How a fledging cable network sidestepped the rules of America's most powerful medium and became the gay community's most visible advocate.
September 25 2012 3:31 PM EST
February 05 2015 9:27 PM EST
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 cinema verite: 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.
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.