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Why MTV’s ‘The Real World: New York’ Mattered

And why we can’t wait for the Paramount+ homecoming.
  • Kevin Powell, Eric Nies, Andre Comeau, Heather B. Gardner, Julie Gentry, Norman Korpi and Becky Blasband made TV history in 1992 when they were cast in the first season of The Real World. (Photos: MTV)
    Kevin Powell, Eric Nies, Andre Comeau, Heather B. Gardner, Julie Gentry, Norman Korpi and Becky Blasband made TV history in 1992 when they were cast in the first season of The Real World. (Photos: MTV)

    This week marks the return of one of the most influential pop culture properties of the last thirty years as The Real World Homecoming: New York reunites the show's original seven original strangers in the show's original Soho loft for a new six-episode limited series. The first season of MTV's The Real World was a landmark in the history of television in so many ways, birthing a franchise that's cut across multiple generations. But the further the series stretched into the Aughts and 2010s, the more its tether to the original concept frayed. Likewise, the genre it spawned — what we now call "reality tv" — bears little resemblance to that first season. So why is it that those of us who experienced The Real World while ensconced in that formative MTV demographic look back at it with such intense fondness and familiarity?

    Part of it is we shared in that thrill of discovery, of experiencing something wholly different than anything else on TV. While there had been other early stabs at lived-in documentary on TV — PBS' An American Family ran for twelve episodes way back in 1973 — the social experiment of The Real World separated it from anything that had come before. Instead of seeking out real people in their own lives, producers Mary-Ellis Bunuim and Jonathan Murray selected and brought together people from different life experiences into a single home to cohabitate, and filmed the results. The experiment paid off with a season that was all at once fascinating, dramatic and quotidian.

    Watching the first Real World season today is akin to peering in on the entertainment programming of wagon-train pioneers or ancient Greek civilizations. It's amazing that people on TV ever allowed themselves to be this low-key, and that viewers had the attention spans to take it all in. Which is by no means saying it's not still thoroughly fascinating or deeply entertaining, because it's both. But years and years of reality TV becoming bigger, faster, and louder have dulled our senses, and there's just no way that the seismic crash of Julie asking the roommate she just met if her beeper (!) meant that she was a drug dealer can hit the same way.

    The Real World Homecoming: New York reunites all seven cast members from that original season, a mix of deeply curious personalities who fit a truly aspirational definition of the MTV demographic back in 1992: Julie Gentry, who was 19 years old and straight outta Birmingham, Alabama, about to set the template for the naive, fish-out-of-water, lots-to-learn young girl in the big city which Bunim-Murray would return to again and again; Heather B. Gardner, almost certainly the most entertaining of that original cast, with a blunt manner and incredible sense of humor, whose unexpectedly close friendship with Julie (especially after that beeper remark) felt like the show was proving itself all at once; Norman Korpi, an incredibly early example of queer representation and visibility on TV and, at all of 25, one of the old souls of the house; Kevin Powell, whose political awareness as a Black man feels incredibly ahead of its time now; Becky Blasband, the absolute picture of an NYU coffeehouse girl who is still smoking a cigarette somewhere in the recesses of my brain; Andre Comeau, the requisite Eddie Vedder lookalike for the grunge-era '90s; and (appearing via webcam, for reasons that have yet to be revealed) Eric Nies, the impossibly sexy aspiring actor/model who pioneered the reality-TV-to-entertainment-career pathway as he transitioned post-show into host of MTV's The Grind.

    What was truly miraculous about this original cast was the fact that they weren't this can't-miss combustible mix of volatility and drama that we've come to expect from reality shows today. Kevin, for all his forthrightness, was aloof; Norman, for all his quirk, was thoughtful; Julie was genuinely open to her new experiences; Andre kind of peaced out when it came to group dynamics. In retrospect, it does feel incredibly real, even though at the time the show was heavily criticized for the kinds of baseline manipulations and contrivances (they live in that loft rent-free!) that we now completely take for granted.

    Watching The Real World as an early teenager, especially one who was obsessed with TV and felt a deep yearning to have very serious conversations with very mature 22-year-olds, was utterly transfixing. It was like enrolling in a liberal arts college five years early. I doubt that was the appeal for everyone who watched the show, but free and open conversations about race and sex, playing pool at all hours in a Soho loft apartment, attending pro choice rallies and kissing boys? This show was everything. It also was probably the single best encapsulation of whatever the MTV Generation was at that moment: obsessed with authenticity, dedicated to Having a Conversation about every possible topic, and harmlessly immature.

    Homecoming promises to revisit that heady time, and one imagines the perspective from 2021 will be pretty dizzying. I can't imagine that moments like Kevin and Julie's heated arguments about race and racism won't get a healthy reevaluation in light of the current climate. One hopes the inevitable cynicism of being in your [gulp] 50s won't cast too much of a pall over their reminiscences about their younger, more idealistic selves, but it will be fascinating no matter what. It will be really fascinating to see how at ease (or not) these pioneers of reality TV will feel in front of the cameras after decades of being conditioned by their successors. The Real World is famous for opening the door for the reality TV that came after it, but it's probably more beloved than ever for how unlike present-day reality TV it was.

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    The Real World Homecoming: New York premieres on Paramount+ March 4th.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Real World, MTV, Paramount+, Reality TV