TV 101: The Day the Music Died (or, how the second season of The Real World ruined everything)
I'm not going to argue with Mr. Klosterman. I admire him so much that for a short while, I thought he was my own Tyler Durden (all the ways I wish I could be -- that's Chuck). If we are, however, to take Klosterman's argument as truth -- that Puck and Pedro realizing the cameras were on them was the TV equivalent of Skynet becoming self-aware and destroying humanity -- we must then look to the second season of the show as the moment when Miles Dyson started working for Cyberdyne. That is, the seeds for television's unraveling were sown not during the third season of The Real World, but during the second. As 2008 is the 15th anniversary of The Real World: Los Angeles, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look back at how it managed to ruin everything...
First, let me say this: I don't hate all reality TV. I don't think that there's something intrinsically bad about setting up an interesting situation and then letting the cameras roll. Les Stroud surviving in the desert; Lance Loud taking his mother to a drag show; David Letterman throwing watermelons off a roof: these are the things that television was created for.
That said, there's a lot of stuff that calls itself "reality television" that I would jettison into space if I didn't worry that the aliens who found it would think less of us. Whereas the promise of the genre's name is that we're going to see something "real", in practice the word I most often think of while I'm watching reality TV is contrived.
Put it this way: if watching a documentary is the equivalent of pulling back the curtains on a neighbor's house while he makes love to his wife, then watching Reality TV is like putting on a gang-bang porno. Sure, the lighting might be better, but the sense of voyeurism in watching porno is inversely proportional to the amount of orchestration in it. Or, you know, so I've been told by the kinds of sick perverts who watch that stuff.
To push this porn metaphor further (and to increase my own, Dimaggio-like streak of at least one strained metaphor per column), The Real World: Los Angeles is like the New Years Eve party at Jack Horner's house [link mildly NSFW], from Boogie Nights. Except instead of Little Bill's brains being splattered everywhere, it's the soul of the documentary that's left oozing down the wall.
And just as everything turned for the worse after that party, so too did reality television embark irrevocably down the dark path after The Real World: Los Angeles. When you look at the strained semi-reality of Scott Baio is 46 and Pregnant or The Hills you are seeing the payoff, 15 years later, of what was started during the 1993 season of The Real World.
Here's what the show "pioneered" and why it still haunts us today:
1. It was the first season of the show with a "dressed set."
The previous season took place in a loft that was, save for size, no more or less different than any other shared space in New York. The second season, however, began the MTVization of the living space.
Though a relatively minor change, it was symbolic of the eventual disconnection from reality we were to see in this and other reality shows. (By the middle seasons of The Real World, for instance, the kids were living in houses that weren't just unrealistic for their income level, but unrealistic for human habitation. Seriously, Nunni Schoener would have trouble living in some of these places.)
[Where we see it now: Real World, Surreal Life, Flava of Love, Rock of Love]
2. It introduced the "confessional."
In fact, the word confessional -- as it pertains to the small sound-proof room that allowed the cast to comment on the day-to-day happenings of the show -- was coined by the members of this cast.
While certainly not the first time a subject of a documentary was allowed to comment on the events depicted, it was the first time that it happened in real-time. That is, at any time of the day or night, a cast member could enter into a special room and give his or her thoughts about what was being filmed.
The goal of a reality show should be to get the players to forget the cameras are on them. The confessional served as a constant reminder that they were being filmed, which, as Klosterman points out in his essay, eventually destroyed the reality genre. Like Anakin Skywalker killing the Sand People, this is where reality shows started on their long, slow descent towards the Dark Side.
[Where we see it now: Every Bleeping Show on the Planet]
3. It increased the episode count from 13 to 22.
While this wouldn't be a big deal for regular, network television (where most shows are ordered in batches of 22) the increased order was very significant for MTV, which, though successful, didn't exactly have Oprah money in 1993.
What the increased order represented was the thing that would eventually turn reality TV into basic-cable crack: the entertainment to investment ratio was many times higher than for any other kind of show. Animation, scripted drama and comedy, even game shows... all of them cost boatloads more than simply turning a video camera onto a bunch of frat-boy douchebags and sorority-girl sluts.
The cheapness of reality shows eventually went on to lower the overall quality of our viewing experience.
