No Reality Show Will Ever Compare To The First Season Of The Real World

I’ll never forget the day I stumbled upon The Real World. I was in my parents’ basement after doing my Cindy Crawford workout video. (How’s that for a flashback?) I’d just finished rewinding the VHS tape and popped over to my go-to channel, MTV, which was always my favorite way to unwind after school.

I can still feel my feet on the shag carpet standing in front of the television, wondering what on Earth I was watching. Sure, I’d seen commercials leading up to the first-ever modern reality show. But I had no idea how interesting it would be. In fact, before actually watching it I thought it would be boring — a flop for sure.

Instead, my sisters and I spent the rest of the season watching each week (with a Dominos pizza close by, obviously). I watched almost every season after that and got deeper into the world of reality tv, too. I enjoyed Road Rules, and eventually got into Survivor. Who hasn’t enjoyed at least a season or two of The Bachelor?

But there was nothing like that first season of The Real World, and if you ask me, no show has been able to compare since.

It was the first of its kind, and I honestly remember thinking: What could be so interesting about putting a bunch of strangers in a house together? I was wrong. Very wrong. I couldn’t peel my eyes off the fighting. I’ll never forget the explosive argument between Julie and Kevin about their cultural differences. It completely divided the house, and it was such a different experience to be watching real people having a real fight versus watching actors act out a fight.

It was also so addictive: the drama, the love triangles, the arguing. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. I had to see what was next. And I often thought about what I would be like on a reality television show. My friends and sisters and I all talked like we’d be able to handle ourselves much better than the cast, but would we? Everybody wanted to talk about the show, because it was so novel.

And because it was so fresh and new, we didn’t know many of the secrets behind reality television. Now we’re wiser to everything producers can do. Plus, the people who make these shows have learned all kinds of ways to create a story. But I still think a lot of what we were watching naturally unfolded. Maybe there was some poking and prodding to draw out the drama, but the reality television shows now definitely seem more scripted. The first season of The Real World seemed like the most organic… or maybe I’m just romanticizing it all.

And let’s be honest, because we couldn’t stream an entire season, having a show to look forward to — especially one that was so chaotic to watch — was so satisfying. I’d wait all week, especially after seeing the teaser from the last show, to see what was going to happen.

What really pulled me into the first season, and what I don’t think has quite been replicated ever since, was how real the housemates’ differences were. Julie, a 19 year old white woman from Alabama, had never been to New York before, and you could tell how sheltered and uncomfortable she was. I loved the friendship that blossomed between her and Heather, and I loved Heather’s humor. Of course Eric was, up until that point, one of the hottest men I’d ever seen. I had such a huge crush on him. Watching the roommates try to work out their differences was the most interesting part of the show. Since I was a young adult at the time, it taught me a lot about acceptance and made me realize some of the stereotypical beliefs that I held growing up without even knowing it.

And a key part of seeing those differences on display was something so innovative at the time: the confessionals. That’s where, I think, you saw a lot of their true personalities and feelings come out. So many reality shows have followed suit in the years since, for a pretty simple reason: it makes for extremely compelling television to see people on display, to see what they say in “private” versus in front of their fellow cast members. It’s just plain juicy.

Ever since that first season, television has changed. You can watch anything from somebody picking out a wedding dress, to marrying someone before they’ve met them; you can see a couple’s home-buying journey, or watch a bunch of lavishly dressed realtors trying to sell unbelievably expensive homes. For me, though, there will never be anything like the original season of The Real World.

Katie lives in Maine with her three kids, two ducks, and a Goldendoodle. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, at the gym, redecorating her home, or spending too much money online.

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