The Real World
Hello, my name is Ash, and I love reality television.
I know–this is the most trite admission ever. (My next hot take will be about how good chocolate is.) There’s a reason there’s so much reality television programming, including whole cable networks that seemingly dedicate their entire lineup to the genre. A lot of people love it. Even when it’s decidedly uncool.
But I think what’s weird about my own reality TV love is the variety that it encompasses. I watch so many wildly different things, from slick shows about beautiful people on beaches to gritty ones about muscled men in hip waders panning rivers for gold. Every summer I’m transfixed by Big Brother and its young, pretty, pop-culture cast, but I’m equally excited about every season of The Curse of Oak Island, a show that is exclusively about old white guys digging holes. My love of this genre literally goes deep.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, though. Why do I cling to the stories of random strangers, even when they’re not doing anything remarkable? What is the origin of this obsession and what is watching all of these shows giving me?
We didn’t have cable when I was a kid, and in the 90s cable was a Very Important Thing. Network TV in my area was only 3 channels, and one of them was PBS. In a very uncool era, I was among the uncool-est. And that was because during that time television was a small town teen’s only link to their culture. There was no social media to communicate trends or to show us what to like. In 2022 a 60 second TikTok video communicates so much about youth and fashion and music. In the 90s we clung to TV for all of this. And we watched shows that weren’t even about us. Can you imagine a Gen Z kid today being obsessed with a show like Ally McBeal? They could never. But in the 90s somehow we imagined ourselves young lawyers with wild imaginations who shared a (strikingly ahead of its time) all-genders bathroom.
But not having cable was a big issue, especially once The Real World came out. It was all anyone at my school talked about, and missing out on it left me feeling very left out. And the concept of the show itself was a huge draw, too. For once here was this show about real people who were close to my age living in a city I wondered if I’d ever even see. Would I ever see anywhere? At 14 I didn’t have housing stability, financial safety, or a father, but The Real World became The Thing I (was) Missing. I was convinced that all I needed to feel normal and whole was to know what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.
Finally when I was 16 we rented a house where the cable was included. Or it was stolen, probably. My mom definitely didn’t pay for it, but we had it, and I was not about to investigate how. I wasn’t home free, though. We had one TV and I had two younger brothers who wanted to watch wrestling or beat me mercilessly at Goldeneye. They did not care about a teen girl’s essential cultural touchstones.
When I did get the TV to myself, though, it was always tuned to MTV. And honestly it was wild back then how much of the 24 hour programming was not any kind of narrative entertainment. TRL, all screaming audience and pop celebrity, felt like it lasted for hours. Even then people were complaining that there wasn’t enough music on Music Television anymore, but I was there for seven strangers. Carson Daly was an obstacle.
The best part about weekends on MTV was that they ran entire seasons of The Real World. They called them marathons then. They were the first of what would become hundreds of weekends of my life lost to binge watching reality shows.
In the summer of 1999, The Real World Hawaii started, and by the time I went back to school for my junior year I had a lot of opinions to interject into conversations about the show. Finally, I thought, I would be cool. I was heartbroken to learn, though, that I was too late. It was already becoming decidedly *not* cool to watch The Real World, and despite everything I had to say about Amaya and Colin’s dysfunctional relationship or Ruthie’s excessive drinking, my classmates were no longer that interested.
But I was already hooked, and maybe part of that was because I did feel so separate from my peers. Here was this show where seven young adults who were so different could live in a city far from their hometown and carve out their own identities. All I had wanted was to like what my peers liked, but on The Real World you could be weird and people still wanted to hang out with you. Despite the fact that they no longer carried any social capital, I kept watching my seven strangers.
And eventually more and more reality television programming sprung up. Survivor introduced a whole new element to strangers being forced to live together—environmental torture. Despite not even being able to hack it when camping in a tent, I imagined myself marooned with a bunch of random people, being forced to fish with improvised spears and pooping in the ocean. In that order, hopefully.
With each new show I imagined how I would fit into the social hierarchy. Would I be a shelter builder or a beach layer? (The latter, for sure.) Would Simon make me cry at my American Idol audition? (100% yes.) I became an authority on top modeling under Tyra’s tutelage and a fashion expert with the help of Tim Gunn.
It’s funny how reality TV had its own kind of urban sprawl, starting out in cities where production companies thought interesting things happened, in talent competitions in Hollywood. Now there are reality shows about Montana ranchers who can’t afford to survive on only their cattle businesses anymore so they’ve taken up fossil hunting. There are ones about New England tuna fishermen who just…keep catching tuna.
At 38 years old, I watch all of these things. My current can’t-miss-shows are Married at First Sight, a real trainwreck of a show about couples that 100% should not be doing this, and Alone, a survivalist show about whether its subjects are tough enough to handle months in wilderness isolation with only, like, a flint, a tarp, and 200 pounds of camera equipment. Spoiler: most of them are not.
But maybe my draw to these shows is the same as it always was. I’m now a happily married adult woman with hilarious friends and a good life, but I’m also disabled and fat in a world where access is a very real obstacle. Spending a summer at a Spanish villa isn’t technically impossible, but the Love Island contestants do it a lot more simply than I ever could. Plus they have fun colloquial British sayings and the ability to tan.
Perhaps I watch reality TV so I can get glimpses of other kinds of lives than the one I live. Not in a longing way, but in a curious way. Maybe I can just consider myself an armchair sociologist. Or anthropologist! I have, on occasion, decided to take a deep dive and watch every season of a long running show for nostalgia’s sake. The Amazing Race, another of my favorites, is great for that.
What I will say, though, is that If you have an itch to go back and watch through all of the seasons of a show like Survivor in 2022, let this be a warning. They are full of uncomfortable realities about what was somehow acceptable in the early 2000s (and what is still somehow acceptable in the 2020s, to be honest.) There are moments on Survivor in particular that run the gamut between a little cringeworthy and shockingly offensive. There’s racism and sexual assault, and it’s all unchecked by production and by the host. It’s not an easy walk down memory lane. It is real, though, and a horrifying time capsule that illustrates the slow, slow pace of progress.
Maybe twenty years from now someone will be looking back at the reality TV of today and find it shocking and horrible. I hope beyond hope that we’ll be embarrassed and outraged by the way fat people were treated, at the lack of racial and cultural diversity we still see on these shows, and at how even twenty years in there have still only been 3 Black leads (of 42 total seasons) in the entire The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise.
Or maybe reality TV will have faded away entirely. After all, we’re all producing our own reality shows via Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube these days. These are just as “real” as the traditional genre is, so maybe we won’t need hour-long programming with flashy editing and story writers anymore.
In the meantime I’m still going to enjoy peeking into the kinds of lives I’ll never lead, watching people accomplish feats I’ll never accomplish (and, to be clear, would never want to), and enjoying every hour spent camped out on my couch. It still isn’t cool to like reality TV (or to use the world “cool” probably) but at some point I just decided to let myself experience entertainment however it comes to me, even if it never starts getting real.