By now, you know the drill. Strangers are picked to live in a house, where they will stop being polite and start getting real, etc. Here are The Ringer’s top 25 seasons in the history of the MTV franchise.
25. Hollywood (Season 20)
Curiously, a season set in the heart of Hollywood was so unmemorable. In 2008, The Hills was at its peak performance, so perhaps there was room for only one MTV show about young, beautiful people following their dreams while keeping it real in the City of Angels. Season 20 is most notable as being the first to feature hour-long episodes; previously, the show was aired in 30-minute installments. —Conor Nevins
24. Cancun (Season 22)
This is when I gave up on The Real World. Two decades of sticking to the same formula gave way to debauchery by numbers, so while Cancun had plenty of big moments—there was a threesome involving two cast members and a guy who threw a fire extinguisher for some reason, and a love triangle that includes only two of the threesome participants—any emotional weight had been scooped out. (A more serious example comes about midway through the season when a cast member with a history of self-mutilation cuts herself and is rebuked by some of her roommates for seeking attention. It’s not great.) If it wasn’t clear that the party’s over, LMFAO makes multiple appearances. —Justin Verrier
23. Denver (Season 18)
The Real World formula can be summed up tidily in one word: extra. Conflict is heightened continuously to maximum effect, usually lubricated by copious amounts of alcohol and bad decision-making. But the secret to a successful season is finding the small, quiet moments to let it breathe; a mundane interaction between two roommates on a walk to the store, or during a cigarette break, often produces some of the most meaningful interactions—until the next fight. There are some epic blowouts in Season 18, including some truly ugly moments, like when Davis uses a racial slur toward Tyrie after the two get into a heated argument. Denver has its tender moments, but everyone would have benefited from taking a breath. —Nevins
22. Sydney (Season 19)
Australia seemed to be an inspired choice to revamp the franchise, but Sydney never hit its stride. —Nevins
21. Skeletons (Season 30)
Skeletons wasn’t the first Real World season to come with a gimmick—that dishonor goes to Ex-Plosion—but it’s undoubtedly the best, as the show’s seven strangers were intermittently surprised by people with whom they had unresolved issues (family members, exes, former friends). But gimmicks aside, the quality of Skeletons ultimately came down to the core cast, and Skeletons had a great one. It’s no surprise that much of the cast would go on to flourish on The Challenge for years to come. There was Bruno, the lovable doofus; Sylvia, who could explode with the flip of a switch; Nicole, the tough tomboy with an absurd accent; and, of course, there was Tony, perhaps the worst decision-maker in the history of the Real World/Challenge universe. Overall, that group led to a surprisingly good season so late in Real World’s run, while Tony specifically delivered one of the funniest moments in the show’s history when his skeleton showed up at the house. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. —Andrew Gruttadaro
20. London (Season 4)
I can always see people actively scanning their memory banks when I bring up Real World: London as one of my very favorite seasons, and it’s never until I continue: “ … it’s the one where that guy Neil gets his tongue bitten off by a guy in the mosh pit during a punk concert?” that they smile with vague recognition. But while that bit of oral violence may be the most widely remembered moment from the season, it’s also a misleading association for a Real World installment as defined by its serenity as London was. (OK, fine, there was also the time someone’s angry girlfriend mailed them a pig heart with a nail stuck through it, but the thing is, that was also Neil!) A far cry from other seasons in which the roommates had jobs or visions of fame, the majority of Real World: London characters just kind of … hung out. They were, and I say this with extreme appreciation, so exceedingly dull and idle that one episode’s plotline literally revolved around two dudes who were always asleep on the sofa: Sharon gets a waitress job, while Jacinda has a casting interview, but both of them are unfulfilled by the experiences. A bored Mike and Jay, who have little to do in London, sleep during the day and engage in nighttime antics that anger Jacinda. Mike gets a job teaching inline skating, while Sharon tries her hand at being a salesperson. Other episodes in this underrated gem feature a quest for ranch dressing, a Blues Traveler concert, a ropes course, tonsillitis, and “Lars’s outrage at the cast’s apathy over his mountain bike being stolen from the house.” That, my friends, is some REAL real-world shit. —Katie Baker
19. Portland (Season 28)
If your introduction to the Real World franchise comes via The Challenge, then you’re familiar with Jordan, the athletic, argumentative, and arrogant three-time (and counting) champion who’s approaching GOAT status. Portland is the syllabus to understanding Jordan’s backstory, but he’s not the most combative and conflict-prone roommate from Season 28. That distinction belongs to Nia, who joined the cast after the third episode when Joi returned home. Nia fought with pretty much everyone in the house, Jordan included, but her clash with house couple Averey and Johnny is one of the most disturbing in the franchise’s history—not least of which because it endangered Daisy, Averey’s dog, who was the first Real World pet to get a cast member credit. —Nevins
18. New Orleans (Season 24)
City reboot seasons rarely surpass their predecessors—see: Las Vegas—and this New Orleans sequel is no exception. This 2010 retread did manage to tear down a fourth wall concerning the show’s secrecy: The location of the house (which was previously owned by former Hornets guard Baron Davis) was made public before the premiere in a police report filed by one of the cast members, which also revealed one of the season’s stranger subplots. From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
A MTV “Real World: New Orleans” housemate urinated on a rival’s toothbrush and used it to scrub a toilet, sickening the other resident during filming of the upcoming season of the long-running reality TV show, according to a police report filed on the incident.
