Friday, May 2, 2008

Reality Bytes

Awake and bored in the middle of the night, I flipped through channels to find something to put me to sleep. Rather than doing the smart thing, which would be to watch whatever was playing on one of the Discovery channels, I allowed myself to be sucked into the season premier of whatever iteration of The Real World we've reached. Seriously, what is this, Season 358? I haven't watched this show since the first Clinton administration and was sucked in because I couldn't believe how much it's changed since its 1992 debut.

This version takes place in Hollywood, and here's a brief recap of the first episode: seven telegenic strangers, most of whom are still in or just out of college, arrive at a literal television set on a backlot (the "house" is an old CBS studio), put their bags down, and begin drinking. They put on bathing suits, check out the hot tub, keep drinking. They decide to go out clubbing, drink some more, and try to negotiate who in the house will hook up with whom. We end with promos: this season of The Real World will feature drunken fights, drunken arguments, drunken sex, drunken outbursts, drunken negotiations.

When the first season aired I was 28, and I watched the show with interest. The inaugural cast was comprised mainly of people in their mid-20s, so even though I was a couple of years older I felt as if I was watching a story about my peers. My recollection of that first season didn't include one drunken antic after another, and I became interested in watching the pilot episode to see how things have changed. As it turns out you can find all of Season One on YouTube, and it's eye-opening.

The pilot focuses on Julie, who leaves a sheltered existence in Alabama to come to NYC to pursue dance. Her six roommates not only already live in New York, but all have established the beginnings of their careers. They have agreed to live in the loft together and be filmed in part as an experiment. The show unfolds not as crude entertainment but as a documentary: what are the hopes and dreams and expectations of these newly-minted adults? Will Julie survive not only in the big city but in a loft filled with roommates who are older, opinionated, incredibly different from all that she has known?

The roommates arrive at the loft and sit in a circle to get to know each other. This process involves a lengthy discussion of race and class, of the cultures in which they were raised versus the cultures in which they are living their adult lives. No one is drinking anything stronger than water. When someone's beeper goes off, Julie inadvertently offends the black roommates by making a joke about drug dealers and beepers. This doesn't lead to a drunken blow-up, not on this episode anyway, but instead to a consideration of her naivety.

Because everyone but Julie already lives in New York, they all have lives outside the loft, which means that during the season we will see them living their lives apart from each other. Cast members now come from all over the country, with no connection to the city in which filming takes place, meaning that no one knows anyone outside the house. No one has a job, no one has a career. In this episode Becky has a gig singing at some nightclub, and we see her rehearsing, and then the roommates go to the gig to support her. No alcohol, no fights, no hook-ups. The whole thing is much closer to An American Family than Girls Gone Wild. What happened to make the entire premise so different?

Perhaps the changes are due to the fact that sometime in the mid-90s The Real World became a franchise, a show in constant production and in constant rotation on MTV. A portrait of how 20-somethings live "now" loses its meaning when the "now" is constant. Plus, all those serious discussions about race and class and aspiration would get boring. Ratings were undoubtedly served by offering up a rotating cast of pretty 22 year-olds with nothing else to do but get drunk with each other. To accomplish drunken antics it's best to cast types rather than interesting individuals: throw together one ex-jock, one black dude, one innocent, one girl with emotional issues, one gay guy, one total bitch, and one random other person selected for no good reason, give them nothing to do but be together, and you're guaranteed the antics you need.

In 1992, living ones life in public meant something different than it means today. The absence of the internet meant the absence of YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, all those cheap and easy "social networking" opportunities. At heart, social networking really means creating and presenting an identity to the world, making your life in a sense public. The web allows the continuous representation of creative, social, and cultural identities, both factual and fictitious. We are now our own documentarians.

We can play a role on a networking site, we can create an identity on a blog, we can go to chat rooms and find others who are just like us, or just like who we wish we were. Those who learn to play with and construct identities at an early age find it easy to take the next step, to not only be "the girl with emotional issues," but to also play one on tv.

We really are a long way from 1992.

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