The Reality of Television: Part I

By Janean Akilah | Via: SoL Fusion

Reality television got its first taste of overwhelming success over 10 years ago with MTV’s Real World. You know the line: “This is the true story… of seven strangers… picked to live in a house…and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real…The Real World.”

Were you saying it out loud as you read? I know you were.  If you’re not old enough to remember the early seasons (or don’t want to admit your age), the first season took place in New York. It was then that MTV introduced viewers to characters that we would see played repeatedly for the next 10 years; the innocent country girl (who might have doubled as the hot chick), the hot jock, someone with anger issues, the angry black girl, the angry black man, the not-so-hot intellectual white woman and the nerd.

At the start, reality show drama always centered around one character. If convenient, it was the angry black woman or the ‘can’t deal with conflict’ angry black man.  Who can forget the first season of The Real World when Kevin and Julie argued? Julie couldn’t figure out why Kevin was so angry and Kevin couldn’t understand why Julie couldn’t sympathize with the communication issues and burden of living in an institutionally racially motivated society…the reason for his grumpy mood.  We all watched while Kevin was outcast from the house for being so aloof and eventually threatening. At least that’s how it was framed.  If viewers had never met a black man…they felt like they had after Kevin’s episodes.  Unfortunately, Kevin wasn’t depicted to represent the safe, cuddly black man who could throw a football and beat up your school bully—before winning the championship. He was the angry one who you didn’t want to live next to, let alone, live with.

MTV started something with a particular generation that would never be undone.  They made people feel like reality television was indeed reality. I remember hearing reports that Kevin (now acclaimed writer and activist, Kevin Powell) was harassed on the street and that the ‘conflict’ affected him personally. But hey, that was the spin.

Variations of the original (type) cast would soon be found on new reality shows to include; the homosexual, the closeted homosexual, the weird guy, the racially ambiguous hot girl who can’t seem to fit in and the slut.  Then there was the hot jock who tried to Gandhi his way through the situation to make the aggressor not feel singled out. Of course, we can’t forget the victim, who was usually a female. Said victim usually felt unsafe and threatened and eventually someone was asked to leave the show.  The only time the victim wasn’t female was when Pedro and David didn’t get along. You remember Pedro, the endearing homosexual who had a commitment ceremony before succumbing to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  If viewers had never met a gay man, they felt like they knew all about the lifestyle while watching Pedro and his sweet Cuban accent.

We all know shows like Big Brother and Survivor preceded the Real World, but it was MTV’s creation that made young audiences tune in on a regular basis. Your grandma might have watched Survivor, but she definitely didn’t tune in to the soft porn of 18 year olds ‘hooking up’ under the gaze of night vision cameras.  Granny wasn’t watching kids lick tequila off one another’s bellies or Tami (who has returned to TV as a Basketball Wife) get an abortion.

The Real World was the catalyst for 10 years of more of the same.  It even spawned Road Rules, The Real World / Road Rules Challenges and reunion shows. This trend might outlast styrofoam.  As the MTV shows got racier, viewers got older. When aging viewers had enough of college kids hooking up and making out with everyone in night clubs, they tuned in to (I really mean ‘we tuned in’, but I’m trying to seem like an intellectual) the new genre of dating shows like The Bachelor and Flavor of Love (you know you watched).

MTV didn’t miss its original viewers. Each season, there was a fresh crop of unsuspecting souls, ready to get sucked in to the real drama. It might be reckless of me to compare reality TV to illicit drugs, but you know where I’m going with this. You too have watched a show, shaking your head at the waste of air time, but have not turned the channel.  You too played coy while co-workers talked about last night’s episode and exclaimed ’can you believe that’—until you eventually joined the conversation.  Don’t lie. You have taken a phone call and put the television on mute, ashamed to admit what you were watching.  Fast forward to 2012.

Reality television is a phenomenon that might not ever go away. So I’m gonna dish about it, stay tuned…