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The exact same thing made and destroyed The Real World

Blame Delicious Deliveries for the decline of The Real World.

The Miami cast’s attempt to create a business using $50,000 was forced on it by producers, who required the cast to engage in a conflict-creating project together. It was a response to the relative boredom The Real World London, which itself was just the fourth season in MTV’s genre-defining franchise.

It began a trend that continues tonight, with the debut of the 29th season–a trend that both made and will eventually kill the series.

The Real World Ex-Plosion introduces the most drastic format change in the show’s almost 22 year history as five of the seven roommates’ ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends move in to the San Francisco house. That brings both the cast to 12, and borrows from an old Big Brother twist in an attempt to create drama. This is the show’s last chance at ratings; without them, it will likely be cancelled.

Watching The Real World fade away since then has been both sad and, for those of us who grew up with the series, a way to mark the passage of time and our disconnection from newer generations, who seem very passionate about getting blind drunk and hooking up.

So how did Delicious Deliveries send us on this downward spiral? Its creator offers the clues in two separate interviews. As part of the introduction to a fascinating conversation with Real World San Francisco cast member Rachel Campos-Duffy, who’s now married to Real World Boston cast member and Tea Party congressman Sean Duffy, series creator Jon Murray tells Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur this about season one:

“If we were going to put seven people in a house together, we knew that how we would get our story would be through conflict. And that conflict would only come if the people living together wouldn’t normally live together. They would make mistakes, or they would be uncomfortable, or they’d have to figure out how to get along. They’d say things that weren’t appropriate. They would be struggling to figure out how to co-exist with someone who they’re normally not used to co-existing with.”

That is exactly what made the series so interesting and fascinating, as New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco all proved. As the re-broadcast of the first season illustrated, season one was a virtual documentary, beyond the conceit of casting a group of strangers and letting them live in a spectacular place.

But in part because The Real World helped normalize diversity, as it introduced viewers to people unlike themselves, putting people from varying backgrounds in a house together doesn’t have the same impact it once did, even for them or for viewers. Last fall, explaining the format change, Murray told EW this:

“When The Real World went on the air in ’92 you put seven diverse people together and you get conflict, and out of that conflict would come change, and then you have a story. Now that it’s 21 years or so later, maybe we’re a bit of a victim of our own success. Diversity is a fact of life today. A lot of young people date people of different races, or have friends who are gay. The world has changed. We’ve had conversations [with the network] throughout 28 seasons of the show, but we’ve never made this big of a commitment to change.”

I’m not sure it is change, though. On the surface, yes, it’s dramatically different to have 10 people who know each other living in a 12-person house on a show that has previously only had eight cast members. It makes previous changes, such as forcing the cast to all have the same job, to seem gentle and quaint by comparison.

But all this format change really does is double down on the show’s increasingly desperate attempts to create conflict. Pursuit of conflict may have given the series its life, but it has also destroyed it.

Yes, good narratives and stories require conflict, but there is more than one kind of conflict, and all the show seems to want is the kind that involves screaming and fighting. What else could moving exes into the house create?

Finding increasingly contrived ways of producing that kind of conflict actually makes for a less-interesting show, because it is so predictable and repetitive. People just pour alcohol down their throats before jumping into bed with one person and punching another in the throat. This is what they’re cast to do, and what they know they’re expected to do, because they’ve seen people on previous seasons get attention from doing just that.

The Challenge smartly institutionalized this by creating conflict via a competition, but the real mistake was not leaving the artificial conflict to the competition series, where it can thrive indefinitely.

Perhaps The Real World, as Murray said, is just a victim of its success, and it is impossible to re-capture what it once had and once was. I can think of other ways to try, though: Why not find seven people who already live in a city and already have jobs and friends and lives, and have them move in together?Cast only people earning minimum wage, who have to struggle to pay their bills. Or why not find a group of friends who are interesting and diverse and share a living space, and document their lives? Take the show to a college and follow people who live on the same floor in the same dorm.

That’s not the path the network and its producers have chosen. As a result, even if this season isn’t the show’s last, it is the beginning of the end.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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