I think most people will agree that nostalgia reigns supreme in the current pop culture conversation. A group of writers and thinkers in their late twenties and early thirties wax poetic on sites like Vulture and Grantland and many topics of conversation center around shows of yore. We obsess over the reboot of “Boy Meets World” not because this show was good (it was really rather mediocre), but because it meant something to us, so, in turn, we revere it on a level it probably doesn’t deserve.
This glut of reboots and revitalization of long-dead shows like “Veronica Mars” and “Arrested Development” have us worried revisiting our old favorites won’t produce the experience and emotion it did the first time around. This is a founded concern, really. I mean, think about the stupid crap we watched in the 1980s. Much as I lament my 11-year-old nephew liking crap like Catscratch, I used to think this cartoon was amazing:
If you are unfamiliar with the Fluppy Dogs, it was a one-off Saturday afternoon Disney TV movie about dogs from another dimension. These dogs may look normal (if a dog being blue is normal), but they speak English, they stand upright when they walk, oh, and they have magical powers when you pet them. In addition to doing things like making furniture fly when scratched, the dogs also have a key that bears a resemblance to a radioactive kazoo made out of amethyst. The key causes doors to appear out of the ether and lead the dogs to other dimensions.
Yeah. Nostalgia may make me to this day still mimic the villain and ruefully shake my fist whilst yelling, “Get me those Fluppies!”, but in the decade or two since my height of Fluppy love, I have realized that the idealized version in my head is not what this movie actually is.
When MTV decided to do a #retroMTV weekend and re-air the original New York, San Francisco, and original Las Vegas seasons of The Real World, I thought I would have a similar reaction. While my interest in Real World had waned a bit by the time Las Vegas hit the airwaves in 2002, I remember the New York and San Fran series vividly. I was around 10-years-old when the San Francisco season aired in 1994. I remember watching in awe as these grown ups lived their adult lives before the camera, still a decade removed from understanding that being in your early 20s hardly makes you an adult.
When the opportunity arose to watch the show as a person who had more life experience than these cast members, I jumped at it, DVRing every episode. I thought there would be some personal fulfillment in seeing that, while the seven strangers picked to live in that house weren’t as emotionally immature as the most recent seasons, they were still 20 somethings in search of something, just like I was–and arguably still am.
Unlike the Fluppies or Boy Meets World though, this show was remarkably unchanged by hindsight. I still admired most of these people with the blind adoration of 10-year-old me. These people were the 20 something I aspired to be. Even Cory, the so-called naive cast member seeking to find purpose didn’t seem all that lost. She was investigating graduate school programs, found a part time job, and made a sincere effort to get to know each of her housemates in a meaningful way.
These housemates had plenty of insight to offer. I think we are all pretty familiar with one of the poster boys of the AIDS crisis, Pedro Zamora. It was pretty obvious Pam Ling, who managed to work rotations as a doctor in between stints at the house, had her shit together. Judd Winick has gone on to be a pretty established cartoonist (and marry Pam btw, cue the collective “awww”), working with numerous noted comic books. Mohammed Bilal, the spoken word artist and musician, is now a media producer. Rachel Campos is married to Real World alumnus turned Congressman Sean Duffy and is a mother of six. And then there is Puck, but even that guy with a clear screw loose still managed to have an impact and accomplish enough with his persona on the show that people are still mimicking his outlandish attitude twenty years later.
This batch of overachievers helps to explain why Bunim-Murray Productions eventually decided to make the cast work together on a job–no one was ever home! They were all off at speaking engagements, curing the sick, putting on a show, or meeting with politicians. While most hour-long Real World episodes center around a single night of drinking and the shenanigans and emotional consequences that result, these half hour episodes are packed with plot. In one episode, Cory learns about the struggle of African-Americans by attending Mohammed’s poetry performance. She hears Pedro speak and realies his family has struggled as well. She then goes on a quest to make her middle class White identity less bland. By episode’s end, Mohammed no joke has the roommates assemble and each read a poem about their identity aloud to the group, followed by a thoughtful discussion.
I thought my college friends and I were introspective and intellectual. Be honest, you did too. We did not do poetry readings in the living room. I think we went to some poetry slams together, but there was no performance and we definitely different discuss racial politics after it was over.
You could argue this new season of Real World discusses race I guess. On commercial after this episode wrapped, we saw a sneak peek of the girls discussing what color their nipples are. I mean, at least skin tone is entering the conversation.
In the end, of course I saw the ads for the new Portland Real World and longed for my Real World. You could argue this is just nostalgia rearing its head once again. Watching Pedro and crew, I think that, in addition to being the quintessential cultural time capsule of 1994, this is a truly excellent example of what reality TV and documentaries can be though. While nostalgia prompted the re-watching, 29-year-old me admires this shows for reasons beyond simple nostalgia. Yes, the midriffs, mentions of pagers, and Pam’s Joe Boxer smiley face bring a smile to my face, but this is an example of a piece of pop culture where my nostalgic fondness for it for once had me not giving it enough credit rather than giving it too much.