Given the number of times it was hyped and replayed during MTV’s other programs, even the network’s casual viewers could not have missed the signature moment of last winter’s season of the channel’s emblematic program, “The Real World” During the second episode, in a casino whirlpool on the Las Vegas strip, Trishelle, the full-figured airhead from the bayou whose mother died when Trishelle was 14, moseyed across the hot tub to Brynn, the all-American party girl from rural Washington state, and started kissing and groping her. Steven, the straight guy working to put himself through business school by tending a gay bar, turned to the camera, and gave it an unmistakable what’s-a-guy- to-do? look. Then he joined in. The girl-on-girl action gave the moment a certain edgy salaciousness that had eluded dramatic high points of previous editions of the show, most of which involved too-drunk cast members stumbling about. It also lacked something else, more important for the nation’s first reality television program: any element of plausible reality.

“The Real World” gave birth to the entire genre of reality television, and it has taken onto be everything that many people have come to hate about such programs: a lowest-common-denominator, near-pornographic sensibility, and the pervasive sense that we are not watching real people or events, but something soap-operatic and staged. But in its early years, when the program was at least a little bit better, “The Real World” embodied the sorts of characteristics that fueled reality television’s extraordinary rise to popularity: the intensely personal dramas, the vivid characters, and the sense (as was the case on “Survivor” or “American Idol”) of the almost-attainable-exotic, the notion that we were seeing a world that we did not quite belong to, but wished we did. Those first shows were aired when I was 13, and I loved them absolutely. They gave viewers like me a sense that there was a more sophisticated, urbane, mature version of cool out there to which we might aspire, once we escaped the stultifying, tyrannical cool of adolescence. It also gave us some idea of what that new cool might look like. It would involve many friends who had dreadlocks, and some who were intimately acquainted with the operation of turntables. Brightly colored t-shirts with ironic slogans would abound. We would know people who were gay, who were from foreign countries, and maybe even some who were both gay and from foreign countries. Heartbreak would be involved. We would believe deeply in things. There would be exposed brick, and facial hair. We would sometimes be depressed, but when we were depressed, attractive people of the opposite sex would talk to the camera and say how sexy we were when we were depressed; it would be cool to be brooding. We would all be starting out in careers, but they would be exciting (at least to us) —cartoonist, punk rock singer. Everyone would tell us our dreams were not attainable but we would know they were. And we would all grin sheepishly when we admitted that we had been less-than-cool in junior high, but everyone would laugh and not believe us, because how could you believe that we had once not been cool? We didn’t realize we were being herded into a narrow cultural corridor from which we would emerge as full-fledged yuppies, renovating row houses and evaluating progressive private schools and pasta pots. We just thought we were going to be cool.

From the beginning, critics said that the fantasy of “The Real World” presented was deeply parochial—a “Saturday Night Live” skit at the time depicted the show as a lot of whiny twenty-somethings in flannels arguing over who had to feed the fish—and they were right, it was parochial. But for people my age, life itself was pretty small-minded, and the parochial ideal that MTV was selling (your hip twenties) was a whole lot better than the parochial culture we were involved in (middle school). Plus, there was a sweet earnestness to those early episodes that inquiring adolescents could appreciate. The characters struggled with real career ambitions and romantic interests. They were not simply acting for the camera: They were acting out their lives. Unlike teenagers who were (and still are) the program’s target demographic, the show’s characters were in their mid-20s. They had clearly defined and articulated ideas of what they wanted to do with their lives—to be a cartoonist or a dancer—and they were trying to get there. In the first four seasons, the overarching, propulsive drama was that of people starting to immerse themselves in quasi-adult lives and careers, and the episodes documented the ways in which their experiences corrupted or emboldened their original notions of who they were.

But “The Real World” has since changed its formula dramatically. No longer an outlet for twenty-somethings to brood about their future careers, the show has become a cyclic three-month on-air party for teenagers to mingle in hot tubs and obsess about the present. The locales have changed—from creative meccas like New York and London to vacation spots like Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Hawaii. MTV has rejiggered the show to require characters to engage in artificial, season-long contests or projects— like putting together a fashion show—which the characters embrace in the way most American teenagers experience spring break: as a big party. The houses, which started off as funky lofts, have become ludicrously large and fancy fantasy palaces: the top floor of the Palms Hotel, a chateau in Paris. The characters don’t even look like real people anymore—they are far, far too attractive, the guys all balled-up pecs and biceps and ‘the girls all slim, languorous limbs. The show never depicted ugly people, but the characters, in the beginning, had the luxury of being only ordinary looking. By Las Vegas, the cast looked like refugees from a workout video.

MTV made its name by beaming an edgy version of urban cool to middle-American teens, which put it in the position of preaching to its audience, or at least to those suburban kids who already dreamt of the big city. “The Real World” was a crucial part of this image, and it also let the network document for its viewers one way in which adolescents become adults (a topic of eternal interest to the teenaged audience). But MTV now uses the show to broadcast a much different narrative of how to grow up: spring break, hookups, and drunkenness. This is much closer to the experiences and fantasies of most teenagers. This new image has won MTV more viewers—the network and “The Real World” are both more popular than they ever have been. But as MTV has revamped its notion of what is cool, it has thrown its aspirational message overboard.

