"This is the true story, of seven strangers, picked to live in a loft, and have their lives taped, to find out what happens, when people stop being polite, and start getting real..."
Almost anyone who's turned on a television in the last 20 years knows those are the opening lines of MTV’s The Real World. Quickly after the show debuted in 1992, it was credited with ushering in a new era in television, one where the actual lives of everyday people were held in higher esteem than the fantasy world of fictional characters created by Hollywood.
But decades later, "reality television" is an entirely different animal, one that more closely resembles a salacious Hollywood script than it does real life.
Hits like Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise celebrate the mini-dramas of the very rich and the very white—people who frequent cocktail parties held in mansions, where shouting matches and fist-fights are as much a part of the experience as the champagne and canapés.
Others, like the popular Keeping Up With the Kardashians, gentlyskim the surface of reality, with plot points that often only run as deep as Kim Kardashian's search for the perfect party dress.
And on the long-running Bachelor and Bachelorette series, finely-attired contestants spend much of their time enjoying luxury vacations, and magically "falling in love" with each other in a matter of hours.
Fantasies like these work because they're fun and easy to digest. But after years of enjoying reality TV's mostly white-washed world of carefully architected conflict, are audiences ready for a dose of real life? Cable channel Pivot believes they are. And ready or not, here it comes.
Debuting tonight is Pivot's new reality show, Jersey Strong, featuring two women raising their families in the hard-scrabble world of Newark, NJ.
Jayda is a reformed gang-banger-turned-community activist, and Brooke is a hard-charging, heavy-smoking, lesbian litigation attorney. The series documents their intertwined lives, a friendship initially formed when Jayda was on trial for robbery, and Brooke successfully defended her. The Kardashians, this is not.
Pivot’s Belisa Balaban says, "Jayda and Brooke bring us into a world we don't often get to see with this degree of intimacy," she says. "Through them we can see some of ways positive change is possible in cities, but we also see what the challenges are. Often the stories of our cities are told by outsiders, but this is a view from the inside, told in the voices of people who live this life."
Closer to documentary than it is to typical reality television, the show is similar in some respects to the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch, which has for some years featured men with actual jobs, performing back-breaking work in high-stakes environments to bring home a paycheck.
But Jersey Strong brings with it what most of television does not—diversity. African-American women and lesbian couples raising children are hardly well-represented anywhere in the medium.
And the series doesn't hold back. In the first episode, Jayda has a frank discussion with her friend Ashley about aborting her fourth pregnancy. And Brooke carves out a case for Kwadir Felton, a young man blinded by a gunshot to the face at the hands of a New Jersey cop, who claimed he had probable cause to fire his weapon.
But the focus remains on the stories told by the women themselves. Belisa Balaban says, "We aren't interested in 'otherizing' subcultures—rather we want to drop in and allow our subjects to be the voices of their own stories."
While some of the details are easily relateable—Jayda and Brooke both worry about their children and struggle to balance their demanding schedules with the needs of their partners—others remain specific to their Newark neighborhood.
Jayda, for instance, may not be an active member of the Bloods anymore, but she remains close with them, while her fiancee, Creep, maintains his ties to the rival Crips. It's a star-crossed union that in their neighborhood, typically results in "punishment for the homegirl and death for the homeboy."
The series is an obvious departure from the gated communities of Orange County, or the penthouse luxuries of Manhattan's Upper East Side. However it's received, Jersey Strong marks a return, not just to the early spirit of shows like the original Real World, but a return to real life, where problems are complex, people are multifaceted and solutions come by way of hard work.