Over its first two episodes, the New Orleans season of The Real World Homecoming has been a tale of competing vibes. Nostalgia has taken the front seat, as we've been re-introduced to the cast we first met as as twentysomethings. There's also been the dishy rubbernecking of long-simmering bad blood between Julie and her ex-housemates, in particular Melissa and Danny. Episode two introduced the thoughtful, reflective, and deeply complicated story of Danny, whose boyfriend Paul at the time of the original Real World: New Orleans was in the military and bound by Don't Ask, Don't Tell strictures, a story that's been re-contextualized with the passage of time, and Danny admitting what a crushing weight it all was on him.
Then there's the story of Julie Stoffer, who's been the focal point of almost all of this Homecoming season's most dramatic moments, and whose vibe has me more stressed out than any character on TV in recent memory. The season's first episode was dominated by Julie struggling — often refusing — to face up to the apologies she owed Danny and Melissa, which was stressful in the kind of way that watching someone dig a hole deeper and deeper for themselves while everybody else watches with expressions that very clearly read, "Wow, you're really just digging that hole, aren't you?" can be stressful. Episode two, however, brought a whole new layer to the proceedings, as a night out at a New Orleans gay bar went from Drag Night to "drag your roommate out of the bar before the bouncers do it for you" night. "Belligerence," as Melissa so succinctly puts it, "has arrived."
Let's back up, though, because Julie’s story didn't have to go this way. She kicked off the season as the most nervous looking woman ever to board a trolley car. As she explained in her interview segments, Julie hadn’t spoken to any of her old roommates in 20 years, and it wasn't exactly due to benign neglect. What's interesting is that as much as she later tries to downplay and backpedal what exactly happened to cause her rift with both Danny and Melissa, Julie initially approaches the New Orleans reunion as someone who knows she screwed up. That's why the first thing she does when she sees Danny is sob on his shoulder and say she's so sorry. For Danny, it's an apology without accountability, and it's all happening too easily and quickly. As we find out later, he's not wrong to be guarded, because Julie still doesn't seem willing to own up to what actually happened (in the aftermath of their season, she and/or her manager wrote a letter to schools looking to hire Danny for mentorship engagements and slandered Danny as being of low moral character, i.e. wantonly gay). Also not wrong to be guarded is Melissa, who was also subject to letters misrepresenting her character, about which Julie denies any knowledge.
What's frustrating as a viewer is that there’s a version of this story where Julie is the most relatable character on Homecoming. She's the one coming into this situation with the most regrets. She did something bad and wrecked what were once close friendships, and that wreckage has been left unaddressed for twenty years. Who among us doesn't have a long-stagnant regret that we'd love to make right? But, as Danny astutely clocks, Julie wants to get to the part where everybody is okay with each other again without trudging through the muck of accountability and the slow steps of re-building the trust that was lost, and so in the season premiere we got a lot of Julie crying and desperately searching for a way to apologize without admitting to having done anything so depraved as slandering the gay man and biracial woman she'd lived with for months over something so crass as a speaking engagement fee. It's Tokyo who hands her what she believes to be her best strategic option, which is owning up to the fact that anything that her management may have done on her behalf back then (which Julie still refuses to admit she knew about) is still her fault because "the buck stops with me." It is an incredibly manipulative way of appearing to fall on her sword while still maintaining the fiction that she didn't do what she almost certainly did. (Unless you choose to belive that Danny and Melissa both decided to invent these letters out of whole cloth, which seems, to put it mildly, unlikely.)
It's uncomfortable to watch someone twist in the wind, even if it's of their own doing, and that's what it's like watching Julie, whose desperation to get past all the bad feelings is written all over her face. She needs Danny to forgive and Melissa to forget, but neither is interested in doing that so quickly (in Danny's case) or at all (in Melissa's). It's especially unmooring as a viewer because in the original Real World: New Orleans, no character was more cared for and catered to by the production than Julie. She was fulfilling Bunim-Murray's favorite archetype back then: the sheltered girl who's come to the big city to experience cosmopolitan life and expand her horizons and rebel against her upbringing in a very MTV way. Julie showed up to the Belfort mansion with the regressive attitudes you might expect from someone who grew up white and sheltered and religious. We see on Homecoming that during the audition process she spoke unambiguously about being repulsed by homosexuality. And if you watch the old episodes that are up on Paramount+, you'll be treated to Julie speaking the N-word (hesitantly, boundary-testingly) during a conversation about whether it's okay for white people to say the N-word. As far as the show was concerned back then, these were all part of Julie's journey towards becoming a better, more liberated person — and specifically her journey towards rebelling against her Mormon upbringing. The audience was guided to cheer for and support Julie on this journey, and her roommates were just as supportive. Twenty years later, Julie's working without a net. She's just north of 40, married, and has separated herself from the Mormon religion, but neither the show nor her roommates are cutting her the slack they once did.
