In 1992, MTV premiered a documentary series about seven young adults they’d cast to share a loft in New York City and who, as the intro promised, would “have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” They wouldn’t compete in games for control of the apartment; they weren’t forbidden from leaving it; they weren’t shut in with their partners to work on their relationships; no one would get voted out at the end of each episode. None of the usual reality formats applied because there weren’t any; “The Real World” was the first exemplar of a new genre that would, over that decade, continue to grow until it eventually dominated the TV landscape for most of the ’00s (and continues to crowd out all other programming on MTV to this day). If we had no idea then what impact The Real World would have on TV, we certainly couldn’t conceptualize such a thing as a “streaming platform,” but here we are as another one launches — sort of: CBS All Access has become Paramount Plus, and one of its marquee offerings is “The Real World Homecoming: New York,” which reunites the original seven strangers for a limited series.
Though producers increasingly imposed structure (read: gimmickry) in the 32 seasons that followed, each set in a different city, the original season is comparatively loose and earnest. Each of the seven roommates is trying to make it in the arts: Andre, Becky, and Heather are in music; Eric is a model moving into acting; Julie’s a dancer; Kevin’s a poet and critic; Norman’s a painter and designer. Since most of them aren’t punching clocks — only Norman and Kevin seem to have any kind of regular work schedule — they all have lots of time to hang out with each other at the loft, goofing around and (inevitably) getting into fights. You can’t have drama without conflict, and it seemed like anything in the loft could touch it off, from a phone receiver picked up at the wrong moment to a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode that didn’t get taped. An episode would routinely end just as a fight was about to flare up, not to resolve until the next week, a move so effective it’s still in use on Bravo’s “Housewives” shows.
We meet the roommates again, in January 2021, as they reconvene in the very same loft where they all initially met each other. As they all spend most of the first episode reminding each other and us, when they did the first season, they were truly pioneers in the medium; consequently, they had no sense of how to guard themselves in front of the cameras. Now, though they are all still recognizably themselves, it does seem like, inevitably, they’ve spent some time thinking about shaping their image for the show. One of the first things Julie says is that she’s nervous they’re “not going to give production what they want,” though she adds that they “didn’t last time either, and it worked out better than they had anticipated.” Andre, having watched the DVDs recently (guess MTV didn’t give him a CBS All Access subscription as a perk for his participation), is looking forward to expressing himself more than he did the first time. Kevin, who got drawn into a lot of heated fights about race, has realized over the years that he needed to be a better ally in the fight against sexism. And Becky — who, in one of those fights with Kevin, insisted that America was still a land of opportunity without specifying for whom (she is white and Kevin is Black) — seems to want a do-over on that debate before the rest of the roommates have arrived to join her and Kevin in the loft.
Kevin: “When we did the show, Bill Clinton was running for president. And here we are, 28— 29 years later.”
Becky: “And it’s the same shit!”
Kevin:”Yeah. Anita Hill was Me Too. Rodney King was Black Lives Matter.”
Becky: “It’s the same shit, and like, finally, maybe, it’s incendiary enough that we will be able to put this endemic racism to bed, because it’s, like, reaching a pustule.”
Kevin [not sounding as certain]: “Yeah.”
This is not the only way the real world intrudes upon “The Real World.” The Soho streets are much less crowded than they used to be, and some cast members are masked as they arrive. But only when they’re most of the way through their pizza the first night do they notice there are only six chairs at the table, and then the TV lights up with a live feed of Eric from a nearby hotel room, because yes, he’s just tested positive for covid. Knowing he is a self-described spiritual guide and proponent of natural medicine, and having checked in on his Instagram and found a conspiratorial caption from June and a promotion for an “inner journey immersion experience” encompassing a sweat lodge that he was planning to host in December (but which has since been postponed “[d]ue to circumstances out of our control”)…you know, I have my suspicions about how Eric may have possibly been exposed to the virus. I’m very curious to see whether future episodes feature discussions about his beliefs, particularly as they intersect with matters of public health.
A lot of the premiere — the only episode provided to critics to screen — is taken up with recapping the original series for those who, unlike me, didn’t spend several very pleasant hours last weekend watching it. There is definitely an innocence to that long-ago first season that can never be recaptured, but the new series acknowledges that, and I’m already fascinated to see all these foundational “characters” recontextualized for our new reality: like all of us, older, wearier, but maybe a little bit hopeful, too. They’re also still being polite in the premiere, and I have to stick around to see what happens when they stop.
“The Real World Homecoming: New York” premieres March 4 on Paramount Plus.
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