MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Back now with Day to Day. Another season of the MTV reality show "The Real World" just got underway. That show's been on the air for 16 years. Critic Andrew Wallenstein thinks he knows the secret to its success.
ANDREW WALLENSTEIN: When The Real World started in 1992, I was 19 years old, and maybe that's why I've always felt a special bond with this show. I was about the same age as the seven strangers picked to live in a house and, well, altogether now, stop being polite and start getting real. Now, I've seen just about every one of the 400-plus episodes, and it's amazing how certain themes just never go away. Take racial tension, for instance. Just think back to that famous face-off during the first season between Kevin and Julie. A black man and white woman in search of - I'm not entirely sure.
Mr. KEVIN POWELL (Cast Member, "Real World"): Racism is everywhere, that's my point. That's my point. What happened to...
Ms. JULIE OLIVER (Cast Member, "Real World"): Because people like you, Kevin.
Mr. POWELL: People like me?
Ms. OLIVER: People like you, not people like me.
Mr. POWELL: Black people can not be racist. We don't have the power to control what...
Ms. OLIVER: Get out of my face. I'm so sick of this.
WALLENSTEIN: 20 seasons later, I don't know how much progress Real Worlders have made on race. Just listen to what new cast member Kimberly has to say about her new black roommate.
Ms. KIMBERLY ALEXANDER (Cast Member, "Real World"): I don't know anything about Detroit other than being some inner-city scary area, and I'm kind of shocked that somebody so cute, nice can come from there. Please, can I take that back?
(Soundbite of laughter)
WALLENSTEIN: But can't you see, it's statements like those that make "Real World" such an important show. It's turned up the heat on this melting pot we call America, exposing the darkness that lurks behind diversity, the pervasiveness of prejudice, the - who am I kidding, have you seen this show lately? All the bed-hopping and binge drinking. What started out as a grand social experiment has devolved into a booze-fueled orgy. Don't take it from me. Details magazine just did a retrospective on the show, where some of the Real World's own former cast members made the same point.
Unidentified Woman: I'd assume that the earlier casts were a lot more mature.
Unidentified Man: It was more progressive and innovative at that time. They showed people for who they really were.
Unidentified Woman: Now it's definitely - you know like everyone's beautiful. Everyone's rich. Everyone's ready from the go to like jump in bed with everyone else.
WALLENSTEIN: They couldn't be more right, and yet that's hard for me to admit. You see, I want to maintain the delusion that "The Real World" remains an important show because it makes me feel better about compulsively watching it. How about we still hail it as, oh I got it, the forerunner to the reality genre dominating the airwaves today. Yeah, that way my addiction to the show feels more justified than if "Real World" was just a bottom feeding sleaze-fest we all know it's become.
And therein lies another problem with acknowledging the depravity of "The Real World." It just makes me feel old. Is wagging my finger at these wild young'uns any different than when my parents turned up their nose at rap music? Or when their parents' tiskd tiskd rock and roll? Ah, what I wouldn't give to be 19-years-old, except I'd probably fall in love with "The Real World" all over again.
BRAND: Andrew Wallenstein is the really old deputy editor of the Hollywood Reporter and a regular contributor to our show.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.