The Real World in Chicago: Then and now | Bleader

The Real World in Chicago: Then and now

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Same city, different haircuts.

I wasn't around the last time The Real World filmed in Chicago. In fact, I didn't even watch that season when it was on television because I was in middle school, and my parents wouldn't let me watch MTV. So I definitely wasn't aware of the massive protests that took place in Wicker Park in 2001. Thank goodness for YouTube and the Reader archive; 13 years later I was able to relive the moments when people stopped being polite and started getting real.

In Ted Kleine's 2001 feature he wrote, "MTV spends a lot of time at the beach, filming booties in bikinis. Perhaps the cable network hasn't noticed that the youth culture it wants to sell to Nike and Sony has sprouted a weedy bed of Greens, anarchists, and antiglobalists. Wicker Park still has posters of Karl Marx and plenty of 23-year-olds who ride one-speed bicycles and don't have cable. They think corporate media is a virus."

According to his story, protestors gathered outside the casts' home at 1934 W. North (it's now a Cheetah Gym) throwing cans, bottles, and paint bombs at the building, chanting "We're real, you're not." One such demonstration ended in 15 arrests and got national attention. The main concern was that the show was glamorizing and encouraging the gentrification of the formerly eclectic neighborhood. Locals who tried to say hello to the seven strangers were turned away by security, and even Kleine's best efforts to talk with anyone involved in production resulted in pleas to the house's security cameras and some good ol' fashioned stake-out reporting.

When it was announced that The Real World would be returning to Chicago in the summer of 2014, there were concerns, but most of them seemed to be about the presence of protestors like the ones who took to the streets during the filming of season 11, not about the cast or the filming itself. While some local businesses made it clear that they wouldn't put up with any shit from a group of wasted twentysomethings trying to be reality TV stars, no one argued loudly enough to keep MTV away, and in July, the cast of the show's 30th season moved into a West Loop loft.

The new cast members are really into pointing.
  • Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times Media
  • The new cast members are really into pointing.

I had one brief encounter with the cast while they were filming. A group of them stumbled their way out of River North's Social Twenty Five as I was on my way in (against my better judgement). The hoard of cameras was disorienting, and I wouldn't have even connected the dots except that I recognized a friend of mine who was on the crew. It seemed a couple of the cast members had gotten into a huge fight in the bar and were being directed elsewhere. It was 10 PM on a Friday.

The season premiered on December 16, and the two episodes I've watched have made me wonder how there wasn't more trouble as the group traipsed about town. On the very first day of filming they got into a fight about how they were going to pay for an $800 bar tab at the Packing House, where the distress of the other customers and the waitstaff is evident. In the rest of the first episode and the one to follow, they proceed to loudly embarrass themselves at Oak Street Beach, Sluggers in Wrigleyville, the Beer Bistro, and on their way to Arista Foods—it took them 45 minutes to walk the two blocks from their 1100 W. Randolph loft to the local market.

While full episodes of season 11 are nowhere to be found online, a few YouTube clips illustrated how show itself has changed in the past 13 years. The first season in Chicago was so unbelievably tame that it's hard to imagine anyone even realized they were here at all. First and foremost, getting the cast members jobs was a big deal, you know, like in the real world. In 2001, everyone was employed by the Chicago Park District; this season, the casts only job would appear to be revealing deep, heartbreaking secrets. A major conflict in season 11 was whether they should leave on a Friday or a Saturday to get to a lake house in Wisconsin, and dramatic confrontations were solved with civilized conversation and a handshake. Season 30 adds a twist in which "skeletons" such as childhood enemies, ex-boyfriends, and estranged family members from the housemates' pasts show up to live in the house for a while. People were in meaningful relationships in season 11 (talks of a proposal were even thrown about), while season 30 opened with a mad dash to drunkenly hook up with a roommate as quickly as possible.

Now, don't get me wrong, I LOVE watching this kind of TV. Nothing makes me feel better about myself than being reminded that people who mispronounce words like "muscle" even exist. But watching this cast—which, according to a Chicago Tribune quote from executive producer Jon Murray, is a "group that didn't have a lot on the line"—exist in our city, fighting on the Red Line, getting into drunken arguments in bars that are not the types of places drunken arguments should take place, well, it makes me sad. It's easy to hold the show at arm's length and enjoy it when people are being idiots in San Francisco. When it's in your own backyard, it feels a like a violation. It makes me wonder why we didn't have the same protests that took over the streets of Wicker Park in 2001. Get out of my city, you assholes!

The way reality TV works these days, things are only going to get worse, and I'll be watching the train wreck every step of the way because I really can't help myself. But I'll be feeling that twinge of embarrassment and a loss of integrity for Chicago that was likely what drew people to protest last time around.

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