Expensive shows require development. You don't want to just throw a million-dollar-an-episode show on the air without any regard to character or plot (though one could argue that the producers of Galactica 1980 did just that). Of course not every scripted show is going to be good, but at least the producers try. There's too much money at stake not to.
Because of their cheapness, reality shows don't need to be good. You can throw ideas up as fast as you can think of them. A reality show can spring into existence as quickly as Kenneth's idea for Gold Case; a meeting one day, a full blown network commitment the next. How many quality shows are lost to the ether because a network executive wanted to try out the latest permutation of the dating-show genre?
[Where we see it now: Rock of Love 2, Flava of Love 3, I love Manhattan 2, the fact that as of season 20, there have been more than 450 episodes of The Real World.]
4. It used prejudice as a selling point.
It would be silly to argue that the Real World: Los Angeles introduced the concept of prejudice as entertainment (also, D.W. Griffith's estate or Nancy Grace might sue), but what was telling about the this season of The Real World was just how obvious the race/sex/gender-baiting was.
It was almost as an executive at MTV said, "Well, the racial strife in Real World: New York seemed to be really popular, how can we up the ante? I got it! Let's get a redneck-virgin-Republican-country-singer type and have him interact with <whispering> black people! And, not only that, let's get his family involved! Let's send a <whispering> black person, to his home in Kentucky to pick him up! That way we can get the racial response of his parents in the show too! It'll be hilarious! I mean, it'll be important."
Jon's hesitant reaction to <whispering> black people and sex and drugs and LA in general was so obviously forced and orchestrated that it resulted in not just one, but two, parodies: SNL's famous 1993 skit and Dave Chappelle's similar satire from 2001. The lemmings who were pushed off the cliff during the filming of White Wilderness had more choice in their actions.
Exposing prejudice is the best way to combat it. Exploiting prejudice, however, helps no one (except of course for the network and producers doing the exploitation). What The Real World: Los Angeles did (and what other reality shows were to imitate) was to take someone of a different race or religion or sexuality and reduce them to nothing more than a type. And, while types are easier to package into a half hour episode, they simplify the argument so much as to effectively eliminate it from the conversation.
[Where we see it today: Survivor, Wife Swap, The Real World]
5. It validated victimization.
Probably the most remembered event from the second season of The Real World was that the comedian, David, pulled a blanket off the semi-dressed AIDS Activist/Buddhist, Tami, resulting in him being banned from the house.
What I remember about this event was not the horror of it, but the fun of it. It looked, to me, like a bunch of people having a good time and playing around with each other. Tami was laughing while it was going on. This was not like a date-rapist claiming after the fact that "she wanted it"; we all watched what was going on and we all pretty much reached the same conclusion: she wanted it.
But later on in the episode, when Tami and the rest of the girls decided that what David did was wrong, MTV took her side. They banned David from the house for... uh... aggressive blanket-taking.
It was obvious why they did that: it made for great television. Here we are 15 years later and I'm pretty sure that a vast majority of you thought "blanket-incident" the second you saw Real World: Los Angeles mentioned in this article.
This decision, however, had far-reaching consequences. What future reality-show participants learned from it was that audiences will always side with the victims, regardless of how slight the offense. We now see the victimization histrionics turned up so loudly on every single reality show that it's near-impossible to find one without a cast member crying about some perceived dis. Television is running a victimization arms-race that makes me long for the days of the nuclear arms-race.
At least if the missiles launched all the cry-babies on TV would die, too.
Whenever I try to find the origin of something, it's hard for me not to hear Scout in my ear scolding, that if I "...wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with General Jackson." It's just one of the good pieces of advice in To Kill a Mockingbird: when you're dealing with "starting points", you start to slide down time's slippery slope. If I'm going to blame The Real World: Los Angeles for spawning Flava of Love, I might as well blame Martha Quinn for helping to spawn The Real World: Los Angeles. Or, hell, Martha Quinn's parents for spawning Martha Quinn. It starts to get ridiculous fairly quickly.
(Incidentally, here's another good piece of advice from To Kill a Mockingbird: never, ever bust up a chiffarobe strange to you. It only leads to trouble.)
There's a palpable difference, however, between the first and second season of The Real World. Let's see what happens was replaced with let's see what we can make happen. The latter has been reality TV's guiding philosophy ever since, and we've been the worser for it.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go find out who won Mud Bowl II on last week's Rock of Love II.