The Real World: What Happens When a Beloved Cult Classic is Viewed Again 21 Years Later

The Real World: What Happens When a Beloved Cult Classic is Viewed Again 21 Years Later

Did you just stick your finger in the peanut butter?

I don’t have to watch this scene to remember exactly how it played out. Twenty one years later, I can still hear in my mind Pedro Zamora’s voice, incredulous, asking this question to his Real World housemate, Puck. I’ve been a hardcore fan of The Real World franchise since the show started in 1992. At 13, I binge watched reruns of this show on MTV before the term was anywhere close to being termed.

Last month, VH1 Classic rebranded itself to as MTV Classic, and the channel plays 24 hour nonstop music videos and reruns of popular 90’s TV shows, including (what I was most excited about) The Real World.

Needless to say my DVR was about to get very crowded. I set up recordings for the series, starting with the first and second installments of the show (set in New York in 1992 and Los Angeles in 1993) but the season I couldn’t wait to watch again was season 3: San Francisco.

When San Francisco aired in the summer of 1994, I’d just completed my freshman year at a private Catholic school. I had television shows that I obsessed over—My So-Called Life and Party of Five, but The Real World was my favorite. MTV heavily rotated the episodes and I watched them repeatedly, at least a dozen times each. I knew almost every episode by heart, and had favorite ‘characters’ on the show. As a teenager, this was the first and only insight I had into the lives of adults in their early 20’s. By watching The Real World in my early teens I received an education on topics like safe sex and sexuality, abortion and a woman’s right to choose, and also prejudice and racism.

Towards the end of the 90’s the show became formulaic and stale and eventually I stopped watching it. To my knowledge only the first season has been available for streaming online. I’ve searched for other seasons for at least a decade and until now I haven’t had any luck finding them. Two weeks ago I came home to find all 20 episodes of The Real World: San Francisco recorded on my DVR, and I spent the entire weekend reliving it.

By watching The Real World in my early teens I received an education on topics like safe sex and sexuality, abortion and a woman’s right to choose, and also prejudice and racism.

As soon as the opening credits rolled, I saw the black-and- & white shot of Puck screeching, “Alll riiiight!” riding  in his lame ass soapbox derby car, and my disdain for him puffed up into my chest. I remembered my first impressions of the other cast members as soon as they appeared on my TV screen and began talking. The second I heard 20-year-old Cory’s awkward, bumpkin voice,  I recalled the vitriol I felt for her when I was 15. When Rachel, the trendy brunette was introduced, I remembered loving her black clogs and motorcycle jacket. I bought a similar pair of shoes in Wild Pair my freshman year, I started to wear them again in 10th grade, à la Rachel.

What I’d have said behind the cast member’s backs in 1993:

Puck, 25 years old, San Francisco: Puck was a bike messenger who claims off the bat that bike messengers get a bad rap because “they have to tell a car what to do,” and I immediately remembered thinking this guy was an idiot. Also, for a biker thrasher dude, I remember not being very attracted to him when I was 15, which is odd, because the skater boy was my ultimate ideal guy. But Puck’s hygiene grossed me out.

Cory, 20 years old, from Fresno, CA: Cory was a walking advertisement for Aéropostale. I remember initially thinking she was pretty, but the shakiness of her voice was off-putting to me. As more episodes aired and Cory was involved with several storylines between Puck, Pedro and Rachel, I mostly couldn’t stand her. I was dismissive of her feelings and her childish whininess irritated me.

Pedro, 22 years old, Cuban-American living in Miami: Pedro was very handsome. Having the hots for a fantasy TV boyfriend from The Real World was common for me (for other examples see Eric Nies from season 1, or Neil from The Real World: London). When, in the first episode, Pedro revealed to Cory, and then ultimately the rest of his housemates, that he was gay and living with HIV, I was impressed with his bravery about coming out on television. I didn’t know any gay people when I was 15, and literally everything I learned about AIDS education as a kid was from the Salt ‘N Pepa song Let’s Talk About AIDS and by watching Pedro on The Real World.

Judd, 24 years old, Long Island: We continue to examine the theme of me basically judging the cast almost entirely by their looks. Judd was a pale faced cartoonist. Being 24 meant he was a straight up GROWN UP to me, and I thought he was OLD. He called himself “a bed wetting liberal” and I had no idea what that was when I was 15. You could almost see where his mud flap mullet had been lopped off. I remember thinking he was unattractive, mildly pathetic, and definitely not funny.

Rachel, 22 years old, Arizona: I’m mildly embarrassed at how cool I thought Rachel was. I thought she was pretty, and I loved her clothes. She basically dressed straight out of Contempo Casuals with a mild grunge element to her look. She was a proud young Republican which I didn’t bat an eyelash to because I was born and raised in a staunch Republican household. I also appreciated how she stuck to her convictions about her religion and political affiliation when some of her housemates argued with her and singled her out for being so different than they were. When I was 15, I was basically a poser who avoided confrontation at all costs, but I admired Rachel for holding her own during verbal altercations on the show. Again, it helped that she was a great dresser.