In many ways, Homecoming is bringing us a Brand New Julie, and that's maybe the most stressful thing of all, because Brand New Julie has the kind of zeal for life one imagines might accompany a prisoner on furlough. Julie is back in New Orleans without the structures of Mormonism, which kept her from wilding out in the way her roommates were able to back then. She clearly wants to grab hold of this second chance and ride it for all it's worth, which could have been an incredibly relatable storyline. Who among us hasn't wanted to recapture the freedom of being 20 years old and free from responsibility or restriction, even if just for a week? Yet it's her intense desperation to paper over the past that makes her almost impossible to watch without tensing up.
This materializes first in what initially feels like a throwaway scene where Julie — bummed that the hot tub appears to be out of order — tries to wheedle Tokyo into getting the roommates into a group shower situation. Or maybe just Tokyo, HA HA HA! They'd still be in their bathing suits, HA HA HA. Just kidding... UNLESS! The firmness with which Tokyo seeks to shut this conversation down only serves to make Julie's persistence seem more maniacal. Julie, meanwhile, keeps giving confessionals about how everybody else in the house is behaving like a senior citizen and she just wants to have FUN! It's all very Wine Mom on Rumspringa.
This is the same energy that Julie brings to the group excursion to the drag club, which is attended by everyone but Matt (whose views on queer revelry don't seem to have changed much, which will probably need some unpacking soon) and Kelly (who is chasing down a deadline). The roommates are each experiencing the joy of being out in New Orleans together in their own way. Jamie is giving big Benignly Embarrassing Dad Energy, "YAASS QUEEN"s and all. Melissa is dutifully passing shots on to her new gay-club friends and waiting for them to play "Back That Azz Up." Tokyo, for his part, expresses how this is his chance to have fun with his roommates in a way he didn't allow himself to be in his first time around, a desire that's not at all dissimilar to Julie's, although Tokyo manages to do so in a way that doesn't make you want to dig your fingernails into your armrests (a daunting task when you're giving your interview segments in a powder blue Sergeant Pepper jacket, so props to Tokyo for that). And Danny is gloriously in his element and accepting the love that the gay community is sending his way.
And then there's Julie. Julie gets drunk. Julie is having a straight-girl-at-the-gay-club good time, WOO-ing at the queens and downing every shot that's passed her way. Then she starts to tumble-bumble around. And then the other roommates start casting glances at each other the way you do with your friends when one of you is starting to tumble-bumble around at the club. The looks that read "we're gonna need to handle this eventually." Tokyo and Jamie keep trying to pass Julie cups of water, which she shoos away with an annoyed look on her face. Julie, who spent most of her original run on The Real World rebelling against her dad for making her feel sinful for listening to alternative music and flirting with boys, is giving her roommates the same looks she once shot at her dad. And when she progresses past the point of falling down on the ground, and the bouncers of the club are saying she's gotta go, Jamie and Tokyo need to (literally, in one instance) pick her up and drag her out. And that's where we leave off for the week.
Look, there but for the grace of the God that Matt prays to for guidance about whether he should go to a drag club go any of us for not having our most embarrassing 40something Night Out Getting Too Drunk moment captured on television. But as a bystander watching on my little streaming device at home, I was about ready to claw the actual skin off my body watching Julie go full Tulane Freshman in front of New Orleans's finest drag performers and the Paramount+ cameras. The episode ended before we got to what the previews are promising to be the "faceplant on the curb" "puke saltines all over the bedroom floor" portions of the evening, but they're coming. Lord only knows where The Julie Stoffer Experience goes from here, but I'll almost certainly be requiring a hot stone massage when it's all over.
The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans streams new episodes Thursdays on Psaramount+.
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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.