Hip to be square

When MTV launched in 1981, the New York-based network aired nearly 24 hours of music videos—interspersed with stunts of the sort that snarky, with-it New Yorkers would play on a clueless nation. There was a phone-in contest to win a Prince concert in your hometown, whose winner was a Mormon girl from rural Utah (the concert occasioned loud local protests). It force-fed the nation Madonna, at the time an unknown party girl from the Lower East Side who ran with Warhol. MTV sent a young, cute drag queen out on tour with Van Halen, and laughed as the oblivious California rockers repeatedly hit on him (or her). This sensibility appealed to certain adolescents (I loved it), and MTV’s viewership grew fast and furious. The network, which then saw itself as “cutting-edge,” embraced new cultural developments which more mainstream outlets eyed warily. For example, when “Yo, MTV Raps!” went on the air in 1988, hip-hop was still largely an underground phenomenon from which big record labels and radio stations shied away, but MTV recognized that it was bound to be a very big deal.

By the early ’90s, the network had raised its sense of its own social conscience and saw its role as a political and cultural cluing-in point for youth hungry to be in touch with the broader world. “MTV News” grew more sophisticated; no longer content just to detail the minor adventures of celebrities, it sent correspondent Tabitha Soren to report from the presidential campaign trail in 1992. The network’s “Rock the Vote” campaign for youth voter registration was high-profile; Bill Clinton took advantage of the opportunity to reach new young voters, by starring as the sole guest of an MTV election special where teenagers questioned him about his candidacy Liberal establishment types, who had spent the ’80s wagging adult fingers at MTV, later hailed the network’s public service messages such as “get involved,” and “wear a condom” The music also had political dimensions, from the militant black empowerment rap group, Public Enemy to didactic liberals like Pearl Jam and R.E.M. to the feminist strummers of the Lilith Fair. Although you sometimes got the sense that MTV had gotten itself into a public position it didn’t really know what to do with—such as when a flirty blonde asked candidate Clinton whether he preferred boxers or briefs—there was also something charming about the network’s earnest agenda. For all the tiresome chatter about Generation X’s ironic, disengaged, navel-fixated brooding, it was nice to see MTV plunging its teenaged viewers into the real world, complete with ideas, politics, and consequences.

“The Real World” was born in this moment of the network’s history. The premise of the first show was to put a microscope to the lives of seven young people who had moved to New York in order to make it in the entertainment industry: an aspiring model, a rapper, a dancer, a critic, an artist, and a singer. The show worked because these were real people, doing real things, and encountering the new and unexpected.

Archetype cast

But by 1997, the program had begun to chase the cultural moment, rather than creating it. For the first time, in “The Real World 5: Miami,” MTV decided that the cast’s real lives weren’t quite enough to bear the dramatic heft of the show, and so they gave their seven characters something to do; the cast members had to conceive of and develop a business, with the help of a couple of thousand dollars of MTV seed money, and the show would track the struggles of the start-up (the enterprise they settled on, “Delicious Deliveries,” never got off the ground). It was an idea with ground-breaking potential: In the late ’90s, the sexy thing to do after college was to be an entrepreneur, and MTV was uniquely placed to document that experience. But the network didn’t track a group of people who had already started a business on their own. They selected seven young people for other characteristics (diversity, on-air dynamism, looks) and then told them to become businessfolk. Whereas “The Real World” had once felt organic, following young people in their lives as they lived them, it now seemed artificial: As in “Survivor,” or much of the present crop of reality television, it erected arbitrary hoops for its cast to jump through.

But in a way, the project was necessary—the Miami cast members were simply not as interesting as their predecessors, and for several reasons. First of all, they were younger and. their ideas of who they wanted to become were less defined. By setting the show in a city where most of the cast were not expecting to live permanently (this was the first of”The Real World’s” vacation locales) the producers gave the show an air of fleetingness, a sense that nothing that happened here really mattered. Then, too, the show had come to be seen as an emerging engine of celebrity, and so the current cast members spent much of their on-air time engaged in self-branding (the winsome gay guy, the Latina sparkplug). From the beginning, “The Real World’s” casts seemed to be assembled through a fairly transparent quota system, which basically remains in place today. Most casts featured a series of archetypes: the urbane gay guy, the outspoken black woman (chip-displayed-prominently-onshoulder), the wacky white guy, the sweet Middle-American girl, the hick. In the early episodes, these differences seemed more authentic, and mutable: When the hick and the outspoken black woman spoke to one another, for instance, you could feel their perceptions shifting. Now, the characters seem to wear their backgrounds like proud, stubborn labels, and their interactions on the show only force them deeper into their own archetypes. The characters, it seemed, were just trying to leverage their appearances into future television gigs. By the eighth season of the show, set in Hawaii, each of the cast members was still in college. Their concerns possessed a corresponding, adolescent irrelevance: Amaya worrying about her large breasts and endlessly asking Colin to please be a little nicer to her; Kaia wondering whether or not she was bisexual.

