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The Serious Faux Pas: Reality TV

In today’s segment of our Serious Faux Pas series, we’re looking at how Millennials’ attraction to the irreverent over the self-serious has changed the reality TV landscape.


In early April, Bill Simmons’ Sports Guy Q&A segment on Grantland featured the following exchange on reality TV:

 Q: I’m flipping back and forth between the NCAA tournament and MTV’s retro marathon of the 1993 San Francisco season of the Real World. Is this really how people acted in the 90’s? These people suck. There hasn’t been any sex, barely any drinking and all conflicts have been resolved through open discussions. Did everyone in the 90’s take themselves this seriously? Did everyone feel they need to take up a cause? Why are they rock climbing so much? Watching this is making me thankful to be in my 20’s now and not then. —Pat, Chicago

 SG: And you wonder why everyone from Generation X is so bitter.

The question (and response) highlights a huge shift in the kind of reality TV that young people want to consume. The Real World has been on MTV since 1992 when the series kicked off in New York. That is 21 years of 20-somethings being documented living together while they stop being polite and starting being real— and a lot has changed.

The early seasons of the show, which many consider the first reality series, were full of earnest Xers making impassioned statements about their views on life and social issues. Serious topics like prejudice, AIDS, substance abuse and sexuality were tackled by roommates who were also figuring out how to live together when they came from such different backgrounds. Flash-forward ten years and the show had shifted considerably to focus on hook-ups, heavy partying, and roommate drama that was more likely to stem from people getting on one another’s nerves than judging one another’s backgrounds.

The influx of unscripted programming that flooded the market following the success of CBS’s Survivor in 2000 has played a big role in the series’ shift in focus. With so much competition, many shows upped their tawdry factor in order to get and keep attention. As MTV president Van Toffler said during The Osbournes’ run on the channel, “people always want to watch the train wreck on television.” But the change in Real World tone and topics likely has just as much to do with its changing audience. In the ‘90s when the show began, Xers were invested in watching the issues they themselves were struggling with play out on screen. But as Millennials have come of age, the desire to see serious social causes as the focus of their entertainment has waned. Though older generations may be eager to point to this as a signifier of Gen Y superficiality, there are other rationales at the root of their tastes.

To start, the topics that preoccupied the original casts of The Real World aren’t necessarily as important to as many Millennials. They are the most diverse generation to date, more accepting than previous generations, and their digital connections have made getting along with other young people from different backgrounds a less intense struggle. This is not to say that Millennials are perfect, (they themselves would not agree with that statement) but that the kinds of serious causes covered in the early years of the show are not as captivating to them. Add to this the fact that Gen Y is the most stressed out of all generations, and you have a heightened need for escapism in entertainment that draws them towards content and characters that are lighter, more absurd, and more frivolous. Jersey Shore became MTV’s most viewed series in the channel’s 30-year history by showcasing characters whose main concerns were getting drunk, hooking up, having fun, and most importantly not taking anything too seriously. Even nights in jail and trips to rehab were treated with a light touch and a wink on the series.

Millennial-watched programs that do feature intense and serious situations like InterventionTeen Mom, and even Catfish are presented in an extreme light that make them akin to cautionary tales. The characters populating a significant amount of reality TV today are just that: characters. Anything that strikes too close to home for Gen Y viewers is no longer escape fodder, and for now they want to be lifted out of their own lives by entertainment. Over-the-top caricatures have replaced the serious and earnest, and Millennial viewers have no desire to go back.