The aggrieved housemate, Ryan Leslie, blamed the tainted toothbrush for a subsequent illness, and summoned police to the Uptown New Orleans house in the 1600 block of Dufossat Street. Though police conducted interviews and confiscated evidence, no one was arrested.
Sure enough, the incident, which involved Ryan, whose toothbrush was tainted, and Preston, the alleged toothbrush tainter, was aired in the season’s fourth episode. —Nevins
17. Brooklyn (Season 21)
Brooklyn was a return to Real World’s roots and a refreshing reboot after several stale seasons that preceded it. Katelynn, the Real World’s first openly transgender roommate, struggles to come out to several of her roommates. Ryan copes with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his deployment to Iraq and learns during the season that he will be recalled to active duty. The cast members weren’t required to participate in a group project or work together, which removed some of the artifice that weighed down past seasons and rooted the Brooklyn cast more firmly in their real lives. —Nevins
16. Las Vegas (Season 25)
After all of those hot tub scenes, and everything that Trishelle did, it’s no surprise that MTV waited 13 seasons to return to Las Vegas. And if you thought there was no way that the sequel could match the original … you were right—but Vegas II still had its high points. On top of introducing all-time Challenge stars Leroy and Nany, the season featured: an extremely dramatic plot documenting Adam’s self-destruction and substance misuse issues; a tension-filled story line involving Dustin’s reluctance to disclose his past as an amateur webcam performer to new flame Heather; and an incredible odd-couple bromance in the form of Leroy and his very white, very nerdy sidekick Michael. It wasn’t as high-flying as the first Vegas—and certainly not as well watched—but it was still a good season of The Real World, pretty late in the game. —Gruttadaro
15. Key West (Season 17)
Mother Nature deserves a producer’s credit for this season. Hurricanes Rita and Wilma forced the cast to retreat to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale during production, probably the most noteworthy events from the season. You might wonder why Key West ranks this low despite being the birthplace of Johnny Bananas. But remember, back then, he was just “John” and “basically a nonfactor on his season.” —Nevins
14. Austin (Season 16)
As one of my first forays into the transformative medium that is basic-cable reality TV, The Real World: Austin captivated teenage me with its outspoken cast and a rotation of subplots bursting with violence, sex, alcohol, and complicated interpersonal relationships. I can remember making the weekly trip down into our basement to watch the show, ashamed that I had picked Austin over something more family-friendly like American Idol. I was 15 when the season premiered, and eager to consume anything that depicted the messy dramatics of young adult life, which, in this case, happened to involve everything from a street fight resulting in a serious injury, to a forbidden lust between roommates, to a public intoxication arrest. That being said, Austin has range—not only did it give us the at-times infuriating showmance between Melinda and Danny, it also managed to ground us with heavier topics, such as the Iraq War and the death of a parent. And while all Real World seasons feel “of the time,” for me, as someone who grew up in the 2000s, Austin really strikes hard of being in that not-so-distant, but distinctly different era. —Amelia Wedemeyer
13. California (Season 2)
If Season 1 created the template, Season 2 is where the show sharpened some of the beats that carried it through the next three decades. It had the first memorable blowout, which spawned the first quotable line and, ultimately, the first eviction. Jon, a virgin in a Garth Brooks costume, and Irene, a bride-to-be, pushed the fish-out-of-water and housemate-saddled-by-a-relationship archetypes to the extremes. Tami was a tour de force—she would later marry Kenny Anderson and appear on Basketball Wives. And there was even a Winnebago ride, two years before the launch of Road Rules. Things got a little less real, and the show was better off for it. —Verrier
12. New Orleans (Season 9)
I don’t know why this season, from 2000, stands out so clearly in my memory. It does, though. Maybe because I was living on my own in an apartment for the first time, and therefore—to coin a phrase—“in the real world”? Or maybe this season just happened to nail a lot of the small, quirky stuff that the producers can’t plan in advance, deep-down X factor stuff like “your good-girl Mormon cast member turns out to display flashes of an evil genius that will come to fruition only years later, on the infamous Challenge episode where she maybe tries to murder somebody by tampering with their zipline harness” (hi, Julie). Stuff like “your triumphant aspiring-singer-seeking-his-shot-at-the-big-time arc climaxes with him performing the national anthem at a minor league hockey game where 90 percent of the seats are empty” (David … hello). Stuff like “a cast member ends up so over the house that she basically moves out and spends the entire season living with her boyfriend, and people keep asking where she is, and then she later turns out to have married Scott Wolf” (what’s new, Kelley—I Googled you).
