Well, friends, the end is here. After 12 glorious episodes, the final installment of The Real World: New York is upon us. It’s time to bid a fond farewell to the seven idealistic Gen-Xers who made our summer-long journey through time to the dawn of reality television such a treat.
Appropriately enough, the finale begins with Julie, the cast member who, from the very beginning, has functioned as the show’s de facto protagonist. In her very last talking-head interview, Julie mentions a flier she saw on the street which read, “In true art, the end is always the beginning.” This is the kind of pretentious-yet-meaningless slogan that only a naïve 19-year-old could love, but it’s also a great way to introduce the final episode of The Real World which is, quite consciously, about the end of the creative experiment of living in the loft. One of the most salient things about the inaugural season of The Real World is that each of the roommates views the show as an idealistic, collaborative experiment in group living—like a sexless, ’90s version of a commune—and not as a path to lucrative merchandising deals or paid club appearances. “I think The Real World is the best reflection you can get of reality,” says Becky, while Kevin sees the show as part of a broader generational purpose. “There are people in our generation trying to be human beings and trying to treat people as human beings.”
The episode begins on Wednesday, four days before the roommates are due to depart the loft, and so everyone is in a reflective mood. We hear about their impressions of each other, and about the goals they brought to The Real World. For Julie, the show was an opportunity to pursue her professional and personal goals, though she admits she’s been more successful at the latter than the former. Becky agrees, claiming that Julie has become “hipper” to certain things. Heather, everyone agrees, is strong-willed, assertive, and able to get what she wants—thus her nickname, “The General.” Heather’s unexpected friendship with Julie is probably the best thing to come out of the show. They are, according to Andre, “the cutest couple.” It’s hard to disagree.
No one seems quite sure what to say about Becky—least of all Eric, who says, rather cryptically, “You don’t want to talk to me about Becky.” (Here’s my earth-shattering conspiracy theory: Eric actually wanted to get with Becky, not Julie.)
In contrast, the roommates have no shortage of words to describe Eric. Julie insists there’s a lot more to him than his looks; Becky says, “Eric is like somebody’s brother,” which I’m pretty sure was an insult; Norm declares that everyone should be attracted to Eric, including household pets. During a game of questions, we also learn that Eric would like to sleep with Julie, which may be the least surprising revelation of all time.
What no one is willing to discuss is the fact that Eric has obviously been raiding Samuel L. Jackson’s closet:
Norm is the garrulous one you can count on for bizarre stories about masturbating dolphins and enormous ticks. “I could do without a Norman story every now and then,” Heather says, but you get the sense the exact opposite is true. Norm confesses that he came into the show anxious about revealing his sexuality to six strangers, but left unafraid to share himself with others: “This experience gave me that.”
Personally, I liked the scene where he pretended to be the Boogie Monster while Julie and Andre played Pattycakes:
Andre is very frank about the reason he agreed to do the show: to get exposure for his band. The roommates unanimously agree that Andre’s best trait is his well-rested-ness, which is a back-handed compliment if ever there was one. But Andre doesn’t care, maaaaan. “I’m not a role model. I never wanted to be a role model,” he says, which is pretty hilarious, since I don’t think anyone ever thought of him as one for even a nanosecond.
Then there’s Kevin, the house gadfly, the one who, by his own admission, came into the house a cynic. Eric still doesn’t know what goes through Kevin’s mind, while Becky is pretty sure he’s not a racist. So, that’s good, right?
The most interesting moment of the finale arrives when the roommates, on their final night in the loft, barge into the control room and reverse roles with the crew for a few hours. It’s a great moment of comic relief—especially when a shirtless cameraman, hunched over a plate of (fat-free!) pasta, does a spot-on impression of Eric shouting into the phone—but it’s also the kind of thing that would never, ever happen nowadays. Same with the moment that Heather, Julie, and Andre spy on Norm’s final interview through a hole in the floor. However unwittingly, the pranks have a purpose beyond a few laughs: they actually lay bare the mechanisms of the show, its contrivances. They remind you that this is not a fly-on-the-wall documentary, but a highly produced reality series.
I think one of the strangest things about contemporary reality television is that no one ever acknowledges that what they’re doing is deeply, profoundly weird. From time to time I’ll catch an episode of The Bachelor and listen as grown women tearfully profess their love for a guy they’ve only just met—it’s behavior that, in the real world, would instantly earn them a reputation as a “bunny-boiler.” There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance, a gulf between what’s considered acceptable in real life, and what’s acceptable for the dramatic purposes of a reality series. This discrepancy is, of course, what makes reality TV so much fun to watch, but it’s a bizarre situation nonetheless.
