In our current TV climate, people believe they can find their true love on a reality show. Others willingly travel to remote island and go 39 days without showering in the hopes of winning $1 million dollars. Some let cameras follow them as they bring their green-card fiancés stateside. Celebrities dress up in elaborate costumes to disguise themselves as they sing songs and dance. Self-described “housewives” toss tables, chuck wine, and throw shade on a regular basis.
It’s hard to fathom now, in our reality TV-saturated world, how truly innocent The Real World was back in 1992. Set up as reality TV’s answer to Beverly Hills, 90210 (a huge hit at the time), MTV brought together seven strangers to live in a New York loft to find out what happens when “people stop being polite and start getting real.” The series launched a hugely successful franchise, multiple spin-offs, and—one could argue—the entire reality TV genre.
Now Paramount+, Viacom’s new streaming service launching today, brings back the original seven cast members in The Real World Homecoming: New York. In the premiere, the only episode made available for review, Becky Blasband, Andre Comeau, Heather B. Gardner, Julie Gentry, Norman Korpi, Eric Nies and Kevin Powell all return to live in that same SoHo location and spend six days reminiscing about their time in the limelight.
The seven, who were part of the “original social experiment” as the show is fond of telling us, didn’t really even know what they were a part of back in 1992. “We all thought it was a documentary on seven artists,” Becky says. The show is truly the epitome of the cliché: the more things change the more they stay the same. “It’s the same shit. Anita Hill is Me Too. Rodney King is Black Lives Matter,” Kevin says. (I’ll refer to the cast by their first name because, after all, that’s how you know them.) The societal unrest and discord that existed then still exists today.
On the plus side, everyone looks great and everyone is still with us—something that’s not necessarily a guarantee 29 years later. The gang marvels at the fact that nearly three decades ago they were talking on phones that were attached with cords on the wall. Julie, still bubbly and with a distinct Southern twang, is nervous that they aren’t “going to give production what they want.” They are delighted to see one another and it certainly seems like some have kept in touch more than others.
Of course this reunion, which offers up never-before-seen footage of the original, comes at an unprecedented time in our history. These seven no-longer-strangers return to New York City when its currently a shell of its typical bustling self. Broadway is dark. Tourist aren’t flocking to Times Square. The COVID-19 pandemic is an undercurrent to the series; we learn that they all quarantined in separate hotels before coming to the show. But as the cast arrives, Eric—perhaps the most famous of this inaugural class due to his The Grind days—fails to show up. Later he appears via video to tell the gang that he’s tested positive for COVID and won’t be able to join them. “I love you guys. You all look so beautiful,” he tells them tearfully. It’s unclear, and Paramount+ isn’t telling us, if Eric will be able to rejoin the group in person in subsequent episodes. But, suffice to say, a reunion where one person is only seen on a big TV screen isn’t the best.
The most frustrating part of the first episode is not getting a full update on what everyone has been up to since the show ended. We learn that Andre (still rocking that long hair, but now it’s grey) has a four-year-old daughter, and Julie has two teenagers and is living back in Birmingham, Alabama. But these updates come in unsatisfying drips and drabs.
The other issue at hand—if we are going to get real—is that while they were the pioneers of reality TV, Season 1 wasn’t the most exciting or interesting of The Real World franchise, and the antics of the original seven certainly pale in comparison to today’s modern reality TV. Even the explosive fight between Julie and Kevin, which Kevin identifies as “the most famous argument in American TV history on race and racism” is both tame by today’s modern standards and more genuine. Because they were the first, the cast didn’t perform for the camera. “Where we got into arguments, they were debates. That’s different from a fight,” Becky says.
They all seem to have mellowed with age (haven’t we all?) spending the first episode eating pizza and catching up. It’s sweet if not all that exhilarating. Kevin is delighted to meet Julie’s daughter over FaceTime. “Wow she’s amazing,” he tells Julie. Eric is celebrating 18 years of sobriety, having completed what he refers to as an “epic spiritual journey.” Heather B., who on the other hand brings a full bar and many snacks with her, says watching the old episodes gives her an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. “I missed what I felt back then. My mother was alive. My father was alive… That ignorance was just bliss.” Who can’t relate to that sentiment? It made me think of that famous quote by Mark Twain: “too bad youth is wasted on the young.”
The promos for the rest of the season tease that Kevin and Julie’s argument will be revisited. But now these people are in their late 40s/early 50s. They’ve lived full lives since we last saw them. The show feels a little like going to your college reunion. You are just glad to see everyone and check in on how they are doing, but overall the premiere—a throwback to the kinder, gentler days of reality TV—is a little, dare I say it, boring. Sorry if that’s rude. That’s what happens when I stop being polite and start being real.
The Real World Homecoming: New York premieres March 4 on the new Paramount+. A new episode will be released each week.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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