I don’t know, the Y2K-era Real World seasons just have a funny freshness about them. Nearly a decade into the series’ run, it’s lost all radio contact with reality; we’re now entirely immersed in the show’s alternate dimension of trash-luxe mansions and infantilizing team jobs and never-ending pool parties. But that dimension itself is still pretty new. It’s not slick or overly familiar, to us or to the cast members. We’ve realized that everything is a trope, but we’re still doing the strange work of feeling out what the tropes are. It’s like watching seven people make base camp on a new planet. Three thousand years in the future, that planet will be Bravo, the hub of a thriving intergalactic civilization, but for now you still need a helmet to breathe the atmosphere. It’s kind of riveting. The Real World would put out better and worse seasons over the next 20 years, but it would never again give us anything quite this goofily indicative of the course of human destiny. —Brian Phillips
11. San Diego (Season 14)
Remembering San Diego is an opportunity to celebrate Jamie Chung, who is arguably the most famous person to come out of the Real World universe. After appearing on The Real World and later The Challenge (which she won), Chung elevated her career by acting in movies like The Hangover Part II and has amassed a dense IMDb résumé. She’s cemented herself next to Real World alums like Jacinda Barrett, Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, and Sean Duffy as people who used the show as a launching pad to more fame. I wasn’t old enough to watch The Real World: Seattle, so I didn’t get to see Janet Choi, but as a Korean American, seeing Chung break stereotypes of what an Asian on TV should be like was monumental for me. She spent the whole season being her authentic self and never leaned into any stereotypes. Being able to see that during the formative years of my life, on MTV of all places, is something I’ll never forget. —Sean Yoo
10. Boston (Season 6)
Whereas the first five seasons of The Real World had featured one, maybe two agents of chaos in the household, the casting directors of Real World: Boston seemingly decided to try to make the whole plane out of ‘em. There was Genesis, whose troubled past made her a volatile presence right from the start, and Sean, whose in-house debates were, in hindsight, decent training for his future stint as a Repulican representative. Montana was a real doozy: one half of the most epic breakup scene ever put to film (“Well, BUMMER!” is a real mood) who also got fired from the roommates’ gig at an after-school program after preteens tried wine on her watch. And that, regrettably, wasn’t even the only time that someone’s drama infiltrated what was supposed to be a safe space for kids. Two roommates were sent home for fighting about whether one of them boned someone, while a third went out with a parent. Boston was memorable for its fights and outbursts and the inabilities of seemingly everyone except poor Anthony to be the adult in the room, but it also makes it rough to revisit. As one sweeping look into The Real World series on Longread ultimately concluded, Boston “would mark the show’s transition from unscripted soap opera to unapologetic grotesque, a.k.a. what we now consider the reality-television standard.” In other words, the season the show itself stopped being polite and got a little too real. –Baker
9. Back to New York (Season 10)
Name a more iconic Real World duo than Coral and Mike. I’ll wait. —Nevins
8. Paris (Season 13)
It’s tempting to claim that this season was a profound exploration of young Americans living abroad in a post-9/11 world. But let’s start getting real. Paris, despite some discussion among the housemates about the Iraq War, is notable for one reason: It introduced us to Chris “C.T.” Tamburello.
