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Did "The Real World" change the world?

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 8, 2014
Pedro Zamora of "The Real World: San Francisco"

My colleague Kate Aurthur has a fine piece on Buzzfeed about the importance of "The Real World: San Francisco." That season, you may recall, included Pedro Zamora (pictured), an activist with AIDS, who had a major impact on the portrayal of gay men in the media.

The titlle of that piece called "San Francisco" "the show that changed the world." After I posted a link to it on Facebook, another colleague called that title "a laugh line." A couple of  significantly younger friends then weighed in, defending the show. Said one: "It really was the first instance my generation had ever seen of such social issues being discussed on television by real people our age. ...  It was powerful social commentary and made us ponder serious things, when at that time in our lives, we were all otherwise still out having fun, working, and starting our adult lives."

It's tempting in that context to blame the conflicting perceptions on the age difference in the commentators -- much the way many younger people will feel little as baby boomers like myself ponder the 50th anniversary of 1964 and all its milestones. Or it could be that "The Real World" declined to such an extent that it is now difficult for anyone to remember when it was taken seriously.

But the show did matter at the time, and not just to MTV's target demo, which I had exited long before "San Francisco" aired. I was a devoted viewer of those early years of "The Real World." And  shortly before Christmas 1994, after Zamora had died, I wrote the following for the Beacon Journal.

We're close to the point where people stop fretting over holiday preparations and start enjoying the result.

But any celebration comes with a sadder side, when we're reminded of people who will not be around to share in the festivities.

I can't go through an occasion like this without thinking of loved ones who are no longer part of the family circle. But I've also been thinking about someone I never knew.

His name was Pedro Zamora and he was part of the third ensemble on The Real World, the MTV series that puts a group of seemingly incompatible young people together in a single home -- and then videotapes the fireworks.

Zamora was practically a firework unto himself, an outspoken, bright and often demanding gay man with AIDS. His friendship and conflict with housemates on The Real World made for addictive viewing on its own. But it had an added emotional intensity because Zamora had a fatal illness. And the episodes, still being replayed on MTV, have even greater resonance now because Zamora died after finishing his work on the series.

Television has presented other documentary chronicles of people with AIDS, such as the harrowing Silverlake Life, but The Real World was unusual because it forced young people who perhaps had not thought about AIDS as much as they should to see the issue in human terms. In a broader way, it showed the phrase "living with AIDS" applied not only to people who had the disease but to people whose lives intersected with people with AIDS.

So Zamora's pain became others' pain. The loss of his life went beyond immediate family to his housemates and, in a more diffuse way, to the audience that had followed his television adventures.

The obvious point here is to offer a heartfelt Christmas plea to you to remember that there are other people with AIDS whose deaths or struggles affect all of us. Some are famous, some not, but all deserve compassion and help, especially this time of year.
People with AIDS still are too often seen as the "other," deserving of their condition, ineligible for our love; much quoted this year has been the Montana politician who said: "The problem with AIDS: You got it, you die. So why are we spending money on the issue?"

Anyone who can boil AIDS down to an "issue" probably never knew a person with it. And the most potent effect television has had on the national view of AIDS is to bring people with AIDS into our homes and create a relationship with them.

That's not only Zamora, either. The recent death of AIDS activist Elizabeth Glaser was highlighted not only by her good work but by her televised speech to the 1992 Democratic convention.

Still, there are limits to what we can know and feel through a television screen. Zamora's condition deteriorated after he was done with The Real World. Although an affectionate posthumous tribute on MTV showed some of his later illness, to most viewers he is more clearly remembered for his vitality, his enthusiasm, his joy.

All gone now, because of his death. And perhaps it seems weird to dwell on a death during what is supposed to be a time of celebration. But this is also a time of year when we find joy in bringing it to others. And in our hearts, again, Christmas brings reminders of people we love but can no longer celebrate with.

Besides, the people I'm thinking about may be strangers to you. Through television, though, we could have common acquaintances -- and a shared memory.

So "San Francisco" changed my world, at least.

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