Pandemic binge-watching: The Real World

Dear Willow:

Did you see that there’s going to be a reunion series for the first cast of MTV’s The Real World?

As the most squarely Gen X of the Willow staff, I expect this is more meaningful to me than anyone else here, but I have an even stronger connection beyond generational fealty. The Real World: New York is the first TV show I ever binged, and it also played a big role in forging the relationship that would turn into my marriage.

Kathy and I had started seeing each other in the spring of ‘92, with no particular plans for any kind of future given that I was graduating and she had a year to go at the University of Illinois. We enjoyed each other’s company and started to hang out a lot, to the point where I actually prepped for the GRE as an excuse to study together.

Graduation came, I had no job lined up, and Kathy was staying for summer school, so I grabbed a summer sublet in Champaign with some friends. Since I didn’t have a job, in some ways my vocation at the time was getting to know this young woman, and it is The Real World: New York that gave us the first concrete sign that we were quite possibly suited to spend the rest of our lives together. Back then, unless you were particularly dedicated to setting up the timer on your VCR, it was impossible to binge a show until MTV pioneered the viewing “marathon,” airing every episode of The Real World: New York back-to-back over a single weekend.

My friends, my future wife and I watched every single episode that weekend. For sustenance, we split a whole tube of Pillsbury Grands Cinnamon Rolls and then, come evening, paid an extortionate delivery fee for Kentucky Fried Chicken so we wouldn’t miss a minute.

Perhaps not the stuff of great romance, but who is to say that greasy fingers brushing as you dip your hands into the chicken bucket is not love?

The Real World: New York marathon revealed that we simply enjoyed being together, even when we were doing nothing or, more accurately, particularly when we were doing nothing.

Years later, in the fall of 2001, we were again living in Champaign while Kathy completed her veterinary internship year. After 9/11, to escape the non-stop horror of the news, we rented and watched every season of Sex and the City.

We’re not alone in that response. Since the time of Real World, binge-watching TV has become a way of coping with traumas both global and personal, a way to numb ourselves for a time to realities that are, ultimately, inescapable.

In the past year, we’ve seen what happens when widespread access to TV streaming services collides with a global pandemic.

For obvious reasons, in 2020 Netflix added almost 16M subscribers between January and March, a substantially larger number than previous quarters. In May, Comcast reported that Americans were watching, on average, eight hours more TV per week than they were prior to the lockdown, and that more people were watching late into the night. Over the summer, as social distancing continued, younger adults reported watching four hours more per day than they were even in March and April.

But it’s not all bad. While binge-watching does have a numbing effect, it can also be bonding when you’re sharing the experience with others, whether you’re on the same couch or in separate states.

For Kathy and me, I’m pleased to say that it’s reaffirmed our enjoyment of spending time together doing nothing. We are joined in this activity by our elderly dog, Oscar, and sometimes we argue about who has to get up so as not to disturb him. We’ve watched the good (Ted Lasso), the great (Borgen), and the not so great, but oddly compelling (Emily in Paris).

Now we can add the reunion of The Real World: New York to the list. I’m a little worried about seeing how all the cast members have aged, because surely that’s happened to me too, but honestly, who cares about that when you still have someone to share a bucket of chicken with?

In a lot of ways, the pandemic has revealed previously hidden truths about our culture and societal structures, some of which we’ve written about. It’s also been revealing about our relationships.

I’m grateful that Kathy and I were well-prepared for the challenges.

— John

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