“That ignorance was just bliss.”
Heather Gardner, one of the seven strangers who shared a loft in the first season of The Real World, says this in the first episode of The Real World Homecoming: New York. She’s sitting on a sectional sofa in the same exact loft nearly 30 years later, remembering what it was like to be young and unencumbered and have her experiences recorded for the benefit of MTV viewers. “I miss what I felt back then,” she says, waxing nostalgic for a time without cell phones, when her parents were still alive, and when an extra 50 bucks meant you had enough money to party for a weekend.
The Real World Homecoming: New York, a reunion of the cast of the first Real World, the show that created the template for contemporary American reality television, is designed to be embraced by viewers who also miss what they felt back then. Its target audience is seemingly Gen-Xers who remember watching — or at least absorbing via cultural osmosis — the 1992 iteration of the MTV series and being young around the same time those Real World New Yorkers were young. With its first episode dropping today on Paramount+, the newly revamped iteration of the CBS All Access platform, The Real World Homecoming is also designed as a gateway into the deep library of Real World episodes that are just a click away. (Twenty seasons, just waiting for you!)
Season one, in which seven artists move into a Soho loft to have their experiences documented on MTV, is an extra-special sort of TV time capsule. It captures an era when people regularly walked around looking like Evan Dando, when smoking indoors still happened unapologetically, and when there was one single television in an apartment — imagine it, just a single screen that had to be shared — and it was the size, maybe, of an iPad. At the time, some critics considered the series too phony and dismissed its stars for being vapid. “What someone should say to impressionable kids who will watch this is that we have enough poets, rappers, painters, singers, bands, models, and dancers. More than enough, in fact,” wrote Tom Shales in an especially scathing review in the Washington Post. “You might want to think about getting a real job. You might want to think about getting a real life. You might want to stop watching head-emptying drivel like The Real World.” It’s weird that Gen-Xers have always resented their elders so much. Truly. I cannot figure out why.
Actually, the first season of The Real World is remarkably low-key and authentic — or at least authentic-adjacent — by modern standards. None of the castmates hook up with one another, though romances are hinted at for dramatic purposes. No one blatantly seems to be trying to use their role on the series to build their brand because no one yet knew that was something reality TV could do. Some of the biggest arguments on the show are about why the dishes aren’t getting done and the frustrations that come with sharing a single phone line. (Yes, my young friends, we actually lived like this. No, I don’t know how we did it either.)
What the first season of The Real World became most famous for were its conflicts involving race. That season was considered controversial because of arguments between the white loft dwellers and Kevin Powell, the more outspoken of the two Black castmates. (Heather tended to stay out of the fray, or at least out of the edited and broadcast version of the fray.) Kevin, a poet, professor, and activist, frequently called out his roommates for racist behavior only to be met with defensive pushback that shifted all the blame onto him. He was criticized for not being around as much as the others without anyone considering whether his absence might have been a commentary on a less than welcoming vibe in the apartment. After Julie Gentry, a 19-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama, who was experiencing New York for the first time, accused Kevin of threatening her with violence, the two got into an in-your-face shouting match — “Get off the black-white thing,” Julie shouted. “I’m sick of it!” — that became the stuff of Real World legend.
“Julie and I had the most famous argument in TV history on racism,” Kevin says in the first episode of Real World Homecoming: New York. While that’s some hyperbole on his part, it’s true that there was a frankness in their back-and-forth that was rarely captured on television at the time. As the show’s intro promised, sometimes these 20-somethings really did stop being polite and started getting real. Smartly, Real World Homecoming — in which the same roommates, now in their late 40s and 50s, spend six days in that same, albeit nicely updated, loft — is primed to reengage in that kind of debate from the very first episode.
“What he was dealing with at that time and how he saw it: He was right,” Heather says about Kevin’s experiences in 1992, on the first night the old roommates gather again. “Because guess what? Fast-forward: Where’s the lie?” One of the most fascinating potential elements in this Real World redux will be watching how the same people unpack these issues now after three decades of experience and insight.
There is also something poignant about watching these six people, several of whom have remained in touch, reconnect in person again, especially at a time when in-person reunions are impossible. (Castmate Eric Nies, the model who eventually hosted MTV’s The Grind and its various workout videos, Zooms into the conversations from another location for reasons that are revealed in episode one.) Everyone looks good but, naturally, older. Hair is grayer. Waists are a little wider. Eyes are wiser. There’s a palpable feeling of warmth between all of them and maybe, depending on how things unfold in the next five episodes, a greater willingness to hear one another and see beyond the youthful overconfidence that can close open minds.
A particularly intriguing moment happens near the end of the episode, when Julie introduces her daughter to Kevin via FaceTime. “It’s crazy, I met your mom when she was a teenager,” he tells her. “And you’re a teenager.” When Kevin asks the young woman, a high-school senior, what she’s passionate about, she mentions that she’s an ambassador at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham. Did the producers concoct this situation to suggest that society has made progress since Julie and Kevin screamed at each other in front of a Soho apartment building three decades ago? Probably. Hopefully, Julie and Kevin will have more complex conversations about racism in future episodes, and even more hopefully, someone will explain why the confrontation that incited their argument was, weirdly, never captured on film.
But the interaction between Kevin and Julie’s daughter is still effectively moving — especially, again, for members of the Real World generation. That conversation provides just one piece of evidence that, contrary to what some critics once said about them, these ’90s kids really did grow up and live real, worthwhile lives.