But as The Real World: New York attests, this wasn’t always the case. In this finale, the roommates talk about the experience of living with one another, but they also reflect on the experience of being filmed. “It made me extremely paranoid,” Andre says, as the cameras catch him scratching his butt. Meanwhile, Heather acknowledges that the (relatively) chaste roommates disappointed the producers, who were hoping for some more romantic intrigue in the loft. “They wanted sex in The Real World. Instead, they got us.” For a long time now, it’s been fashionable for TV shows and movies to be “meta,” to point out their own artificiality. Weird, then, that reality is the one genre that’s actually gotten less self-conscious over the years.
The episode ends on an abrupt note, as Eric, in his professorial bifocals and leather newsboy cap, declares, “This really happened. I don’t know if the point’s going to get across in here. And I hope it does, because this is real.” There’s an inherent tension to the first season of The Real World, which put such an emphasis on authenticity but which also introduced the genre conventions that have, over the past two decades, calcified into cliché: stock characters like the Angry Young Black Man and The Southern Virgin; the pop-music Greek chorus; fast-paced, bordering on incoherent editing; shallow conversations about race, sex, religion and politics.
In the end, it’s impossible (and probably not all the productive) to watch The Real World: New York in a vacuum, to evaluate the series on its own merits, to resist the temptation to compare it to the crass, craven reality television of 2011. As co-creator Jonathan Murray admitted in this op-ed a few years back, The Real World stands apart. “The first season of any reality show is usually its best because the cast doesn’t know what to expect; and as producers, we’re not always sure, either. It’s this spontaneity that has the cast living in the moment rather than trying to play a role.”
- I love this shot of Julie walking through Times Square, still seedy back in 1992, with a real-life porn theater and everything.
- Andre is so ridiculously Gen-X, but he’s also pretty damn witty, e.g. when Eric says “he has reasons behind” his desire to sleep with Julie, Andre quips, “Maybe it’s an erection.” ZING!
- Just what was Bill (the ex-Real World director that Becky dated) doing at the loft on their last night?
- The coda to Eric’s relationship with Missy came from out of nowhere, didn’t it? Eric’s personal life—especially his date with another model—is one area where you really sense the intervention of the producers in this season.
- Another thing that really stands out about this season is how much the cast members seem to like each other. On their last night in the loft, they pile their mattresses together like a bunch of adolescent girls at a sleepover. Can you imagine Snooki, et al., doing the same thing? As if.
- I know everyone wants to play a round of “Where are they now?”, so here goes. (Special thanks to the commenters, especially Automaton, who’ve already done a lot of the Googling for me.)
- Of all the cast members, Julie has maintained the lowest profile over the past 19 years. According to Fox News, she’s married to a successful restaurateur in Alabama and has several kids. Other things she has done since 1992 include: working at a bagel store; starring in Norm’s movie, The Wedding Video; and sticking out like a sore thumb in Heather’s video, “ I Get Wreck.”
- Heather B. has released two albums and opened a nail salon back in the ’90s. She’s still living in New Jersey and has a very funny blog that she updates sporadically with posts about her husband, whom she refers to as “Swaggaroni.” And yes, she’s still friends with Julie. On her blog, she writes, “Over the past 18 years, we were there for each others makeups and breakups, I was in her wedding, we have traveled together, nursed each other’s hangovers in the most obscure college towns, and FOR REAL we have partied together in places you would not believe.”
- As we all know, Eric extended his 15 minutes of fame much longer than he should have with The Grind, MTV’s mid-’90s dance show. According to IMDB, he also guest-starred on Days Of Our Lives in 1993, but sadly I can’t find a clip of that appearance anywhere.
- More recently, Eric starred in yet another reality series, Confessions Of A Teen Idol, and these days is styling himself as a self-help/nutrition guru, complete with Jesus-y hair and outlandish claims about his former addiction to sugar. (See this video in which he proclaims “I had gurus and doctors tell me that my blood was like mud.”)
- According to Fox News, Andre has never been married, has no kids, and currently lives in Silver Lake with his girlfriend, which is so perfect I can’t even stand it. In a development that would no doubt horrify 1992 Andre, 2011 Andre plays in a bluegrass band called River Rouge. Oh, the irony.
- Unlike some of the other roomies, Kevin Powell maintains a very active web presence, has written a whole bunch of books and, according to his Twitter feed, taken up Bikram yoga. Kevin has also unsuccessfully tried three times to unseat shady Brooklyn congressman Edolphus Towns, and regularly speaks on campuses across the country.
- After the show, Becky went on to release one album. She and Norm briefly returned to reality TV in the early ’00s with Real World/Road Rules: Battle Of The Seasons (which also starred future Tea Party congressman, Sean Duffy). Becky’s now a screenwriter in California.
Norm continues to work as an artist in California. In 2003, he directed a film, called The Wedding Video, which featured a number of Real World alum. You can buy it on iTunes if you really, really want.