Pam, 26 years old, LA: Pam had a bobbed ‘Rachel’ before Friends even aired on TV, so clearly she was a trendsetter, but I didn’t recognize that in 1994. She was a smart, perfectionist, over achiever and I didn’t relate to her at all. I thought she was a drip.

Mohammad, 24 years old, San Francisco: I remember thinking Mo was very cool and down to earth. He was a musician and a rapper, and seeing his green Zulu Nation sweatshirt again reminded me of a time I watched an episode with a girlfriend of mine who questioned what it meant and I responded sourly “You don’t know what the Zulu Nation is??”  Meanwhile I had no clue what the Zulu Nation was. I just heard it mentioned in A Tribe Called Quest song once.

Jo, 22 years old, London: I was obsessed with Jo and her British accent. She was this lithe pixie athletic rock climber, who was detached and cool and foreign and a great dresser, naturally. I found her to be very mysterious. She was the first vegan I’d ever heard of.

***

I plowed through all 20 episodes that weekend. Hands down this was one of the best seasons that ever aired of The Real World. It was only the third season, and reality television wasn’t a genre yet. The show has a sincerity that doesn’t exist on unscripted programming anymore, and the season plays out with a genuine social experiment style approach. The housemates were just a random group of 20 somethings all trying to get to know one another. Watching this season 21 years after the original air date, my perception has shifted on almost every single housemate.

What I’d say to the cast member’s faces if we went out for coffee today:

Puck, now 46: I wouldn’t have coffee with Puck. He clearly suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He has all the symptoms: monopolizes conversations, inflated sense of self, can’t acknowledge other people’s needs and feelings, the list goes on and on. I’m glad they tossed his sorry ass out of the house mid-season. Also I don’t know how he got on this show, but I think he was maybe related to a producer/director named Billy Rainey, they have the same last name. This has been a theory of mine since ’94 and damn it there is no proof online anywhere of this. It’s obvious that Puck is insecure and really sensitive, but he also tells homophobic jokes and treats people like garbage, so fuck him to this day. The last information I found out about him online is that he is trying to remain reclusive after the stalking and domestic abuse charges that were brought against him became public knowledge. Puck, do us all a favor and continue to avoid society.

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Cory, now 41: Cory, now a married mom middle school teacher, was incredible and I never knew it. I feel like I should be seated in my therapist’s office as I recall this, but the reason I hated Cory so much back then was because her vulnerability scared me. She put all her insecurities out there for the world to judge, and that made me uncomfortable. She was incredibly relatable on the show in a very wide-eyed innocent way: She was homesick. She’d never been in love before. She didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, and she felt lost in trying to figure that out. I went through the same shit at her age, but I wasn’t able to articulate it to anyone. This is why I am in therapy now. And why I can recognize these patterns between me and Cory and appreciate her now, as I appreciate myself. Full circle.

(Judd Winick and Pam Ling with a portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt)

(Judd Winick and Pam Ling with a portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt)

Pedro, died a few hours after the season ended on MTV: I don’t have a different perception of Pedro now. I always thought he was an amazing person when I watched The Real World as a teenager. Witnessing him live his life as an advocate for HIV/AIDS education on television in 1994 was special, and at the time, there were hardly any gay people on television. Ellen had her TV show, but the sexuality on Ellen was basically rated PG, if that. An episode of Roseanne featured a controversial kiss between her and Mariel Hemingway, an episode that almost got that TV series cancelled due to the controversy, and at the time I remember thinking "this isn’t the first gay kiss on TV… I watched Pedro marry Sean on The Real World." Sean Sasser was Pedro’s boyfriend who he met while he was filming The Real World, and the two men exchanged vows on camera during a commitment ceremony. This was a historical moment for same sex couples; it was the first television broadcast of its kind. Pedro publicly humanized what living with AIDS looked like, and he took every moment he could while filming to educate viewers on his struggles. Pedro’s activism paved the way for ongoing HIV/AIDS education and advocacy for the acceptance of people in the LGBTQ community.

Judd, now 45: Judd is a great guy. And he is NOT ugly, I was wrong, and I was a jerk. He just had bad hair, but who the hell am I to judge? I had Brenda Walsh bangs throughout all of high school when I watched this show. Judd is a Jewish artist from Long Island, he tells corny jokes and he respects women. So in other words, he’s a total catch. He’s now a successful TV writer and animator, and props to him for never giving up his dreams. Judd was cast with sort of a “loser in love” storyline and he really would just pay attention to anyone who looked his way, but it’s extremely obvious while re-watching that he is in love with Pam. And guess what: they’re married and have children, so good for him. I follow him on Twitter now, and this is a social media mea culpa for all those years I thought he was a dork.

