Reality television and social media came of age simultaneously, exploding in the early 2000s after early 1990s dalliances with giving us the ability to spy on each other’s intimate lives. Neither The Real World nor Facebook was the first in its class, but they were the destroyers of worlds, and now they are becoming one as Facebook, infinitely hungry for our attention, is rebooting The Real World, a show everyone stopped paying attention to. Can Facebook save the seminal reality show, and bring back my childhood? Spoiler alert: no. But it may be doing the next best thing.
It’s impossible to consider The Real World: Atlanta without acknowledging just where the show once was, and where it went. As it aged over 25 years, The Real World managed to alienate those of us who grew up with it and bore those who were in MTV’s target audience of 12- to 34-year-olds. Superseded by its own spinoff, The Challenge, and other competition-forward shows that offered more of a foundation for conflict (i.e., drunken fistfights) than just living with people, The Real World faded to the background, a drunken, violent mess. In its final four seasons on MTV, the series went on a frenzied rampage of desperation, bailing on its format and even its naming conventions. Producers surprised their cast by moving in their enemies (The Real World: Skeletons, The Real World: Bad Blood) or exes (The Real World: Ex-Plosion). No one was killed, but those seasons felt so impetuous it almost seemed as if MTV would’ve been quite thrilled with at least an attempted murder.
It’s easy to forget, but the shift in the show’s trajectory actually began much earlier: In 1996, after just four seasons aired, the producers started to imprint their heavy hand on the cast’s experience, forcing The Real World: Miami’s roommates to create a business together (oh, Delicious Deliveries, you were ahead of your time), and making later casts work together. Even the casting of an antisocial assclown like Puck two seasons earlier on The Real World: San Francisco seemed like egregious meddling back then, though he ended up being counterbalanced and transcended by Pedro Zamora’s veracious representation of himself as a man living with HIV.
The Real World: Atlanta — Facebook Watch is labeling it The Real World on Watch, perhaps because there are two other localized versions launching simultaneously, one set in Mexico City and one in Bangkok — promised to “reimagine the groundbreaking series,” and has actually delivered a show that, so far, has no conceit, no twist, no layer of artificiality beyond bringing together seven strangers into an expansive and expensively decorated space in a major city. That is an excellent start. So, too, is the wider casting net, which searched for people as old as 34. The cast that was assembled doesn’t lock people into one-note boxes: There isn’t just a gay person and a conservative, there’s a conservative gay person! Dondre is a conservative Christian who happens to be black and gay — and also has sex with girls. Arely is a 21-year-old mother who’s also a Dreamer; Meagan is the southern religious virgin, but she’s also a broadcast journalist with a desire to escape the boundaries of her childhood.
Still, they manage to be disappointing almost immediately. Seconds after Dondre meets Arely, he tells her, “You shouldn’t come over illegally.” (She was 2 when her parents came to the United States on a travel visa.) No one flinches when Yasmin says she’s sexually fluid, but when Dondre comes out, his roommates act stunned. Meagan gives us the “one man, one woman” line, but it’s liberal activist Justin — who previously introduced himself as “fighting for human rights” and “equality” — who has the most perniciously homophobic response: “As long he respects my sexuality and he doesn’t try to cross any lines or anything of that nature, that’s his business.” We really still think gay men are threatening sexual predators? Or is that just how 20-something men view each other?
That is not addressed, but they do talk to each other, perhaps because they have nothing else to do. There’s bound to be disillusion in the quality of those conversations and debates, especially from those of us who’ve had 20 or 30 more years to think about these things, and not only because it’s exhausting for people of color and queer people to have to continue justifying their existence for others’ benefit. The cast has several conversations about race, echoing season one, episode one of The Real World, when naïve Alabamian Julie asked Heather, “Why do you have a beeper? Do you sell drugs?” The 2019 versions are more aggressive (in a preview for next week’s episode, Michigan farmer and Republican Clint, who was voted into the house by Facebook fans, tells Justin, “You are the only racist motherfucker in this house”) but also more circumspect. After Dondre and Justin debate how much attention the legacy of slavery deserves, there is this exchange:
Tovah: “We could talk about something else now.”
Meagan: “The bars!”
Dondre: “Why don’t you guys ever have an opinion on black, like, issues?”
Tovah: “Are you kidding? We are not allowed to have one … Do you know how much shit we would get as white women in America? Any opinion we have will be shit on, 100 percent.”
All of their opinions will immediately be shit on, thanks to The Real World living on Facebook with its request to “Write a comment …” under the episode. At the very least, though, The Real World cast is talking to each other as human beings, not in drive-by judgments and trite emoji masquerading as actual discussion.
The first episode is less than 25 minutes long, and doesn’t have any kind of coherent story or narrative arc. It frequently defers to montages, such as one that skims over a night of drinking, and then dips in to let us eavesdrop on a conversation. While there’s no visible attempt at meddling, the production is constantly calling attention to itself: sometimes by breaking the fourth wall and showing a clot of cameras and producers hovering nearby, but mostly with the twitchy visuals and editing. The aspect ratio changes, iPhone footage is interspersed with professional footage of the exact same scene, and dialogue becomes visual. For example, as Yasmin introduces herself — “I am queer, I am Muslim, I am Christian, I am Buddhist, I’m a teacher, I’m a feminist, I’m an artist” — her words join her onscreen. These aren’t subtitles, but Snapchat by way of John Wick, and while no one is getting sprayed with bullets or stabbed in the eye, watching sure feels like it. This visual assault, with its unnecessary combination of bold, italics, all-caps, and underlines, may be what early Real World felt like to those used to sedate documentaries, but by comparison, early Real World now looks like a sedate documentary.
It’s here where I should ask if the show has changed, or if I have. The answer, of course, is both: It’s impossible for either of us to go back to those early days, when reality TV was fresh out of the oven and warm and soft, and time hadn’t allowed it to atrophy or become infested with fungus. In my mid-teens, when I stumbled across an episode of The Real World: Los Angeles, I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen, or from the marathons of episodes that MTV would air, because I wanted to live in their reality, not my deeply closeted life in a blindingly white suburban hellscape. We were experiencing something new then, being transported out of our normal lives into a bizarre new world that was both fantasy and reality. In its first episode, The Real World: Atlanta has not reinvented the genre nor the show, but it is echoing the original by making space for actual conversations between real people. And these days, that’s a lot more than reality television — or Facebook — usually does.