This week, the veil of silence was finally lifted, now that the cast members of The Real World DC have wrapped up their three-months-plus stay in the nation's capital and gone home. (The DC season will premiere on MTV December 30.)
This marks The Real World's 23rd (yes: 23rd) season of showing what happens when seven strangers (except that it's now eight strangers) are picked to live in a house, stop being polite and start ... bickering about who didn't do the dishes.
As someone who's been a fan of The Real World since the days of Puck and Pedro, with the show right here in DC, I decided to go on a mission to figure out how it is that simply filming people living together makes for compelling television. How can you stay on the air for 23 seasons without even making anyone eat worms for money?
To find some answers, I interviewed the show's executive producer, Jim Johnston. He gave me some great insight, but I wanted more of course, so I paid a little visit to the actual house and talked to the cast members themselves. All these discussions revealed five dynamics that make the show tick.
1. Guys versus girls. Until a few seasons ago, there were only seven cast members, but now there's an even gender split, of which Executive Producer Jim Johnston says, "You will inevitably have a conflict of guys versus girls. It will happen every time." Has it happened in this house? You bet. It appears that at least one plot line from this season will be the always awkward moment when one of the guys brings home another woman after he's been involved with a housemate. As cast member Callie, 21, explains it, "Anytime anyone brings someone home, it's everyone's business."
Getting bored, living close, and more, after the jump.
2. Boredom. Johnston says the cast members are forced to be with each other almost all the time. They have no TV, and limited phone and Internet access, and they're living in a brand-new city. The trick works. Emily, 21, says, "Living with people is what life is all about, and figuring out how to live with people is what life is all about. Like do this, do that, don't do this, don't do that -- you figure yourself out while interacting with people, and if you don't you're a hermit."
3. Close quarters. On screen, The Real World house may seem huge, but just they say TV adds ten pounds, it adds square footage, too. The DC Real World house in the toney Dupont Circle neighborhood is big, but the top floor is where the crew hangs out, the ground level has only limited hang-out space, and ultimately, the basement is where all the action is.
That's where there are four bedrooms (everyone has a roommate), a small common area, a pool table, a bar, and the doors that lead to the inevitable hot tub. People are literally living on top of each other, and there's no hiding your habits of cleanliness or your disregard of anything petty or not-so-petty. Andrew, 21, told me, "It just eats at you, and you're like, 'Who's using my face wash? I know somebody is using my face wash!' or something like that. It's like, 'I definitely had this shirt in my closet, and now it's in some girl's pile of clothes.'"
4. Length of time. The Real World films for three and a half months, while most reality shows shoot for just a few weeks. Johnston says the key to finding the drama in The Real World is casting outspoken people and then rolling the cameras and waiting. You can only hide your personality for so long -- and certainly not for months.
Ty, 22, says that "after three weeks, you realize that you know this isn't a temporary thing. It's kind of your new home for right now. After you begin to realize that this is where you're going to live, this is the life you're going to have to lead, then you're much less closed-off than you were before."
5. The Ringer. Johnston explained that the casting process is extensive, and that what they look for, more than anything, is someone who is "open and honest and willing to speak for up for [themselves]."
They also look to get people from diverse backgrounds. This year, Josh, 23, from South Philly seems to be particularly suited to cause drama, by his own description: "I definitely came into this situation thinking I would be kicked off because there are times that I have been violent in my past," he said. But Josh also said his constant interactions with seven roommates had a positive effect on him and that he learned to "talk it out." Hey if Rocky can learn to be more sensitive, so can Josh, right?
Johnston says that the real drama isn't necessarily seeing one person win battles, but seeing everyone learn how to handle uncomfortable situations and get better at working out their differences. He says that inevitably, cast member friendships extend far beyond their experiences in the house, and there have been not one but two Real World weddings.
Want more? Below, you can hear my interview with Johnston as part of my What Would Rob Do to Handle A Bad Roommate? podcast.
A Visit To 'The Real World': Five Ways A Show About So Little Has Stayed So Long