing is still going on today, of course, but participants know more or less what they’re getting into, having been raised on this kind of TV for more than 20 years. Genesis’ situation, however, had no clear precedent, nor did she have a clear understanding of how producers can manipulate moments for maximum emotional effect. You could argue that this kind of live bloodletting is now expected, with many reality stars more than willing to hand it over for fame. Of course, what that says about our culture is another conversation entirely.

You can read the whole Longreads piece here.


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About the author

Randall Colburn

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.