If you've been watching The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans on Paramount+ and feeling a sharp ache for the landmark TV of your youth, you're not alone. Watching the New Orleans cast reunite over 20 years later has churned a unique blend of feelings for many of us who watched the show as preteens, teenagers, or (ahem) early twentysomethings.
There's the generalized mourning for the young people we were then, the baseline joy that comes with seeing old friends (and/or frenemies) again, the anxiety that comes with seeing visual evidence of how we're all 20 years older now, and the rubbernecking curiosity as producers look to dredge up old drama among the show's cast members. Homecoming is as much a reckoning as it is a reunion, and while that comes with mixed emotions, it also gives us a chance to remember the culture of our youth as it once was. A snapshot of the year 2000 in all its simplicity. Which is why I'm going to take this opportunity to recall when The Real World's Danny Roberts guest starred on Dawson's Creek.
The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans has given us a chance to reflect on how important Danny Roberts was to many young queer people who watched the original series. Danny, of course, was not the first out gay cast member of The Real World, but he was one of the most compelling people the show had ever seen, owing in part to the fact that he was newly out of the closet, experiencing gay life in a libertine city like New Orleans, and navigating a relationship with a guy so bound by the bigoted strictures of the U.S. military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy that said guy had to have his face blurred out when he appeared on screen. There was also the fact that, for a certain age demographic, Danny was the first out gay character on TV that they had a crush on. It feels reductive to loop Danny's otherworldly 22-year-old beauty into his importance as a representational TV presence, but I'd submit to you that giving young gay boys a crush object in possession of the most beautiful smile you've ever seen in your teenage life who's gay just like you was a radical act in and of itself.
Unsurprisingly, the two Real World: New Orleans cast members who made the momentary leap into the pop culture lexicon were Julie (the Mormon skateboarder girl who ended up alongside Puck and Syrus in an Eminem video) and Danny, who for one glorious, shining moment played a fake French beachgoer in an episode of Dawson's Creek. It was a moment in time where youth culture converged, and since it's available to stream, we all owe it to ourselves to check it out.
First, a word about formatting and the quirks of the streaming era: this episode is currently available to stream on Hulu, Netflix, HBO Max, and YouTube (for free — without a subscription!) but the original Paula Cole theme song is only available on the Netflix and HBO Max episodes, so make your choice wisely.
Let's begin by orienting ourselves to the time and place. The date is October 4, 2000. The Real World: New Orleans hasn't even finished airing — in fact, on the very same night, The Real World aired its 16th of 23 episodes that season, meaning that you could've watched a Danny Roberts double feature, and your year 2000 pop culture powers would have been at their apex. Dawson's Creek, meanwhile, was premiering its fourth season. For context's sake, recall that season three of Dawson's Creek ended with Joey (Katie Holmes) and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) throwing their friend group for a loop by coupling up, making Dawson (James Van Der Beek) ugly-cry (inventing the reaction meme as we know it), and then setting sail for parts unknown for the summer.
So Dawson's Creek, Season 4, Episode 1, "Coming Home," opens with Pacey and Joey sailing back into Capeside, where their friends have spent the summer soldiering on without them. As is his custom, Dawson is still butthurt (technical term), while Jen (Michelle Williams), Jack (Kerr Smith), and Andie (Meredith Monroe) are trying to enjoy their last summer days at the beach. That's where Danny — credited as "Jason Daniel Roberts" — comes in, playing one of two French-speaking hot guys on the beach who catch Andie's eye. Jen is still doing the long-distance thing with her season three boyfriend Henry, and the plot requires her to be the voice of reason trying to get Joey and Dawson to talk to each other again, so Andie, who doesn't really have much else to do in this episode, gets to shoot her shot with the French hotties all episode.
The joke is that the one French guy (who speaks a little English) is named Jean, while the one who Danny plays is called "Jean-Jean," and he speaks no English at all. Andie flirts with them at the beach, then takes them on a tour of Capeside's old colonial architecture. Since they speak such limited English, she feels like she can throw in some snarky asides, especially towards the non-comprehending Jean-Jean ("The other one just stands there looking like a dolt," she tells Jen, right in front of the boys). But then — TWIST! — it turns out that the one Andie was flirting with all episode has a girlfriend back in Par-ee, and — DOUBLE TWIST! — it turns out that Jean-Jean is really "J.J.," a regular English-speaking American who's understood Andie the whole time. It's awkward at first, but Andie and J.J. get to have a flirty little night at the beach party all the same.
That was all we ever got out of J.J. and Danny on Dawson's Creek. He never returned for a follow up, and Andie got written out of the show by season four's seventh episode, closing that chapter for good. But a one-episode role was the perfect way to encapsulate the way that Real World cast members existed in our lives back then. The New Orleans season premiered in mid-June, and Danny was a hit right away, so the pipeline that existed from new Real World fame to getting cast on the hottest teen show on TV was a matter of weeks. It's also worth noting that in the episode, Jen, Jack, and Andie make a reference to "voting people off the island," a clear nod to Survivor which had also premiered in the summer of 2000, making this one episode the pop cultural nexus point of mid-2000.
While Danny never really pursued an acting career beyond this and a handful of episodes of a show called DTLA in 2012, his Dawson's Creek moment is another reminder that sometimes popular culture really is about iconography. The Jean-Jean/J.J. character wasn't a thinly veiled version of Danny, he wasn't there to teach the Capeside kids about Don't Ask, Don't Tell, he wasn't even gay (although I'd argue that any character who entered into the Andie/Jack/Jen orbit on Dawson's Creek was at least a little gay). He was that gorgeous guy from The Real World cast on the show to be that gorgeous guy from The Real World, this time with a fake French accent.
Reality TV fame wasn't meant to last in any traditional way; it burned brightly for a moment, it mattered intensely to us, in the case of shows like The Real World: New Orleans, at a time when it would imprint on our psyches. If Danny hadn't actually appeared on Dawson's Creek that year, our memories may well have placed him there anyway, in that space where we had incredibly strong feelings about Danny and Paul and Melissa and Julie and Pacey and Joey and Jen and Grams. So smile that perfect smile in perpetuity, fake French J.J. Somewhere out there it's the summer of 2000 forever.
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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.