I guess, in the interest of full journalistic disclosure, I should confess that I have no use whatsoever for reality TV. If proclaiming for the record that I’ve never watched a second of Survivor or The Simple Life or Who Wants to Marry My Dog? means that I should turn in my Pop Culture Pundit card, so be it. Frankly, I don’t see the entertainment in watching someone apparently in need of a life go through whatever nonsense reality mastermind Mark Burnett or his wannabes can fathom. Obviously the stuff is wildly popular among viewers, or at least profitable for the networks and producers, but I’m perfectly content to leave it to someone else, also apparently in need of a life, to figure out why.
So imagine my surprise when I pick up the 29 February, 2004 Philadelphia Inquirer and see on the front page that this historic city, home to Benjamin Franklin and the first beheaded hostage in Iraq (Nicholas Berg, from suburban West Chester), was all aflutter with the prospect of the mother of all reality shows, MTV’s The Real World, coming here to film its next season. This would be a boon to the city’s reputation, the article beamed. Fifteen weeks, or however long these things run, of seven not-so-randomly selected people (I hesitate to call them “actors” or “performers”), each of them young, telegenic, and diverse, learning how to get along with each other in the various exotic locales around town (read: nightclubs and day jobs) would communicate to the world that Philadelphia is a “cool” place for young people to live and work, so the reasoning went.
Said young people, or some goodly number of them, would thus be persuaded to pitch their tents here, as opposed to Seattle, Washington, or Austin, Texas or some other “cool” city du jour. They’d start businesses, create jobs, patronize funky boutiques, support the arts, and feed off the resultant synergy to revitalize the city’s economic coffers and reverse years of decline. Philadelphia would be a Great American Comeback City. We want our MTV!
Towards the end of the article, a 23-year-old resident opined, “Philadelphia doesn’t need The Real World to be cool. But it’s good that it puts the MTV stamp of approval on the city for, like, people in Ohio.”
That was the moment when I became convinced that this city had lost its fucking mind.
See, I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, a city with its own share of economic malaise and civic psychological baggage (more about that in a bit). I wouldn’t say that I’m representative of all Ohioans, but I’m fairly sure that most of us don’t need MTV’s blessing to decide whether or not our city is “cool”. We may not know much more about Philly than the Liberty Bell, but most of us, if given a chance, would probably determine that this place has its charms without the help of a stupid reality show.
More to the point, I’d only been in Philadelphia seven weeks when that article ran, but I’d already fallen in love with the place. I liked its energy, the abundance of creativity, the hidden historical treasures. I’d already discovered a handful of neat stories, and found it suprisingly comfortable and accessible. Philly is three times as large as Cleveland, but I’ve never felt the least bit overwhelmed here.
And for the life of me, I could not understand why Philadelphia felt this bizarre need to invest so much hope and optimism in being center stage for a mindless TV diversion. In time, I would come to understand some of the reasons for that. Part of it echoes trends I’d already seen in Cleveland, and part of it stems from Philly’s unique character. But at that moment, the civic obsession struck me as not only silly, but also better entertainment than anything MTV was going to get from their seven stranded castaways.
So I laughed when diehard union men started picketing the former Seamen’s Church Institute, a historic building two doors down from the Betsy Ross House, because non-union workers were transforming the space into the Real World crib. I guffawed when the producers got spooked by this display of Philly’s real world and threatened to cancel the whole project. I chortled when a bunch of twenty-something trendistas/self-appointed “cool” Philadelphians made the 6 o’clock news begging the producers to stay. I snickered when the mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania lobbied fiercely to keep the circus from leaving town early. And I chuckled uncontrollably when the producers decided to stay, once they were assured that they wouldn’t have any more trouble from those big, bad labor people.
And I enjoyed a quiet smile after learning that several bars around town had declared themselves off-limits to the Real World inhabitants and their ever-present camera crews.