When "The Real World" premiered in 1992 on MTV, it created a standard in reality television: It cooped up Mormons and gay people and crude bike messengers and splayed their tiny culture wars on TV.
From the beginning, "Real World" participants sought to give voice to their political and personal agendas. In Season 1, African American cast member Kevin Powell tried to use the show as a platform to discuss race; in Season 21, which concludes Wednesday night, all eight housemates have something they want imparted to viewers.
Across that span of 21 seasons, Pedro Zamora -- of "The Real World: San Francisco" in 1994, during its third season -- has been by far the most successful user of the show. He hasn't had that much competition in recent years, to be fair: As the show aged, producers were more likely to emphasize drunken swimming pool hookups than socially mindful agendas.
Zamora was an HIV-positive, Cuban American gay man who died of AIDS the day after the "San Francisco" season finale aired. The young HIV educator -- he was 22 when he died -- was always on message. He brought a scrapbook of his education work to show his cast mates, immediately lectured them on HIV transmission and took them along on his speaking gigs. And he and his boyfriend, Sean Sasser, had a tear-jerking commitment ceremony before the cameras.
That anyone who saw that season's "Real World" cannot get Zamora's story out of their minds has led us to "Pedro," a biopic by MTV and "Real World" creators Bunim-Murray, directed by Nick Oceano -- and written by Dustin Lance Black of Oscar-winning "Milk" fame. It airs on MTV Wednesday at 8 p.m., although some members of Congress are getting a sneak-peek screening earlier in the day. That is how big Zamora was -- the film also includes a reenactment of then-President Clinton's phone call of appreciation to Zamora and his family. (On MTV, Clinton will introduce the film.)
"Real World" producers own the story rights to cast members' lives during their period of filming, even beyond, apparently, death. But Bunim-Murray bought Zamora's life rights as well, and so the film spans events from Zamora's family's departure from Cuba to his sudden decline and death.
Most memorably -- and jarringly, for "Real World" viewers and postmodern culture enthusiasts -- the film reenacts actual sequences from the show. Actors play the reality stars in that season's infamous standoff between Zamora (Alex Loynaz) and rude bike-messenger housemate David "Puck" Rainey (Matt Barr). During a fictional casting of Zamora, actors play MTV's producers as well. Meanwhile, some of Zamora's actual former housemates -- "San Francisco" costars Judd Winick and Pam Ling, who became his close friends during the taping and later married each other -- appear in cameos. As does "Real World" co-creator Jonathan Murray.
The movie, therefore, reflects the maturation of reality television as a genre; its stories are now informing scripted projects.
But it is also overtly a time capsule as a history of MTV's past, before "The Osbournes" and the like came along. Back then, MTV often produced something called "scripted" or "fact-based" programming, including 2001's "Anatomy of a Hate Crime," a take on Matthew Shepard's murder.
In that light, "Pedro" closes a trend circle of the last 15 years. In a short conversation, Brian Graden, president of entertainment for MTV Networks Music Channels and president of Logo, used the word "earnest" no fewer than three times, once when speaking about the current "Real World" season.
"This season, it's so earnest. The kids are so real," Graden said of the "Real World: Brooklyn" cast, which does somewhat resemble the year of Zamora.
"Thank you for noticing!" said executive producer Jonathan Murray.
Their plan for Season 21 -- which counts among its cast a transgender woman, a gay Cuban American man (no relation to Zamora, but consciously chosen) and a young veteran of the war in Iraq -- was to return to storytelling, to "distinguish 'Brooklyn' from the crazier stuff in the real world," Murray said. "I think we won back a lot of viewers who'd left us."
"You get a lot of cartoonish reality on other networks," said Graden, "but this show is thriving and it's hotter than ever, and it has the least amount of artifice."
Graden was quick to say he doesn't judge, though. "We have other shows where that's an important element," he said. Under his oversight of MTV Networks, we have gotten "The Hills," "Paris Hilton's My New BFF," and, for CMT, "The Ultimate Coyote Ugly Search."
On those sorts of shows, Graden said, "The puppet strings are pulled in nine days," meaning there is fakery. "But," he continued, " 'The Real World' as it exists now is a counterpoint to all that. I think Jon [Murray] would say this, too -- it's a show that allows enough time to actually collect real dynamics to unfold as opposed to quasi-real dynamics."
Moved by 'Pedro'
These counterpoised cast members of "The Real World" are forbidden from, among other activities, attending movies during the show's filming.
So shortly before the November election, the "Brooklyn" cast was stoked to have "Pedro" screened for them. They are the perfect captive demo audience after all -- and what an excellent opportunity for intra-network promotion, as demonstrated in the epi- sode in which they all watch "Pedro," which aired earlier this month.
"They were so genuinely moved by it," said Maggie Malina, executive producer for MTV of the film.
"Brooklyn" transgender cast member Katelynn Cusanelli, 25, was a huge fan of Zamora. "It was him and Ruthie, pretty much, from 'Hawaii' " -- Ruthie Alcaide was the bisexual in Season 8 -- "those were my role models growing up on television."
Cusanelli is decidedly following in Zamora's messaging footsteps. "This was merely my launching platform," she said of her reality show tenure. She is now working on a book and is headed off for a college speaking tour, doing education work about transgender issues. "The world will see much more of me and my message." (Well, just wait 15 years, young pioneer, and maybe you'll have your own MTV biopic.)
Making use of a reality show to pimp your cause instead of your ride, can, of course, change lives. "The main reason I came to MTV was Pedro," said Graden, who turned 46 last week. "I was having trouble coming out of the closet and being brave about that."