Getting hooked by hookup culture: The Real World
By: Caitlyn Schultz
In the world of television we as audiences and critics are always incredibly impressed when a show lasts upwards of 6 seasons or so. We feel the need to pick apart the reasons why it has been successful and what other shows did wrong leading to them being cancelled. Now if we are so utterly shocked by 6 or 8 seasons, then a show currently in its 28th season must leave us catatonic. How in the world has The Real World survived 21 years of air time? There is really no single specific answer to this question, all someone can really offer up is the word change and more recently the focus on this generation of hookup culture, but I will get into that later.
Before The Real World was born, shows such as Friends made it apparent that people enjoyed watching people living life and building their relationships, not necessarily tons of frills and locations. Obviously friends and other shows are made of scripted lives but they focused on the relationships none the less. Bunim and Murray the creators of The Real World took this idea by creating a show where real people lived together and had their lives taped. As if that wouldn’t have been interesting enough, they made them all strangers from across the country, all from different walks of life. This is an ingenious idea. Specifically piecing together a diverse cast that there are bound to be issues between or simply just picking people with interesting back stories is almost guaranteed success in that platform. The real issue was finding those interesting people that would make good TV without a script. They did a decent job finding some interesting people but eventually the audience would get over the whole seven strangers living together thing so they needed another angle. During season 3 which aired in 1994, the show welcomed a member who was HIV positive to the San Francisco cast. Along with a very right-winged girl named Rachel and a crazy screw-loose guy named Puck.
This was really the first season to draw attention to certain issues or individuals personalities that some people may not run into everyday. After that season the creators began to realize that was the key to keep this show going, each season needed to bring something fresh and new to its audience. But how many different types of people can you find for 28 seasons that are actually worth watching? Not enough. That’s why Bunim and Murray turned to a culture that was becoming more prevalent in its audience, the hookup culture.
A hookup culture? Are you being serious with me right now? Yeah as ridiculous as that sounds, it is actually an area of study that more and more scholars are starting to explore. What exactly is a hook up culture though? One APA article described it as an increase in the acceptance of sexual openness and uncommitted sex (Garcia, Reiber, Massey, Merriwether 2012.) This is a marked difference from the overwhelmingly taboo status that sex has maintained throughout history. Despite the fact it is still not a free for all when it comes to talking about hookups, its less frowned upon to partake in them these days. The idea of “Sex sells” has been all over different types of media for decades but the actual act didn’t get much air time until shows like The Real World came into play. Obviously given the shows format, filming real people’s lives, there was bound to be some hookup face time. In the beginning of the show there were hookups here and there scattered throughout but it was never the center of the show. The personalities clashing or the problems the cast was facing were really the front runner. Once they started running out of fresh ideas such as the gay member, the alcoholic member, the eating disorder member, they turned to something more all encompassing. MTV’s The Real World took advantage of the growing hookup culture and ran with it, and ultimately ended up probably enhancing its prominence in our culture today.
Throwing seven twentysomethings into a house with alcohol and little alone time seemed to be a great recipe to channel the hookup culture. The craziest part about the creators taking this route is how quickly it became routine. It was as though they made sure they were casting people who were very comfortable talking about sex and even having it on national television. After a few seasons it seemed as though the cast members had caught onto this trend and were gladly going to adhere to it if it meant more screen time. Many people can’t even remember the old seasons that were not centered around which cast members were hooking up and breaking up. It has become so much a part of the show that even its trailers and teasers are centered around those little rendezvous between the cast. The clip below is really the first season whose trailer started to focus on the sex and hookups instead of the experience as a whole. The series was not solely relying on this angle yet as one can see with the personal issues still getting some air time in the trailer, but it was beginning to pick up on the change in the generation watching the show.
Contrasting the first season with the current season 28, they seem like almost different shows. The Real World has really come to rely on the cast members hooking up and the drama that inevitably ensues from them. The audience feeds off this drama of who is going to hook up with who, whose heart is getting broken and oh my god are they a love triangle now?! Nothing makes this fact more apparent than the current season set in San Francisco. One article on Variety.com pointed out that although there was a 36% growth in viewers this season than last season in Portland, it was still a rather low number for the series as a whole. That was, until the episode where the exes stepped in. The creators of the show started to realize the regular hookups were starting to get dull for the viewers just as any other trick they have brought in; in previous seasons. The remedy they found was not to eliminate these hookups but add a wildcard in by letting the cast get all cozy and then have their exes (who were mostly exes that the cast were basically still “hanging out” with) move in and spice things up a bit. This really shows the importance placed on this so-called hookup culture that now dominates this series and many others like it. That the only way they could up viewer ship was getting those hookups to be more interesting and dramatic. I won’t even get into the girl that got pregnant this season who had the possibility of it being an original cast member or her ex-boyfriend, that was a whole other line of drama itself.
Whether they like it or not Bunim and Murray have to adhere to what the people want or even sometimes figure out what the people want before they even know. If this focus on hookup culture is going to hinder or help the show overall is hard to say, but going on 28 seasons it is pretty fair to assume they have an idea of how to keep people interested. Another question that really cannot be answered here or maybe ever is if our generations hookup culture has led shows to adopt it or if the shows centered around it have influenced the growth in our society. But hey, what came first, the chicken or the egg?
Garcia, Justin R., Chris Reiber, Sean G. Massey, and Ann M. Merriwether. "Sexual hookup culture: A review.." Review of General Psychology 16.2 (2012): 161-176. Print.
Kirkpatrick, D. Charles, Steve Duck, and Megan K. Foley. Relating difficulty: the processes of constructing and managing difficult interaction. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2006. Print.