The Methuen, Massachusetts–raised bro was the embodiment of a reality show archetype: the guy from Boston. He was loud, brash, and had a cartoonishly thick accent. Hearing him talk, you could almost smell the Dunkin’ Donuts French Vanilla iced coffee with 12 sugars on his breath. The classic Real World antagonist—he constantly was bickering with everyone, especially Leah Gillingwater—was clearly destined for a certain kind of stardom.
C.T. has spent the last two decades wreaking havoc on MTV’s The Challenge. But remember: If you run into him, don’t call him by his nickname. “I always say that calling me C.T. off the show,” he told Rolling Stone in 2018, “is like calling a dancer by their stage name when they’re not dancing.” —Alan Siegel
7. New York (Season 1)
Unquestionably the no. 1 Real World season in any chronological ranking of the show, the 1992 New York edition deserves credit/blame for essentially inventing the modern reality-television genre. If TV history were Greek myth, this would be the moment when the Olympian gods overthrew the Titans. Or it would be, if the Olympian gods had turned away from the steaming corpses of their enemies and immediately gotten into an argument about why Poseidon never did the dishes. (This metaphor tracks better than you’d think: The Greek gods also spawned a long-running series whose major themes were identity and hooking up.)
How far back into the dawn of reality TV have we gone here? The first Real World episode opens with Eric, the first cast member ever to talk into a camera, literally wondering how reality TV might work: “At first I thought that they were gonna put us in, like, this little box,” he says. The first version of the famous intro voice-over already includes the show’s most iconic phrase—we knew from day one that we were here to stop being polite and start getting real—but what’s even more striking now is the word the show chooses to describe what it’s going to do to the cast members’ lives. It’s going to “tape” them, a verb that sounded casual and current in 1992 and that now sounds like something Hephaestus might have engraved on a spear shaft.
Overall, the first season is remarkable for being as substantive as it is. It’s no secret that The Real World was always interested in how young people actually think about race, gender, sexuality, and class (or at least interested in how it could shovel those keywords into the drama furnace). Still, given the, uh, broad legacy of the reality genre and the expectations it’s accrued over the years, it’s kind of surprising to see how relatively high-minded its origins are. There’s less sex and chair-hurling, more thoughtful conversation than you might expect. People are also fairly polite, for the most part? Maybe reality TV was better before people knew what it was; in any case, this is as far as the show’s dial ever swung toward its title. —Phillips
6. Chicago (Season 11)
This season is most notable for the indelible image of the seven roommates huddled around watching a spotty feed of the World Trade Center towers fall on September 11, 2001 –Nevins
5. Miami (Season 5)
I probably watched every episode of this season in 1996. I do not super remember any of it in 2020. Just being real. This was an inflection point for the series on several different fronts, as the show slowly became less about real people living in the (ahem) real world and more about proto-influencers being lightly surveilled within an indoor spring-break setting. This was the first season when the cast members had a job assigned by the show (they were given $50,000 to start a business, but they didn’t manage to start it, so … smartest cast ever, I guess?). First season where cast members had a shower threesome (I do remember this episode, less for the blurry threesome itself than for the fact that a splinter group of cast members excluded from the fun broke a window while trying to spy on it). First season where a cast member said, “I’m not here to make friends” (shouts to Cynthia, whom the Internet IDs as perhaps the first person in reality-TV history to give voice to this staple phrase). First season to be set in Florida, too—the state that, spiritually if not physically, would be the true home of just about every future edition of the franchise. —Phillips
4. Las Vegas (Season 12)
I remember learning an important lesson while watching the first Las Vegas–set season of The Real World: There is no correlation between age and maturity. The entire cast was at least 21—that way they could legally enjoy Ghostbar™, upstairs from their suite at the Palms—but that didn’t keep the group from acting like a bunch of wild teens.
