In 1992, Mary Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray came up with the idea of putting a random grab bag of seven twenty-somethings of different races, gender, and sexualities into an upscale apartment for six months, install a bunch of cameras inside, and air the ensuing film on national television. The ensuing show was a massive hit and, along with COPS, is considered one of the fathers of reality TV. It spawned a Spin-Off, Road Rules (aka "The Real World in an RV!"), and a crossover series, Real World/Road Rules Challenge (later known as The Challenge).
The early seasons were ground-breaking in the way they dealt with a ton of social issues rarely addressed on television at the time, such as homophobia, AIDS, abortion, racism, alcoholism, eating disorders, etc. However, gimmicks began to slowly enter into the premise after the show's fourth season. The most notable one was forcing the group to work at a job of MTV's choosing, which quickly went from something normal but meaningful like working at an after-school program, to glamorous media-related jobs. Further changing things was the ratings success of The Real World: Hawai'i, which featured a gaggle of hedonistic party animals whose topless hot-tub parties and marathon drinking caused the show to score major ratings. This led to the producers slowly abandoning the documentary-style nature of the show, as later seasons became more and more about picking people who will get drunk, make out, and start fights on-camera.
Furthermore, it has managed to kick start careers for a number of talented people. Notable alumni include:
- New York: Eric Nies (host of MTV's The Grind and actor), Kevin Powell (author and political activist), Heather B (rapper and radio personality).
- Los Angles: Tami Roman, still a reality television personality featured on VH1's Basketball Wives.
- San Franciso: Judd Winick (Cartoonist & comic book writer, creator of The Life and Times of Juniper Lee), Rachel Campos-Duffy (Conservative television personality and previous host of The View).
- London: Jacinda Barrett, actress primarily known for Ladder 49.
- Boston: Sean Duffy, a conservative politician who was elected as the U.S. Representative for Wisconsin's 7th congressional district.
- Seattle: Lindsay Brien, radio and TV personality.
- Hawaii: "Teck" Holmes, actor and host of MTV's Direct Effect.
- New Orleans: Melissa Howard (tv personality), Julie Stoffer (tv personality, most known for hosting G4 show Electric Playground.
- Back to New York: Mike "The Miz" Mizanin, professional wrestler with WWE.
- Chicago: Kyle Brandt, prominent sports personality and actor.
- Paris: Mallory Snyder (model), Simon Sherry-Wood (model, known for being in RuPaul's Drag Race's Pit Crew)
- San Diego: Jamie Chung, actress, primarily known her roles in Once Upon a Time and The Gifted.
- Philadelphia: Karamo Brown (activist and TV personality, later known for appearing Queer Eye), and Willie Hernandez (previously known as Hector on Ghostwriter).
And voice actress Tracy Grandstaff (Daria), who appeared in the show's test-run season zero.
The series remains MTV's longest-running show. In 2019, a MTV-produced Real World season will premiere exclusively for Facebook's Facebook Watch video platform. In 2021, MTV started doing several mini-series titled The Real World: Homecoming for Paramount+ where they unite the casts of the original seasons for two weeks to live amongst each other again. Casts that have been reunited include the first New York season, Los Angeles, and New Orleans.
This show provides examples of:
- Abortion Fallout Drama: In Season 2, Tammy had an abortion and was given the option by producers to have all references to her pregnancy edited out. She chose not to and this became a storyline, though Tammy herself was very at peace with her decision. One of the other housemates was very opposed to it.
- The Alcoholic: Ruthie from the Hawaii season drank so much that she got alcohol poisoning. The housemates and her sisters threatened to have the producers kick her out if she didn't go to rehab. After her stint on the show, she does speaking engagements about alcoholism awareness.
- The Blank: Danny's regular boyfriend Paul Dill, a Marine Corps officer. To protect his identity, the show agreed to extensively blur his face and name in order to keep him from being outed, since exposure could have led to him being discharged from the Marines due to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." We know his full name now because Paul left the military a couple years after the season aired. He and Danny filmed a special on MTV about living under DADT, where Paul showed his face on camera for the first time.
- Bleached Underpants: Dustin Zito, who claims to be 100% straight and is more than a little homophobic, starred in several online gay-for-pay pornographic videos with other guys in the past. MTV is apparently trying their best to remove the evidence from the internet.
- Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male: Notably averted in the first Las Vegas season: Brynn was nearly kicked off the show for throwing something at Steven in a yandere outburst after he broke off the Triang Relations between them and Trishelle. They spent nearly an entire episode discussing the incident—including Steven lampshading that if the situation were reversed, there's no way in Hell that he would still be on the show—before the situation was ultimately defused, and Steven and Brynn came to an understanding and made up.
- Down on the Farm: nearly every season features somebody who grew up in a small, rural midwestern town.
- Drowning My Sorrows: In the opening two-parter of Las Vegas, Frank is shown drinking water in anger during Steven and Trishelle's first hook-up.A recapper on Television Without Pity: Frank angrily drinks a glass of water in the bathroom. I didn't know it was possible to drink a glass of water angrily, but I have seen it with my own eyes.
- Establishing Character Moment: In the Hawaii season, Ruthie and Teck were the first two housemates to arrive. The first thing they did when they stepped into the house? Strip naked and cannonball in the pool. That set the tone for the rest of the season, and probably the entire show afterwards.
- Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Trishelle from the Las Vegas season, and Ruthie from the Hawaii season before her. In Ruthie's case, her drunken party antics (including giving a lap dance to their boss's wife) nearly got her kicked out of the house if she didn't go to rehab. Most of the girls in the later seasons could also qualify for this trope, specifically Jenn from the Denver season, Ayiiia from Cancun, Marie from St. Thomas, Ashley M. from Explosion, and many more.
