‘Real World’ and the rise of reality TV

Twenty-four years and 32 seasons after its initial release, the series — the latest installment of which is 'Real World Seattle: Bad Blood' — hardly resembles its humble beginnings.

click to enlarge The cast of "Bad Blood" at home in Seattle - Photo: Courtesy of MTV
Photo: Courtesy of MTV
The cast of "Bad Blood" at home in Seattle
In 1992, American television audiences were first introduced to the concept of MTV’s Real World: seven strangers living in a house together and having their lives recorded so we could find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real. Whew!

Twenty-four years and 32 seasons later, the latest installment of the groundbreaking reality series — known as Real World Seattle: Bad Blood (10 p.m. Wednesdays, MTV) this season — hardly resembles its humble beginnings. In early iterations, cast members who already worked in the area kept their jobs — we barely saw Pam in Season 3 (San Francisco), for example, because she was in medical school — and cameras regularly followed others on their quest to secure a gig. Later, the show would arrange for the housemates to work somewhere together. 

Now they’ve given up completely. Occasionally, we see someone fret about money (usually in the form of someone getting left with the bar tab, as if MTV doesn’t pay to keep the booze flowing), but working is of no concern to a 24-year-old who otherwise would still live with mom and whose main goal is to become a reality star. And that’s a big cultural difference between the early 1990s and today. 

Now, being a reality star can be a career. When this social experiment started, the stars didn’t really see themselves like that. The opportunity was to live in a new city with new people for a few months — and, yes, to be on MTV. But today you get paid to party and become a low-level celebrity, and if you’re loveable or hateable enough and the least bit athletic, you’ll be asked to return for the Real World game-show spinoff The Challenge. Past Real Worlders have made a real career from it.

And the show format has evolved, too. Real World is more self-aware now, no longer afraid to show producers engaging with the cast by asking questions or de-mic-ing them at the end of each night. And since Season 29, Real World: Ex-plosion, there has been a “twist” element, often involving the introduction of people from the cast members’ past moving into the house for a period of time. Nearly identical to the concept of Season 30, Real World: Skeletons (to an annoying degree), the Bad Blood in the title here refers to friends, family and others with whom the housemates were at one time close before a rift formed in their relationships. After a few weeks with the original cast, each were surprised to find their frienemy had moved in permanently.

Amid a pretty yawn-worthy cast (albeit the most racially diverse one probably ever), Theo was immediately the true standout. He was kind of The Office’s Jim Halpert of the season, delivering the funniest remarks and often making prolonged eye contact with cameras for comedic effect. A devastatingly handsome former football player at Eastern Illinois University, Theo was kicked off the team after getting arrested for having weed in his dorm room. He claims it belonged to his cousin, Kassius, who got off scot-free since it wasn’t his room. Set to go pro along with teammates that included now-Patriot quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Theo’s promising future came to a screeching halt, all (allegedly) at the hands of a close relative. You can guess who his “bad blood” would be.

And, like clockwork, the two reached a boiling point on screen — a pretty minor scuffle, really — that ended not with instigator Kassius going home, but Theo! (Luckily, it appears Theo will be competing on the next season of The Challenge). The rest of the season would be a wash if it wasn’t for Tyara, the prickly expat military brat who may or may not be putting on a fake accent and who will this week finally come to terms with her bad blood, a former bully. 

But despite all this, I’ll continue watching Real World. Maybe this will be the last of the twists and MTV can focus on finding a diverse and interesting mix of housemates who can be entertaining to watch without the help of manufactured drama. At this point, considering the current mix of reality TV offerings (teens documenting pregnancies, women fighting to marry a stranger, bartenders sleeping with each other), harkening back to the early seasons, where the people were pretty normal and did pretty normal things, would actually be quite radical.