The Real World, the Unreal World, and the Too Real World

Once upon a time MTV was a television network that played music videos.  MTV actually stands for Music TeleVision, get it?  I know, I know, you would never know it now, but it is true.  I swear!  For all you young kids out there who study ancient history, that strange old lady named Madonna that your mom told you used to be a singer was once one of the biggest pop stars on the planet.  MTV made that possible.  She was not alone either.  MTV has churned out far more pop stars than any record label.

In the early 1990’s MTV decided that being a music channel was not enough, and it launched a show called “The Real World.”  Now again for all you kids out there who know The Real World as being like The Jersey Shore but with more diversity, fewer break-out pseudo-celebrities, and a smaller audience, it was not always that way.  Mostly it was, but not always.  When looked at as a whole, it is not even that diverse. Certain types reappear: the frat boy, the popular girl, the naive virgin (often a Christian female), the (usually angry) black guy, the token gay, the smart chick, the abrasive minority female, the disagreeable jerk, the burgeoning substance abuser, the weirdo, and the crybaby.  There were a few other personalities, but usually the housemates were chosen to fill one of these roles.  Some housemates filled more than one.

I have not watched a new Real World season in years, and I have no plans to ever do so again (so a caveat: the quality may have improved in that time.)  There is only so much self-indulgant naval gazing that a person can stomach from a group of 20-somethings who know nothing about life.  I discovered that my personal tolerance level is about 10 minutes into the first episode of a season.  From what I gather, the casts have become more self-indulgent, the situations more ludicrous, and the houses more decadent.  Additionally, the show is so controlled by the producers and so obviously edited that calling it The Real World is more ironic joke than descriptive title.

So for all your kids out there who are not watching The Real World and do not understand why it has lasted so long, let me explain its cultural impact as best as I can.  When it debuted in 1992, Americans had not seen a television show like it in about two decades.  In the 1970’s  PBS aired the show “An American Family” which chronicled in 12 episodes the experiences and crumbling of the Louds, an attractive, all-American, nuclear family from California.  The show was very controversial for, among other reasons, introducing the eldest Loud child Lance, one of the first openly gay people seen on American television.  Naturally he was the target of the most vituperative critical abuse heaped on the show.  The entire Loud family was deeply affected by the experience, and not necessarily positively.  Lance died of AIDS-related complications in 2001.

Some more history for you kids, and I promise it ties into what comes next.  When the AIDS epidemic began the early 1980’s, it was so prevalent among gay men that it was originally called GRID for “gay-related immune deficiency.”  It was also called “the gay plague” and “gay cancer.”  AIDS funding and education are now ubiquitous, non-controversial pet causes, but in the 1980’s and even into the early 1990’s, everything AIDS-related was a social and political battle.  Although AIDS was also prevalent among intravenous drug users and minority communities (especially Haitians), AIDS became inextricably tied to gay men.  The gay community’s reaction to AIDS and to the federal government’s apathy toward the epidemic and its victims may ironically be the catalyst of the increasing normalization of gay people today, although this is debatable.  If you want to learn more about this era, I highly recommend Randy Shilts’s incredible book And the Band Played On (ignore the movie, it’s terrible.)

Back to reality TV.  Almost 20 years after PBS introduced the Louds, MTV produced a new television show obviously inspired by An American Family.  This show, “The Real World,” put seven strangers into one house for a few months and filmed their lives.  The housemates were not just strangers to each other on a personal level, but they were in some cases completely unfamiliar with where their fellow travelers came from culturally.  This led to inevitable clashes and a successful franchise.  Unlike the Loud family, who could not fall apart every year for viewers’ entertainment, The Real World was designed for multiple seasons.  All that was needed was a new city and a new cast of interesting people (back then some cast members had interesting lives and careers before moving into the house.  Now not even all the cities are new.)  Season 1 was set in New York, Season 2 in Los Angeles, Season 3 in San Francisco, and so forth.  It was Season 3 that catalyzed the franchise.  In some ways, it even changed MTV.  The network had already started moving away from an all-music-all-the-time model.  However, as a direct result of Season 3: (1) MTV added more non-music programming (reality, scripted, animated); and (2) MTV developed a sense of social responsibility.  The reason for the latter was Pedro Zamora.

