Reality Bites


By Max Berlinger

How a fledging cable network sidestepped the rules of America's most powerful medium and became the gay community's most visible advocate.

From left: Beth Anthony, Ruthie Alcaide, Dan Renzi, Danny Roberts, and Norman Korpi

When The Real World debuted on MTV in 1992, the premise was so simple yet promising, it’s a wonder that it hadn’t been done before. A blend of documentary and theater, the show promised to bring together seven strangers of different backgrounds and histories, and force them to live together while allowing cameras to capture the human spectacle, i.e. mudslinging. But an unforeseen byproduct emerged from the combination of The Real World’s immediate popularity and attempt at mass-market cinéma vérité: It acted as affable mediator between the gay community and the general population. It turned out that The Real World (and, well, the real world) were real gay.

The series’ co-creator, Jonathan Murray, adapted the concept from the landmark 1973 PBS special An American Family, which featured Lance Loud, often credited as the first gay man to appear on television. “That had been a huge success,” Murray, who is gay, says. “But nothing happened between when that aired and when we did The Real World.” So when the network decided Murray’s initial concept, a traditional soap opera, would prove too costly, he pitched the idea of an unscripted series shadowing a cast of unknowns as they transition to adulthood -- and all the juicy messiness that goes along with it.

“From the beginning, the focus was diversity,” Murray says. “It’s about that crucial point when you’re figuring out your identity, trying things on, and society doesn’t judge you for it because you’re young and that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Over the years -- and 27 seasons -- that has included 25 openly queer characters (an additional three have come out after doing the show). Gay cast members’ stories often mirrored zeitgeisty touchstones: Pedro Zamora’s struggle with AIDS (season three, 1994); Danny Roberts’s (season nine, 2000) relationship with an active member of the military mid-DADT era; and Katelynn Cusanelli (season 21, 2009), who completed a sex-change operation shortly before filming.

“When The Real World began, the idea of reality television wasn’t as bastardized as it’s become today,” says Jon Caramanica, a cultural critic at The New York Times who reports on the genre, among other topics. “It had a probative value that most people don’t associate with reality television in 2012. Because they were operating outside of the accepted rules, MTV had a lot more flexibility in terms of what they could put out into the world.”

Familiarizing audiences with LGBT issues served as a precursor to the gay-friendly bonhomie of today, and through the use of non-actors, queer cast members were tacitly allowed to defy, and at times reinforce, stereotypes under the guise of verisimilitude. Gay Real Worlders, “haven’t all been perfect people,” Murray points out. “Some have been Machiavellian, or slightly villainous. We wanted to include a variety of gay people, as we did with straight people.” On The Real World, sexuality in and of itself didn’t necessarily make for engrossing television -- drama and conflict still reigned supreme.

Tags: Television