By the late 1990s, all of MTV’s programming was getting less aspirational. In a 1999 article in The New York Times Magazine, Marshall Sella was moved to write: “All in all, MTV seems to envision daily life as an endless game of pool in which people antagonize each other, then storm off to points unknown.” But the same focus on teenage dramas and concerns that critics deplored has, in fact, brought more young viewers to the network. After facing declining ratings in the mid-1990s, the network hired executives Van Toffler and Brian Graden to give MTV’s programming a facelift: Their brief was to reduce reliance on music videos to increase the ratings among the target young audience. “[In the early ’90s] we had influential content, influential music, things were changing, but we had low, low ratings,” Judy McGrath, at the time MTV’s president, told New York magazine this summer. “Back then, our steady diet was a lot of leading-edge stuff, and not a ton of people were watching.”

So Graden and Toffler made the network look more like its viewers. They introduced “Total Request Live,” which became the network’s signature program, a phone-in-and-vote show that gives its teenage music fans exactly what they ask for. The tastes of the young TRL voters, who voted incessantly from home for their favorite groups—mostly benign-imaged, dull-as-vanilla teen-pop bands (good ones like ‘N Sync, awful ones like O-Town, 98 Degrees, or Jessica Simpson)—also pushed those same groups even higher on the playlist for all of MTV’s programming. The network added a host of new reality programs. “Sorority Life” and “Fraternity Life” detail the weepy, vomit-soaked ins and outs of college life. “True Life” shows hour-long documentaries about typical teenage problems: a girl who’s too fat to make the cheerleading squad, a workout:- obsessed boy trying desperately to beef up. “Spring Break: Undercover” tracks hyper-fit college students as they get drunk and contrive to hook up in party locales like Cancun. “Jackass” is a series of gross-out skater-punk tricks and stunts, the sort of stuff that bored suburban teens might pull in their spare time. Now the network’s programming effectively mimics the lives and experiences of its viewers. The shift in programming has helped MTV’s ratings climb for five consecutive years, and more people now watch the network than ever before.

Some critics have complained that this dumbing-down reflects an attempt to lure a younger audience. This is true in part, but not completely: the average age of the network’s viewer is slightly over 20 years old, which is not much different than what it has been throughout the network’s history. And though critics (and the network’s executives) have pointed to shows like “Total Request Live” as evidence that MTV is catering to an younger audience, even those shows like “The Real World,” which executives say are meant for a general audience, have gone through these significant changes. The crucial variable may not be age, but aspiration.

MTV has always pursued teenagers; what has changed is the sort of teenagers it is chasing, and what ideal of cool it established to court them. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the network tried to convert its viewers, suggesting to hungry-for-hipness suburban teens that there was something out there cooler and more compelling than their own high school melodramas. The gospel has since changed. What MTV is selling its teen audience now (with “Sorority Life,” “Fraternity Life,” “Spring Break: Cancun,” a more juvenile “Real World”) is a bland vision of the immediate future in which the first years of college look pretty much like high school, but without parents or homework. The focus is on having fun, not being challenged by new or different experiences.

Of course, it’s a little sentimental to pine for the early days of a television program that probably was never all that good in the first place. Certainly, the first few seasons of “The Real World” could be brooding, reflective, and static. In a way, the new version of MTV is being more honest with its audience, the hot tub threesome incident aside. Most of its viewers were never likely to move to the big city to hobnob with rock stars, run voter-registration drives, and think deeply about their world. Most of its viewers, by contrast, will likely go to college and party. But that promise of cultural revolution held out in MTV’s early years was enticing, glamorous, and for some teenagers, useful: It let them imagine possibilities for their future that they might not otherwise have seen so vividly. The grunge generation has gotten a bad rap, but the early ’90s was a hopeful moment for young people. MTV’s vision of current youth culture, which has drawn more viewers to the network, is by contrast bland and unremarkable.

Migrants and homebodies

America more than any other country has long been about the freedom to leave where you are and who you are—to light out for a new frontier and become something different, bigger, better. This is one of our nation’s central myths, and that dream informs our notion of what makes us unique. But it has also always been a minority taste, even in the most open and dynamic of times, like the early 1990s. Most people in America stay put, physically and culturally, and have no overwhelming longing to be very different from how they grew up. There are good and bad things to say about both impulses, the migrant’s and the homebody’s. The former can be snarky, elitist, and somewhat alienating. The latter can be confining, unimaginative, and resistant to needed change. There’s a common pattern to the way the tensions between the two impulses play out each generation as manifestations of youth culture. Think of rock music, for instance, or jeans: They started out announcing a new breed of migrants, and end up typifying the homebodies. This slow fade, from cutting-edge to undeniably establishment, has also been the trajectory of “The Real World.” Many of the viewers who bought into the ideals of early episodes ended up enacting them. But it is likely that a far greater number did not. What MTV is seeing, in the popular new episodes of “The Real World,” may be evidence of the way that calibration is weighted. Most teenagers do not aspire to a different kind of life. For them, getting to go on spring break every now and again is fantasy enough.