The Real World: Seattle was the last season of the show that I remember watching where the original premise was still intact. It would soon be followed by Hawaii, New Orleans and then the infamous Las Vegas seasons where it became a show less about people “getting real” and more about getting drunk in the hot tub before fighting.
Still, The Real World stands as the genesis of the reality TV surge we’ve seen in recent years.
That’s why I was really interested in this Vulture article written by Seattle cast member Irene McGee who many remember only because of a slap to the face, or misremember according to the article.
In it she recounts her experience on the show, disliking “the process” behind production and lays bare plenty of details on reality television in general.
Before arriving to the show we had all been given a packet of rules, and we would be reminded of them often: Mandatory interviews with directors once a week; no talking to each other about what we were asked in them, or what we said; no talking about the process; no talking to the crew; no breaking the “fourth wall” and acknowledging in any way that we were aware we were on a TV show; and no wearing any name-brand clothing unless it was clothes we were given, like from show sponsors REI or K2. Same thing went with any product: No eating out of non-sponsor-provided jars, and canned or bottled drinks with non-endorsing labels had to be emptied into dark, anonymous glasses…
It seems naive today, when blatantly manipulated and pre-scripted reality television is a staple of our television diets, but at the time I was shocked by how set up for conflict the Real World environment was…In our weekly interviews, our directors asked us questions to pit us against one another, and we always left them mutually suspicious. I was upset after my very first “interview” because my director was trying to get me to say mean things about my cast members.
Not much of a surprise. Also not much of a surprise is the idea that the cast of these shows are used as commercial props to sell for different companies.
You basically sign your life away to get a little bit of fame on your resume. Some milk it for everything and others realize the troubles it can bring. Hindsight is a clearer view of course, aided by the prevalence of reality television today.
Every time I would talk about the “process” the crew would stop filming, their way of hushing me up. I started to tell the cast we should share what we were asked about in our weekly interviews because they were trying to establish plotlines to make us fight. This did not go over too well with the crew, which sat us down as a group to “talk” to us about the process. I told them, if you want to keep it real, film you talking to us about what you are calling a “process.”
Things really start to get interesting once Irene decides she wants to leave the show and recounts the details of the memorable slap, an act the producers manipulated to control the story in her opinion.
The side of my face where he hit me was red for hours. I had terrible nightmares for weeks, seeing a huge hand coming at my face and then staring at the camera crew who did nothing more than film while a female got assaulted in front of them…We understand editing now, because we have Final Cut Pro on our computers, and have been hearing reality stars complaining about getting a “bad edit” for years now. Back in 1998 that was not the case. I couldn’t believe how those final two episodes were cut. It didn’t look, to the average viewer, like I was leaving the show because I hated it, though there were hints. Instead, the narrative was that Lyme disease was making me delusional, which was unfair and cruel: Unfair to people with Lyme disease, and cruel to me.
The entire piece is a really interesting look back with enough pertinent gaze on the current television landscape to make it worthwhile. Regardless on how you feel about reality television, you can’t deny that it is a powerful media force that is easily accessible, cheap to produce and most likely here to stay.
Even The Real World is still around, now under the name Real World: Ex-Plosion upon its return to San Francisco next year.
(Lead image via rafi-dangelo/MTV)