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.

Pedro Zamora

Caramanica sees early seasons of the show as particularly influential. “A character like Pedro is almost transcendently important to the history of representation of gay people on television, and certainly to people living with AIDS,” he says. “I think we’ve barely seen any characters, to this day, on mainstream network shows that are half as complex. We’re living in an age of Modern Family where Cameron and Mitchell don’t even kiss for the entire first season, and people talk about that being progress. Pedro and Sean (Zamora’s partner during filming) were kissing on television and living these issues 20 years ago.” So impactful was Zamora’s story that when he passed away, President Bill Clinton released a public statement addressing his death, part of which read, “In his short life, Pedro educated and enlightened our nation. He taught all of us that AIDS is a disease with a human face and one that affects every American, indeed every citizen, of the world. And he taught people living with AIDS how to fight for their rights and live with dignity.”

Those who lived inside the fishbowl can attest to the show’s ability to shape public opinion. Former cast member Danny Roberts (he of the blurry-faced military boyfriend, Paul) says, “I’m 100% certain that the show influenced a lot of people, especially Generations X and Y and their viewpoints, on different social topics, especially toward the gay community. I think that being gay was an abstract concept to most people, but MTV showed that it was more human.” In a serendipitous coup for the show’s producers, Roberts had met Paul after being cast, and surprised the crew when he arrived for filming with news of an Army captain lover. “The surprises are better than anything you could have planned, anyway,” Murray admits.

Today, reality television, recent seasons of The Real World included, has devolved into mostly lighthearted philistinism. Programs like Jersey Shore or Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise -- successors to The Real World -- exist in a time where participants and viewers alike are conditioned to the tropes of the genre and agree to suspend disbelief and buy into feigned authenticity. Murray is reluctant to credit himself as a progenitor of the reality TV movement, despite it preceding the dual CBS ratings juggernauts Big Brother and Survivor by eight years. “That’s not for me to judge,” he says, but does concede that, “we have seen a lot of what The Real World does reflected in television.” However it has ultimately panned out, Murray’s quixotic aspirations may be credited for the dissemination of queer culture into the mainstream. “It’s sort of an old-fashioned, liberal idea, but Mary-Ellis Bunim (The Real World co-creator who died in 2004) and I believed strongly that if you live with people who are different than yourself, ultimately you’ll find that you have more in common than not,” he says. “That if we just get to know each other, maybe some of the craziness will go away.” Just be sure, the camera is rolling.

Tags: Television