When MTV's pioneering reality series, "The Real World," came to San Francisco in 1994, its attractive young cast featured Pedro Zamora, a 22-year-old openly gay man who seized the attention of viewers through his struggle with AIDS and sparked a national conversation about gay issues.
It was one of the first times that reality TV was used for a greater purpose.
Twenty years later, "The Real World" is back in San Francisco, but like so many shows of its genre, it no longer harbors such lofty ambitions. Now, the big news is a gimmicky ploy to inject new life into an wheezy franchise: a surprise twist that sees the housemates being confronted by their former lovers.
Bring on "The Real World: Ex-Plosion" -- and all the artificially amped-up drama that entails. Shot over a 10-week period last fall, it begins like any other season: Seven diverse strangers are plopped, like lab rats, into a house and forced to live together. Lots of arguments, hookups, bouts of drunkenness and dips in the hot tub ensue. Only this time, after the roommates have had a few weeks to form new bonds, they go for a day trip and return to their swanky crib on Sutter Street to discover -- shockingly -- that their exes have moved in.
MTV hopes the twist will make "The Real World" appointment viewing once again. The show that set the stage for TV's reality invasion -- its 1992 debut preceded "Survivor" by eight years -- has since been eclipsed in buzz and popularity by raunchy imitators such as "Jersey Shore." The youth-centric network has gone from airing two editions of "Real World" a year to one, and the most recent season averaged only 1.5 million viewers.
For Arielle Scott, a 22-year-old housemate from Oakland, the twist made for some major stress. She had recently broken off a two-year relationship with Ashley Ceaser, 26, and was focused on other things.
"I came to the house thinking I was single," Scott said during a chat shortly after filming ended. "I was ready to meet people and have fun. I needed to stop thinking about her, calling her ... And then she shows up here. Oh my God. The whole thing was just crazy."
And more than a little turbulent.
"It was like reality TV on steroids," Ceaser said. "No one wants to deal with this stuff on a national television show. It's nerve-wracking enough. But add to that all the roommates in your face and tossing in their opinions about us. ... We kind of freaked out."
Fans just might eat it up, but a recent Salon.com commentary dismissed the contrived twist as the latest iteration in the show's "journey into fakeness." No one was throwing around barbs like that when Zamora and his mates participated in Season 3 of "The Real World." Zamora was an AIDS activist who, in a landmark TV moment, exchanged vows with his boyfriend on the show and had several emotional confrontations with fellow housemate David "Puck" Rainey, who was eventually evicted.
Zamora died in November 1994, just hours after the season finale aired. President Clinton praised his efforts to bring awareness and understanding to the HIV/AIDS cause.
"Probably more than anything, Season 3 told us that reality TV could be about something important," said Jim Johnston, a "Real World" executive producer. "That season felt more like a documentary. It had a vision about it. It told real stories. It was about something that felt relevant."
Of course, unlike their modern-day descendants, Zamora and company hadn't grown up on reality TV. In fact, the term hadn't even become popular yet. Thus there tended to be less playing to the cameras and more of a sense of raw authenticity as they conducted earnest conversations about issues of race, religion and sexuality.
Nowadays, gay and interracial relationships and diverse casts are common sights on reality TV shows. Moreover, cast members of any reality series come in fully aware of the genre's formulas and knowing that more bad behavior pays off in more airtime. During interviews with the current "Real World" housemates, several spoke about feeling the need to "up the ante," while claiming their season would rank as one of the "most controversial" yet.
"Minds will be blown," said Houston-born cast member Jamie Larson, 22, sounding like someone straight out of the MTV marketing department. "If you haven't been watching because you think 'The Real World' has gotten boring, or it's the same old thing, let us prove you wrong."
Meanwhile, don't expect any shout-outs to Zamora during the current season. As Johnston notes, most of the newbies were only 2 or 3 when reality TV history was being made in San Francisco.
"You've got to remember that it doesn't mean anything to them," he says.
Still, at one point during the shoot, some of the housemates strolled past the dwelling on Lombard Street that served as the site for Season 3 and were briefly informed what went down there.
"I heard it was a legendary season -- the season that 'The Real World' really blew up," said Bronx, N.Y., native Jay Gotti, 26. "It kind of put things in perspective."
'THE real world: Ex-Plosion'
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday