— "The Real World," the first modern, narrative, unscripted reality TV show, turns 25 when its new season debuts Wednesday night. It has been around so long that its alumni now includes a member of Congress, Sean Duffy, who was previously best known for being a cast member on "The Real World Boston."
The MTV series is quite different from the show that surprised audiences when it aired in 1992. Its cast of eight people — no longer is it the seminal "seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped" — will spend a few months living in Las Vegas, which is fitting for this milestone season.
All you need to know about what has happened to "The Real World" is in its title: This 25th season is called "The Real World Las Vegas." Like the 24th season, set in New Orleans, there's no indication in its name that the city has previously hosted the series, probably because the people who will watch weren't watching back then.
MTV and the show's producers don't care about acknowledging its history, because that is irrelevant. While the show's content has changed dramatically during its life, it has remained devoted to continually capturing the attention of its primary audience, teenagers and those in their early 20s, and that's all that matters.
In 2002, when the series last visited Las Vegas, it finally devolved into a televised orgy of drinking, fighting, and hooking up, and lost some of its long-time fans.
That cast was a significant change from, for example, the group featured in the show's second season, which featured Jon, an actual country singer; Aaron, a student at UCLA; Glen, a lead singer in a band; David, a stand-up comic; and Irene, a deputy marshal who left the show mid-season to get married.
Compare that to the newest cast members, who are all over 21, but who have, at most, career ambitions, not actual careers or lives.
Naomi's bio cites her internships and Nany's says she wants to be a parole officer after graduating college, but otherwise the bios focus on things like personalities, childhood trauma, and relationships.
Hilariously, the cast bios completely ignore perhaps the most high-profile job held by this cast: Dustin has worked as a gay porn star. Instead, it mentions that he's "a highly competitive guy who sometimes uses his southern hospitality and good looks to win attention from the ladies." The bios also inform viewers of Leroy's "indescribable 'system' of picking up girls," Michael's desire to "party with his new roommates," and Adam's life as "a whirlwind of manipulated tales."
While these descriptions may be designed to generate interest in the new season, they are a good illustration of the trajectory the series has taken over its 19-year life and 24 seasons.
The show has always been artificial, bringing together disparate people for months of rent-free living, conflict, and even artificial work (remember "Delicious Deliveries" in Miami?). Cast members in the past interrupted their lives to have that experience; today, cast members seem like they are waiting for the series to help them define their lives.
That may represent a generational shift, and "The Real World" has always been rejected by older people who fail to understand the appeal of watching younger people's lives play out on screen.
One of "The Real World"'s charms is that viewers love to think nostalgically about their youth and judge the current casts as immature and unworthy, just like people did to the casts they watched. Its audience of teenagers and 20-somethings, who fell in love with it in the mid-1990s, may now be repulsed by what the show has become.
Has it really gotten worse, or have we just outgrown it?
The answer is both.
Because the cast of "The Real World" is largely self-selecting, each subsequent cast emulates the behavior of what they've seen on TV before them. And thus they've become far more interchangeable as people — stock, fame-seeking characters instead of dynamic, complex characters (yes, even Puck was complicated, for all his obnoxiousness).
Now the partying, drinking, hooking up, and fighting happens instantly instead of as part of their lives. When the show attempts a different kind of focus, as it did with "The Real World DC," viewers flee and it still features ridiculous behavior that doesn't jibe with the attempt at taking itself seriously. It seems impossible that a Pedro Zamora or a Kevin Powell would even consider applying to be a cast member.
Immature nonsense has, for sure, always been a part of the show, it's just existed in a different context. What once was the result of relationships between people with different backgrounds has become behavior from people who know they will get more attention and become more famous the more outrageously they act.
That is reality for some kids ages 18 to 25 today, who grew up in an era of sharing every facet of their lives on Facebook and MySpace, and have watched their whole lives as people just like them have catapulted to instant fame (and sometimes fortune) by appearing on reality TV shows.
"The Real World" wasn't the first unscripted series ("An American Family" gets the title), but it was the one that established conventions that are embedded in the DNA of hundreds of reality series on broadcast and network TV. It took years for television to catch on to the winning formula that it and its spin-off competition, "Road Rules," established.
But once they did, they left "The Real World" behind by continually evolving and growing, creating a landscape where "Survivor," "Deadliest Catch," and "Jersey Shore" can all coexist. And "The Real World" seems to be OK with its lack of growth as it parties its way toward 30.