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The series was hailed in its early years for depicting issues of contemporary young-adulthood relevant to its core audience, such as sex, prejudice, religion, abortion, illness, sexuality, AIDS, death, politics, and substance abuse, but later garnered a reputation as a showcase for immaturity and irresponsible behavior indicative of the declining morals of contemporary youth.
Following Bunim's death from breast cancer in 2004, Bunim/Murray Productions continues to produce the program. The Real World was originally inspired by the popularity of youth-oriented shows of the 1990s like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place.
Cannatella has also appeared on other reality shows, such as The Surreal Life, Battle of the Network Reality Stars, and Kill Reality, the latter of which also featured Hill and Cooley.
Paris castmate Mallory Snyder went on to become a model, most notably appearing in Sports Illustrated magazine’s annual swimsuit issue in 20.
Zamora’s friend and roommate during the show, Judd Winick, went on to become a successful comic book writer, and wrote the Eisner Award-nominated graphic novel Pedro and Me, about his friendship with Zamora, as well as high-profile Los Angeles cast member Beth Stolarczyk has produced men's and women's calendars and television programs featuring reality TV personalities, including herself and other Real World alumni, including Tami Roman (who became cast member on Basketball Wives and spinoff Basketball Wives LA), 2002–2003 Las Vegas' Trishelle Cannatella, 2002 Chicago's Tonya Cooley and Back to New York's Coral Smith.
Stolarczyk, Cannatella, and Miami's Flora Alekseyeun appeared in the May 2002 Playboy magazine, San Francisco alum Judd Winick is a noted comic book writer and artist, with the majority of his work appearing in comic books published by DC Comics, including writing such well known characters as Batman, Green Arrow, and Green Lantern.
The narration given over the opening title sequence used during the first 28 seasons by the seven housemates states some variation of the following: This is the true story... picked to live in a house...(work together) and have their lives taped... Tracy Grandstaff, one of the original seven picked for what has come to be known as "Season 0", went on to minor fame as the voice of the animated Beavis and Butt-Head character Daria Morgendorffer, who eventually got her own spinoff, Daria.
One early sign of the show’s popularity occurred on the October 2, 1993 episode of the sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live, which parodied the second-season Los Angeles cast's recurring arguments over cliquism, prejudice and political differences.
The show also gained widespread attention with its third season, The Real World: San Francisco, which aired in 1994, and depicted the conflict between David "Puck" Rainey, a bicycle messenger criticized for his poor personal hygiene, As the show increased in popularity, Zamora’s life as someone living with AIDS gained considerable notice, garnering widespread media attention.
Zamora was one of the first openly gay men with AIDS to be portrayed in popular media, and after his death on November 11, 1994 (mere hours after the final episode of his season aired), he was lauded by then-President Bill Clinton.
At the time of its initial airing, reviews of the show were mostly negative.
Matt Roush, writing in USA Today, characterized the show as "painfully bogus," and a cynical and exploitative new low in television, commenting, "Watching The Real World, which fails as documentary (too phony) and as entertainment (too dull), it's hard to tell who's using who more." The Washington Posts Tom Shales commented, "Ah to be young, cute, and stupid, and to have too much free time...
2004 San Diego castmate Jamie Chung, who has appeared in various television and film roles, including Dragonball Evolution, Sorority Row, and The Hangover Part II. cast member Emily Schromm was voted as the winner of Women's Health Portland cast member Jordan Wiseley appeared on the OWN Network original series, Tyler Perry's If Loving You Is Wrong.