- Ashley in particulars drunken behavior was so bad, her roommates kicked her out in just three episodes.
- Hated by All: several times on the show, there have been roommates whom the rest of the cast hated. Puck from San Francisco, Tonya from Chicago, Ayiiia from Cancun, Ryan from New Orleans, Ashley M. from Explosion, and Jenna from Go Big or Go Home. According to interviews, cast in general are usually disliked by the citizens who hate that the show is being shot in there city. Theyve gone on record that this has been the source of many fights between cast members and residents of the town.
- Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?: In the Las Vegas season, Steven works at a gay bar but is totally straight, and in the second Las Vegas season, Dustin had a history of working in a lot of gay porn, but he insists he is completely straight.
- Hide Your Gays: VERY much averted. Nearly every season has had at least one LGBT participant, which is so well-known to the housemates that when the new season's cast first meet, somebody asks, "Okay, which one of us is the gay one?"
- Hotter and Sexier: The Hawaii season may have kicked off the show's shift to more drinking and nudity, but it's the Las Vegas season that essentially cemented the show's reputation for debauchery.
- Hypocritical Humor: Aaron from Season 2 criticized women who do scantily-clad or nude scenes for advertising. When the women discovered that Aaron himself had done some cheesecake photos wearing nothing but a strategically placed surfboard, they printed hundreds of copies and practically wall-papered the house with it.
- Ill Girl: Frankie Abernathy (cystic fibrosis) and Pedro Zamora (AIDS) — both of whom died after shooting their respective seasons.
- It's Always Mardi Gras in New Orleans: during both of the New Orleans seasons, they show Mardi Gras prominently.
- Loophole Abuse: According to Ruthie from the Hawaii season, they figured out that if they didn't want to be on camera or didn't want the producers to interfere in certain matters, they would just go naked because the mics couldn't be worn. The producers wised up to this, and created special necklaces with the mics inside and told the cast that if they did take off their clothes, they had to keep the necklaces on.
- Odd Friendship: In "The Real World: Las Vegas", who knew a tall muscular garbageman (Leroy) and a scrawny, nerdy grad student (Mike) would have maybe the strongest friendship the show has ever seen?
- Out of Focus: Although Pam was technically one of the cast members of the San Francisco season, she had limited screentime because she was a third-year medical student and was finishing her rotations during the season.
- Almost every season has at least one castmate who doesn't get much screentime. Baya from the Brooklyn season, Eric from New Orleans (2010), Derek from Cancun, Brynn from Las Vegas, Ashley C. from Explosion, etc.
- Pet Homosexual: During the 2011 season the girls in the apartment were hoping their new roommate would be a gay man so that they could have one of these, and also because they wanted to see the other guys feel uncomfortable.
- The Plan: Subjective. While Kyle Brandt (The Real World: Chicago) and his scheme to present a complete facade of being an "earnest cool guy" fell apart during the final days of filming, he DID win in the end as far as using his tenure on The Real World to land a rather well-received run on the soap opera Days of Our Lives and, ultimately, landing work as a staff member on Jim Rome's radio program.
- Pixellation: Nudity got blurred a lot, especially in the later seasons.
- It actually created a problem during the Hawaii season. According to a documentary about filming the show, the producers said that since they put a bunch of hedonistic young adults in paradise, nobody, male or female, ever wanted to wear a shirt. This was something of a problem for the producers, since they still needed to find a way to put microphones on the cast members. They finally came up with the idea of putting the mics inside puka-shell necklaces and mandating that the cast wear them at all times.
- Replacement Goldfish: Subverted; Neil from the London season was cast SPECIFICALLY because the producers were hoping that Neil (who bore a striking resemblance to San Francisco/season three's Puck) would be just like him and create a lot of drama. What they got instead was a guy who was the complete opposite of Puck as far as being open minded, highly educated, and all around nice to be around. Ironically, that's what they were expecting out of Puck in the first place.
- The Rival: Irene McGee, who left the Seattle season after becoming fed up with the show's producers trying to manipulate her and her fellow castmates for drama. She's since become one of the most high-profile critics of both the show and of Reality TV in general, giving lectures on how it manipulates both the participants and the viewers.
- Roommate Com: The creators essentially took the basic elements of this trope (group of 20-somethings living together in a nice apartment not doing much work but partying a lot) and decided to film them without a script, thus birthing the Reality Show genre.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Justin Deabler from the Hawaii season ultimately quit the show because he was tired of his roommates' drunken antics. A handful of other cast members have quit the show because of Executive Meddling or their housemates' debauchery. This is less common in post-Hawaii seasons, since the casting is more geared toward Reality TV archetypes.
- Spin-Off: Road Rules, which started out as The Real World in an RV!. The two shows later started crossing over with The Real World/Road Rules Challenge (later known simply as The Challenge following Road Rules' cancellation), which incorporates Game Show elements.
- Self-Harm: Ayiiia, from the Cancun season, is seen cutting. As well as Frankie from San Diego.
- Southern Belle: plenty of these, some prominent examples being Julie from the New York season, Trishelle from Las Vegas, Cameran from San Diego, Brooke from Denver, Kimberly from Hollywood, Jemmye and Mckenzie from the 2010 New Orleans season, Jessica from Portland, and Jenna from Go Big or Go Home.
- Unbuilt Trope: The show was reality television before "reality television" was even coined as a term. Several of the older seasons play out like a deconstruction of a reality show, long before the usual reality TV tropes made their way into the show after the medium broke out in the Turn of the Millennium.
- Workaholic: Pam from Season 3 was a 3rd year medical student doing her rotations and, as a result, was barely on the show.