Episode 101 – “Moving In: Boston” – July 15, 1997
Episode 102 – “Religion” – July 16, 1997
As I watched the double-sized first episode of The Real World: Boston, I was amazed at how familiar the series is, and how readily it came flooding back to me. This season aired nearly two decades ago, and unlike The Simpsons, Scrubs and The Sopranos, I haven’t re-watched these episodes ad nauseam in syndication and streaming. I vaguely recall seeing these in repeats, but even if that’s not my memory playing tricks on me — we’re talking over a decade in between viewings.
The first episode of a Real World season is all about first impressions, as the housemates meet each other, and the audiences meets the housemates. By the sixth season, some of the broader character types had been established, if not yet calcified into caricature, and a few of the housemates slide right into their roles.
Elka is the conservative Christian who admits she has “a lot to learn” about herself and others; Sean is the flannel-clad jock in search of a hot tub and a good time. Interestingly, he’s also the one who seems most self-aware about the budding reality TV tropes: the future Congressman was already on the look-out for the gay housemate and the “Puck” housemate.
Sean thinks that Jason might be the “Puck,” but he’s wrong. Jason, with his nose-ring, wallet chain and going-out guyliner, is more a moody loner than the antagonistic San Francisco scene-stealer. He’s reminiscent of Gen X poster boy Ethan Hawke circa Reality Bites, dropping poetry bombs about the “midsized Honda sedan bandwagon” lifestyle. In retrospect, I probably identified most closely with Jason, with his outsider/outcast posture; this was right around my not-quite-goth-or-skater phase. Jason is done with the “white bread America” of his Boulder home, and he’s got “bad vibes” already, mostly about the Type A Sean. “I already see the whole game plan,” he tells Genesis, in hushed, conspiratorial tones.
Genesis is the requisite gay housemate that Sean is looking for, but not in the show’s previous molds. Not only is she the show’s first lesbian, but she’s not an activist like San Francisco’s Pedro or flamboyant like Miami’s Dan; she spends the entire first episode figuring out how to come out to each of her roommates, dipping her toe in the water rather than jumping right in. Her coming out to Elka is teased for the entire episode, but ultimately, it’s much ado about nothing: Elka’s reaction is a little overblown by modern standards, but she learns about lipstick lesbians and keeps the party going. “There’s a first time for everything” quickly becomes her motto.
Speaking of Real World requisites, Boston includes two black housemates for the first time since the inaugural New York season. Kameelah and Syrus are given relatively short-shrift in the first episode; she comes across as a little bougie, and she’s quickly given the “bossy” tag by a few housemates; alas, Ban Bossy was still 17 years away. Syrus quickly becomes running buddies with Sean; he toasts “may we have fun together,” which will quickly become his motto.
Rounding out the group is Montana, who — to be honest — I’m not sure fits one of the stereotypes that had been already established by the show. She’s an open-book oversharer, quick to expound on her views on Christianity (she ain’t fer it, she’s agin it) and tell tales about post-boob job, wandering-eye nipples. The first comparison that came to mind was Jessa of Girls, but on her best day and without the malice.
I don’t remember my first impressions of these characters, but I was shocked that they still seem so much older on screen, even though Elka and Kameelah were 19 when the show was filmed; Sean and Syrus were the oldest at 25. It’s as if they’ve been imprinted as “adults” in my brain, and even with the handful(s) of years I have on them now, I will forever be looking up to them like a middle schooler looking at college kids.
Maybe I felt 13 again because of how wonderfully ‘90s the show is, with its blurred logos and rollerblading intros. The house (a converted firehouse) is decorated with a mix of Friday’s flair and proto-Urban Outfitters artifacts, all lava lamps, fish tanks and phallic art. Jason and Genesis don’t know what a French press is (“I think it’s a tea thing”) but they quickly find a Polaroid camera, and — in a move that made my day — they take some selfies: a good reminder that “selfies” and self-portraiture are not some new thing millennials came up with to piss off boomers and Gen X. This was a few years before digital cameras became mass market consumer goods, and a decade from cameraphone ubiquity, but in this transitional period between analog and digital, I’m not sure if Polaroids were ironic yet.
In the same way that it was a transitional period for photographs, it was a transitional period for The Real World. The shock-of-the-new of the early seasons had worn off, and the self-awareness of both the housemates and the show was becoming apparent. I’m not sure how the editing and storytelling compared to earlier seasons, but watching it now, the foreshadowing is clear: Genesis notes that she’s only been attracted to guys in drag, and Montana’s relationship with boyfriend Vaj (with his soul patch, hipster workshirt and forced smiles) doesn’t seem long for this world. But perhaps the foreshadowing is only clear in retrospect.
Notes about music: Between the dialogue and the VHS noise, placing the musical cues is proving more difficult than I would think; most songs are familiar, but some titles are stuck on the tip of my tongue. When in doubt, however, on-the-nose artist names and song titles usually win out: Alice Cooper’s ‘House of Fire’ for the firehouse, Faithless’ ‘Insomnia’ during a night out and conversation about religion, and so on. I feel like I’m going to have to pick a “winner” for the best use of music each episode.
Best Music: Reel Big Fish’s ‘She Has a Girlfriend Now’ soundtracks Genesis’ first coming-out moment, but the punk-ska group (a personal favorite) must have been in heavy rotation: ‘Sellout’ and ‘Snoop Dog, Baby’ also make appearances.