It must be fairly weird to be one of the original cast members of The Real World. This strange documentary project they signed up for—without really knowing what it would entail—turned out to be the launchpad for modern reality television as we know it. Once it hit MTV’s airwaves back in 1992 (and then re-aired, and re-aired, and re-aired...), the series provided an intensely bright 15 minutes of fame for its somewhat bewildered stars, before largely returning them to the same life they had prior to the show (most of them, anyway), albeit with the new caveat that they’re now periodically recognized as “that person from that MTV show.” So maybe the following isn’t surprising: If there’s one thing that seems clear from the first episode of The Real World Homecoming: New York, it’s that the show, and its after-effects, had an unusually intense impact on them.
To get the obvious question out of the way first: No, I can’t imagine this being of much interest to people who didn’t watch the first season of The Real World, either in its original airing, during subsequent reruns, or on DVD. Outside of those curious about the history of reality television or media studies folks, this reunion of the original “seven strangers, picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped” is mostly a nostalgia-driven affair, a chance to do some then-and-now comparisons and watch old roommates rekindle their friendships. (And fights—but that doesn’t look to be happening until later in the season.) But for those of us who watched (and re-watched, and re-watched, and re-watched…) the first season of MTV’s groundbreaking series, this thing is pure catnip. Within the first five minutes, I was having flashbacks to scenes from the original show; though these were soon helped along by actual flashbacks, cut repeatedly into the episode, ad nauseam, to continually remind and prompt viewers to reflect on the fact that none of this means anything without knowledge of what came before. Halfway through, I was dying to know more about where everyone was in their life at this point. But the show isn’t stupid—it’s saving a lot of those nuggets for later, and counting on the fact that most of the seven aren’t very well known anymore, and thus a quick Wikipedia search won’t reveal the good stuff we’re after.
What immediately becomes clear is that producers know the focus has shifted, in terms of who and what they’re going to be spending time on during this series. What made the first season feel so unexpectedly authentic back when it debuted was that the people behind the cameras were making it up as they went along, with very little idea of how to craft narratives and manufacture the kind of bogus reality-TV drama the series later perfected and passed on into the DNA of a thousand other shows, like a particularly stupid virus. As a result, much of that first season was literally just watching people live their lives in New York City. Housemates Becky Blasband, Andre Comeau, Heather B. Gardner, Julie Gentry, Norman Korpi, Eric Nies and Kevin Powell all had jobs and/or individual careers they were pursuing, and the show mostly let the unfiltered messiness of that existence play out unimpeded.
Not for lack of trying, it should be acknowledged: As Norman told the Oprah Winfrey Network during a “Where are they now?” retrospective five years ago, all the producers’ clumsy initial efforts to fabricate stock narratives and generic hoary tropes—from pitting Southern girl Julie against his gay urbanite to trying to force a romantic connection between Eric and Julie—failed miserably. But those early fumblings meant the first season was edited with a strong focus on Eric and Julie, for example, leading to the occasional dearth of screen time for the others. This time around, not only are such mistakes laughingly acknowledged, but producers have gotten much, much better at this; they know that 2021 calls for a deeper exploration of the explosive discussions around race that helped give the original series such raw frisson. As such, the episode progresses in a manner that demonstrates a plan to craft a slick unpacking of racism and collective growth—but these people aren’t necessarily going to follow the dictates of producers. They already did this once, and on their own terms, which is what makes the promise of the season appealing for fans of the original.
Thanks to the cast, there’s still some charming grit in the cogs of what’s become a predictably smooth form of reality-TV blandness. Much in the same way that people often fall back into old habits when they come home for a visit, Heather, Becky, and the rest of the former roomies immediately proceed to commandeer their old loft (yes, they’re back in the original place) with an easy camaraderie and bonhomie rare in the era of people raised to know how to talk to a camera. (They express surprise and unleash some good-natured mockery at the “confessional” room added on, a now-staple of the genre that didn’t exist until the second season.) It’s actually pretty sweet: Julie, Becky, and Norman all start crying before they even set foot in the place, overcome by emotion at the prospect of all of them back together for the first time since a reunion special a year after the show originally aired. There are copious hugs, and Heather even brought along what seems like an entire bar’s worth of booze with her.
Of course, the elation is short-lived; after six of them arrive and wait for their tardy final roomie, the TV flickers to life, and Eric Nies appears, bearing some bad news: He tested positive for coronavirus, literally on the last day of interviews right before they were set to move into the loft. As a result, he’ll be participating in discussions via camera, much to the dismay of everyone else—especially Heather, who apparently has maintained her bond with Nies and had been texting with him at length prior to the beginning of filming. But he’s healthy, for now anyway, so the good vibes endure, leading to a nice reminiscence about how dumb and earnest everyone was back then, followed by some video chats with children and heartfelt recalling of old in-jokes. (Norman lets slip that Heather has kids now, and Heather chastises him: “Norman is a leaky faucet!”)
But while Becky and Andre trade off acoustic guitars, and Heather and Julie call Julie’s 17-year-old daughter, the show quietly shifts its focus to Kevin. The writer and activist is arguably the most visible public member of the original cast (though Sirius XM radio cohost Heather is a close second), having spent the past 30 years building a remarkable career as an educator, journalist, lecturer, and scholar, all while maintaining a commitment to his activism. (“I’ve been woke for a long time,” he says with a smile during one interview.) Showing clips of his often tempestuous fights with his housemates back in the day over thorny issues of race, nationalism, and more, the show paints two clear narratives. One is that Kevin was absolutely spot-on back then in his positions and assessments of race, even if they didn’t all realize it at the time. (Heather confesses: “I had to live to appreciate it.”) The second is that he knows he didn’t exactly convey those thoughts well at the time, a feeling reinforced by clips of a long-ago fight with Julie in which he continually gets right in her face and refuses to move away, even as she’s yelling at him to back off. Learning Julie’s daughter is now a tour ambassador at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute seems to spark something in him—a desire to address long-ago tensions. The episode ends with a promise of some uncomfortable but hopefully productive conversations; unfortunately, the teaser for the coming weeks suggests it may not go that well, at least for Kevin and Becky.
- The show is so gentle, and all the cast so good-natured and endearing (at least during this initial phase of the reunion), that poking fun seems churlish. That being said, Eric (who has apparently been sober for 18 years!) says, “I describe myself as a spiritual guide,” which, coming from the former host of The Grind, is the kind of thing I can’t just leave sitting there on the table.
- Kudos to Andre for still having long hair, albeit a little less curly and a lot more grey.
- Having always been fascinated by Becky, the cast member who got the least screen time during the original run (though, remember when she dated a producer and the show weirdly acknowledged it on-air?), I did a little research, which is how I learned she recorded an album in 2017 that she describes as being a “a collaboration with the spirit of John Lennon.” That’s not a metaphor; she honestly says she communicated with his spirit for a decade. It’s wild; you can see for yourself.
- Norman explains his emotions: “I’m going through man-o-pause, so I’m going to cry a lot.”
- Poor Julie’s dance career seems like it was derailed completely by her time on the show, as—in her own words—no one would cast “Julie from The Real World” as a background dancer, but right after telling her that, they would ask for an autograph.
- The opening minutes are weird, a rough mishmash of clips that feel disjointed and off-putting. I can only imagine it was the outcome of production really wanting an intro that felt like it wouldn’t alienate new viewers, but it just comes across as messy.
- Heather, summing up everyone’s cheerful attitudes about themselves back then: “I was dumb as shit. I didn’t know anything!”