There’s no way to prove this, and it might just be because the show’s editors played it up, but it at least felt like there was way more sex happening among cast members than during any other year. And oh boy, did that cause drama. At one point, a peeved Brynn throws a fork at, and then attacks, Steven. That comes after he slept with Trishelle and cursed Brynn out. For her outburst, Brynn almost got kicked out of their iconically tacky pad. Alas, she was allowed to stay, and the party raged on. —Siegel
3. Hawaii (Season 8)
The first episode of Hawaii began with Teck Holmes jumping into the house pool nude and exclaiming, “I’m naked!” (You may recognize Teck from the Ryan Reynolds vehicle National Lampoon’s Van Wilder; his character owned a dog with large testicles.) Hawaii is the last season of Real World to air before Y2K; it’s the last season to air before the debut of Survivor, which took the crown of most popular reality show and legitimized and diversified the genre in a way The Real World never could. And those facts give Hawaii—from that naked dip in the premiere; to Amaya and Colin’s on-again, off-again relationship; to Ruthie’s struggle with alcohol misuse, truly one of the “realer,” most important moments in the series’ history—an air of being the last party before the fall. For a certain age group, The Real World was the most important entity in popular culture, but that was about to change. At least Real World’s stranglehold on our collective imaginations ended with a bang and a months-long trip to Waikiki Beach. —Gruttadaro
2. Seattle (Season 7)
It’s impossible to talk about Seattle without talking about “the slap,” so let’s just dive right in: After Irene decides to leave the house upon revealing she has Lyme disease, she teases Stephen—the two have had a tempestuous relationship—by calling him a “homosexual,” which provokes Stephen to call Irene a “bitch,” run inside the house, grab Irene’s beloved stuffed animal (which he had previously taken and hidden), and chuck it into the bay next to the house. But that’s not even the most memorable scene. As Irene is being driven away, Stephen runs to the car, swings open the passenger-side door and SLAPS HER IN THE FACE. Later, after reviewing footage of the incident, Stephen’s appalled housemates vote to let him remain in the house for the rest of the season on the condition that he goes to therapy to deal with his anger.
There are other reasons to remember Seattle: namely, David Burns, the charming and handsome roommate from Boston. Questions arise about David’s sexuality—he kisses a drag queen at a gay bar—but they’re put to rest after it’s revealed he has a secret lover. Who is this mystery woman? The casting director of the show!! I KNOW! The two had apparently fallen for each other during the casting process, which means she “broke the rules” and literally lost her job to be with David. It’s a whole thing that culminates in a mic’d-up off-camera argument between the casting director and David, with David crying and confessing his true love for her. It’s a wild season set amid the backdrop of ’90s Seattle. Plus, there’s a Real World/Road Rules challenge, and Sir-Mix-a-Lot. Seattle is basically like if an SNL Stefon sketch came to life. I still can’t believe it really happened. But it did and it was incredible to watch. —Logan Rhodes
1. San Francisco (Season 3)
As part of his audition tape for The Real World: San Francisco, Pedro Zamora addresses his potential roommates. “I’m very confrontational, but I’m not confrontational in a threatening way,” he says. “… I am a person living with AIDS, and I am a gay man, and I am Hispanic … and this is simply who I am. And I’ll tell you upfront, I’m very open about it. How you deal with it is up to you. This is simply who I am. I don’t have to apologize to anybody for it. I’ll tell you, if you have a problem with it, if you need to deal with it, I’m very open to what you think and helping you deal with it.”
The Real World is, at its core, a show about voyeurism. The nihilistic pleasure of exposing oneself—and watching one expose themselves—is not specific to the social media age. But there was a moment, in San Francisco, in 1995, when the show managed to achieve something beyond gawking and gaping: It bore witness. Remember, this was a time when the show’s novelty was still intact: It represented something exotic, radical even. Looking back, San Francisco feels completely unrecognizable today both in how the show has evolved (or devolved) and how the city has changed—the Russian Hill neighborhood where the cast members lived had not yet been transformed by the looming tech billionaires.
I didn’t recognize Pedro, a 21-year-old openly gay, HIV-positive man, at the time I watched San Francisco, which is to say I didn’t see myself in him. Not yet, at least. I was in my early teens, still too young to have known (or accepted) I was gay. It wasn’t until I rewatched the show years later that I became aware of how profoundly Pedro’s experience affected me. There had literally never been anyone like him on television, and there really hasn’t since. He was open about his sexuality, about sex; he fell in love on the show; he was an activist, and an educator, and he engaged with his roommates’ questions, however offensive, with dignity and grace.
Pedro lived a full life on camera. He was the first gay man I had ever seen on television. He died hours after the final episode aired at the age of 22 due to complications of AIDS. –Nevins