Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Real World, Season One: A Review

A recent trip by bus around DC clued me in to the fact that the fashion of the early 90’s has returned. I would like to believe that I am young enough yet that clothing styles have not yet come full circle. In my early thirties, I am no longer a target demographic, nor concerned with conforming to such trends. Still, in response, I decided to reexamine a television program that in some ways functions as a time capsule of those familiar days. Elements of the program have dated painfully with time, but others have not. Should a new generation yet again seek to dust off the old for the sake of the new, I would hope that they might attempt to understand a time they were far too young to remember themselves.

Once, there was a time where the acronym MTV connoted a kind of thrilling edginess and rebellious authenticity. This was well before everyone had a cell phone and an internet connection. The Real World, Season One may not have truly been as advertised, but it was released when reality television was a brand new concept. Nineteen years later, it retains enough veracity to at least be granted a suspension of disbelief. Despite primarily dismal reviews at the time, MTV still retained enough clout with young adults to ensure that many tuned in to see. The network additionally made a habit of constantly re-running episodes, meaning that there were numerous instances to catch at least the first few seasons in totality.

I remember The Real World as a very young teenager. In large part, this is due to the fact that I am a native of Birmingham, Alabama. Julie Gentry, a cast member in the first season, also called Birmingham home. The series placed an inordinate amount of emphasis upon her Southern upbringing and resulting cultural mindset, which is a motif older than the motion picture. The region does retain its own unique character, but I took some offense to the way she was sometimes shown to be a fish out of water for the sake of contrast. The conceit seemed overbearing at times, especially as regards discussions about race.

Southerners, especially white Southerners, retain a particular chip on the shoulder on the subject of how they are perceived beyond the Mason/Dixon Line. Though I may not always agree with her conclusions, I do understand the motives behind them. In a younger year, they were mine as well. My parents, much like Julie's father, were both suspicious of the way that I would be seen by people of other parts of the country. They were fearful and repulsed by what was to them most certainly the ultra-violent, rude reality of New York City.

It was a big deal back home when it was confirmed that Julie would participate. MTV has thoroughly scrubbed clean its reputation considerably since then, but in a conservative area of the country, the network was still thought of as subversive (rarely in a good way) and sometimes even dangerous to youth. It was expected, in all seriousness, that her participation would be edited in such a way as to cast a negative light on the city and the South in general. Those anxieties were unfounded for the most part, although some disagreements and misunderstandings did escape the cutting room.

The most infamous and longest lasting of these might be a sarcastic remark made by Julie regarding the occupation of a black cast member who owned a beeper. (Remember those?) African-American members of the cast objected to the notion that all black people sell drugs, whereas Gentry’s sardonic characterization was color-blind, completely clueless of the racial undertones. She spoke out of simple ignorance, and this gratefully was smoothed over before it became a major problem. Such an adult response to what could have been a significant issue should inspire us.

Julie was very much a modern woman, despite the Southern drawl and her parent’s working class roots. Though the show sought to play up her credentials as a genuine Southern Belle, she is opinionated, occasionally caustic, and no-nonsense. A deferent, acquiescing, passive personality she is not. The two of us grew up within miles of each other, and even though she is a few years older than me, I view her as a contemporary, not as some manufactured throwback to a mythologized era.

MTV did, however, make a decision to show her in church, which makes even more stereotypical assumptions about Southerners. Fortunately her place of worship is shown to be different, even “alternative” to the perceived norm, but I would have liked to see a means of contrast with another churchgoing cast member from a different area in the country. Faith is still important in the Bible Belt, but religious believers are found in sufficient quantities all across the United States.

With time, The Real World jumped the shark, becoming less and less real with each concurrent season. After the first few seasons, the novelty was gone. But it did provide the blueprint, ironically enough, to birth a new genre of shows. Like the MTV version, they were cheap to produce, since they did not rely on stars or on additional expenses like special effects. Even so, it is a little depressing to see the slow slide of the genre into mediocrity. Returning to the beginning, true to life or not, the behavior and slightly grandiose dreams of a group of people in their twenties makes me feel decidedly old.

Article first published as TV Review: The Real World on Blogcritics.

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