Rachel, now 43: Not embarrassed to admit that at first I still loved watching Rachel. I didn’t realize when I was 15 how badly Puck manipulated her. It’s clear in every episode how he gaslights her. They clashed constantly, and it wasn’t enough that he never took accountability for his actions. He’d go further to twist her words and try to tell her she was crazy. He’d then end the fight by saying he just wanted to be her friend and that he cared about her. In the beginning Rachel defends Puck and his behavior to the other houseguests, meanwhile she is also secretly making out with him. He shares this secret with the house, starts to call her “Chubs” and her confessionals begin to reveal that she is happy in every aspect of her life except her friendship with Puck, who makes her feel worthless. After Puck gets kicked out of the house and Jo moves in, Rachel regains a lot of her self-esteem and an arc occurs over the course of the season where the viewer witnesses some growth in her. However, Rachel totally drops her friendship with Cory when Jo moves in. Painfully, in a very Cory fashion, Cory addresses this on camera. Rachel says very little in response to Cory’s vulnerable plea for an explanation, instead she just blinks at Cory and dismisses the whole thing. It’s a real dick move, and not just because I am suddenly very defensive of Cory.

After the show aired Rachel met and married Sean Duffy from The Real World Boston, who is also a Republican and currently a member of Congress. Rachel tried three times to be on The View and didn’t get the gig all three times losing to Lisa Ling, Elizabeth Hasselbeck & Jenny McCarthy. So, there’s that. Not sure I’d have coffee with her either, come to think of it.

Pam, now 47: I used to think Pam was a bore. I was wrong. Pam just has no time for anyone’s bullshit. She’s a god damn medical student. In her free time she studies or she volunteers in a clinic for people who don’t have insurance and need health care. She’s pretty damn cool. She also clearly has no interest in having sex with her long distance boyfriend Christopher, which worked out well for Judd. After Puck leaves the house she simply stops speaking to him and when he calls one day, she flat out tells him she’s not interested in rehashing the past and gets off the phone with him. Pam had excellent boundaries at age 26, and I didn’t know what boundaries were when I was 15 or when I was 26. Pam was clearly inspired by Pedro and his legacy,  she is now a doctor who specializes in HIV/AIDS research.

Mohammad, now 45: Mohammad remains low key, laid back and thoughtful. He’s rarely on screen because he is always with his friends and girlfriend, but when he is, he has a great laugh and a good attitude. I’d hang out with him. He’s made a name for himself as a diversity activist, writer, and educator speaking on topics such as race & racial justice, Islam, HIV/AIDS and hip hop. I’m glad that he is doing what he is doing. Mohammad on the show was a smart, gentle, and compassionate guy and from what I see online, he’s only continued to grow in this light.

Jo, now 43: Dude. Jo had some baggage when she filmed this show. She was divorced from an abusive guy, and on camera she gets a restraining order against him. Re-watching now, I feel sympathy for her that I wasn’t capable of having for her when I was a tenth grader and I didn’t understand what any of that truly meant. Also, while binge watching, I grew mildly worried about Jo. Before she moved into the Real World house and started filming, she lived alone in Tahoe with a guy named Steve who is easily twice her age and way over protective of her. They’re not lovers but he obviously wants to be. He called her all the time on the show and gave her shit for not paying attention to him, and he is a total creeper. If she were my friend I’d urge her to go into therapy because I’d be nervous her cycle of abuse would just continue unless she seeks some sort of help. There is no record of Jo anywhere online, and I’m tempted to tweet Rachel to see if she keeps in touch with her.

On second thought I won’t do that, I just found Rachel on Twitter and she is an avid Trump supporter, so maybe I’ll just let that one go.

***

My only beef with this marathon was that none of the original music played throughout the season and what the hell? The Real World is on MTV and the network owns all that music so why didn’t I hear Enya's “Sail Away (Orinoco Flow)” when Pam is playing keyboards after Puck left the house? “Friday I’m In Love” was supposed to play during Judd’s ‘This Is Your Life Segment’—nobody else remembers that? Because I did, nothing slips past me. (I even tweeted @MTVClassic about it and was ignored, the bastards!) Whatever, I’m over it.

I’ll keep taping these marathons every time they’re on. I want to get reacquainted with all of my old pals from the 90’s and witness them as they really are and not what my spoiled judgmental ass saw them as when I was in high school. Thankfully I have changed a great deal since then, and I want to catch up with the rest of The Real World to see how that’s changed, too. I’m hoping to re-watch The Real World:Boston again. I’m hoping to acknowledge Kameelah Phillips as the feminist bad ass I couldn’t recognize when I was in high school. Also, I never thought I’d get a chance to see Montana’s boyfriend Vaj (Yes, VAJ) on my TV screen again. Fingers crossed.

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