Pedro (Peter) Zamora was a 22 year old AIDS activist when Season 3 aired.  He was a beautiful man, both inside and out.  Pedro was born in Cuba but immigrated to the United States as a child.  Pedro was an out gay man in a community that, to put it diplomatically, did not embrace homosexuality, although his family supported him unconditionally.  He contracted HIV while still in high school.  After he learned that he had HIV, he became an AIDS educator and spoke all around the country especially to students.  He saw the Real World as a way of reaching millions that would not otherwise hear him.  Moreover, as a man of color, he would have a credibility that white gay men would not have in minority communities.  Pedro wanted to show the world that he was living with AIDS, not dying of it.

Season 3 was gripping, sometimes even heartfelt, television, and Pedro was the center of it all.  There were so many engrossing stories: Pedro’s evolving friendships with his housemates, the enmity between Pedro and Puck, Pedro’s relationship with his boyfriend Sean (culminating in possibly the first interracial gay commitment ceremony ever seen on television), and Pedro’s battle with AIDS and his rapidly declining health.  Find it.  Watch it.  I cannot do the season justice, and I will not try.  (I will note though that in one episode, Pedro goes to a memorial following the death of Randy Shilts.)

Pedro personalized AIDS to many people who until then had seen the disease as affecting faceless others.  Before Pedro, gay people on MTV (even MTV!) were something of a curiosity.  After Pedro, MTV became the most LGBT-inclusive network in the country.  MTV has tried to keep Pedro’s memory and mission alive.  Moreover, in an act unthinkable by another network, MTV set up a foundation to pay for the uninsured Pedro’s hospital bills.  Sadly, Pedro died on the day after the last episode of Season 3 aired.  President Clinton spoke publicly about Pedro and the good he did, a remarkable change from his predecessors who tried to avoid uttering the word “AIDS.”

By all accounts, Pedro deeply touched the lives of the people around him.  Judd Winick, his Real World roommate, wrote a beautiful graphic novel called Pedro and Me about their friendship.  Seek that out too.  I cry every time I read it.

Music listened to while writing this post: Cesar Franck “Sonata in A Major for violin and piano”; Martha Wainwright “I Will Internalize”; Enya “Marble Halls”; George Gershwin “3 Preludes” Allegro Ben Ritmato E Deciso; Five For Fighting “Superman”; Ludwig van Beethoven “Piano Sonata #11 In B Flat, Op. 22 ‘Grand'” Rondo: Allegretto; Jim Valley & Friends “Spin Spin”; Archie and Edith Bunker (Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton) “Those Were the Days”;  Dusty Springfield “The Color of Your Eyes”; Robert Schumann “Kreisleriana, Op. 16” Lento Assai; Charlie Parker & His Orchestra “Star Eyes”; Enya “Miss Clare Remembers”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Fugue No. 11 in F Major, BWV 856”; Ludwig van Beethoven “String Quartet In A Major, Op. 18” Menuetto. Trio; Igor Stravinsky “Three Japanese Lyrics” Tsaraiuki; Maria Rita “Maltratar, Não é Direito”; Ludwig van Beethoven “Piano Sonata #1 In F Minor, Op. 2/1” Allegro; Sergei Rachmaninoff “Prelude #10 In G Flat, Op. 23/10”; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart “Symphony #36 In C, K 425, ‘Linz'” Allegro Spiritoso; Charles Ives “The Unanswered Question”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Cantata #199, BWV 199, ‘Mein Herze Schwimmt Im Blut” – Auf Diese Schmerzensreu'” (sing by Lorainne Hunt Lieberson); Johannes Brahms “Piano Trio #1 In B, Op. 8” Adagio; Igor Stravinsky “Suite #2 for Orchestra” Galop; Osvaldo Golijov “La Pasión Según San Marcos” Baptism on the Cross; Florence Ballard “You Bring Out the Sweetness in Me”; Lynn Anderson “If I Kiss You (Will You Go Away)”; Alberto Iglesias “Jordania”;

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