Paramount+'s Real World Homecoming: New York, which reunites the former MTV series' original New York cast in the same Soho loft they haunted in 1992, was expected to be a nostalgia trip for Gen X-ers who remembered fondly, even wistfully, a more innocent and curious time for reality television. The first season of The Real World was a bold television experiment that paid off in ways surely unforeseen by even its most optimistic backers. Bringing back the original cast members seemed to be a way of honoring that legacy and revisiting a time when Gen X-ers were younger and still figuring out who we were.
And certainly the first episode of Homecoming held down that nostalgic vibe. With original roommates Julie Gentry, Kevin Powell, Heather Gardner, Becky Blasband, Norman Korpi, and Andre Comeau reuniting in the original loft, the dominant topic of conversation was The Real World itself, and what a groundbreaking experience it was for themselves and for television. In between marveling at being right back where they were 29 years ago and reveling in each other's presence again, conversation time and again returned to what their show represented for American pop culture itself. The other development that dominated the first episode was a uniquely modern one, as seventh roommate Eric Nies was unable to join the others in the loft because he'd tested positive for COVID-19 and was being sequestered at a nearby hotel. The show's workaround has Eric Zooming in through a television screen and interacting remotely, leading to a stilted but still quite warm and enthusiastic reunion with his old roommates. Eric's forced quarantine — along with the masks the roommates wear whenever they venture outside — has been a sobering reminder of the space and time in which this reunion is taking place.
And yet, as of the show's fourth episode, which drops this today, Eric getting COVID isn't even the most How We Live Now development of the series. That came in episodes two and three, when a decades-old argument between Becky and Kevin on the topic of race was resurfaced by the producers, and what was surely meant to be a moment of reflection and reconsideration instead turned into a recreation of the original argument. After a relatively mellow start — during which time Kevin actually apologized for calling Becky a "bitch" in the original argument — Becky began to get defensive about things like white privilege and whether it was okay to characterize Kevin as emotional or angry. In a spectacularly ill-considered series of decisions, Becky proceeded to argue for her own exemption from America's systemic racism and, in a conversation about the importance of listening to one another, appeared to talk over Kevin at every opportunity. She also, as the argument cliffhangered from episode 2 into episode 3, backed up her exemption from racism by sharing the fact that she had taken an Afro-Brazilian dance class on the subject of the African diaspora, and thus ceased to be of any race.
It was a jaw-dropping display of doubling down and refusing to take any of a number of exit ramps out of the discussion, at one point accusing Kevin of verbally "attacking" her, which is when Norman finally told his good friend Becky to shut up lest she be branded a "Karen" for all eternity. After the argument, Becky retreated to her room and within a few hours had vacated the loft, declaring herself done with the show.
Somehow, this wasn't even the full extent of the eyebrow-raisers coming from Becky in the span of just two episodes. The argument with Kevin came on the heels of her revelation that while she was in the loft for the original Real World season, she'd been communing with the ghost of John Lennon, who'd helped to inspire her songwriting, a confession that earned a few incredulous looks in the room and a priceless "I … don't think so" confessional from Andre. Becky also talked about her education under the wing of a "theoretical physicist and master healer" whose methods she now appears to be teaching. "My work is very medical," she says in a confessional, quickly adding, "I can't say it is medical, legally it is not."
These revelations came in the same episode that saw Eric — who has evolved into a career as a multi-faceted kind of energy healer/shaman — declaring his intention to fight his COVID diagnosis with ice baths and green juices. It was around this one-two punch from Eric and Becky that Homecoming really started to feel very representative of the prevailing anxieties of 2021, a world not only in the midst of a pandemic but one that feels fractured and distanced, filled with misinformation and beset by a lack of agreed upon facts. If Homecoming as a concept was intended to be a family reunion, Homecoming in practice has been like Thanksgiving with the extended family, where you find out your cousin who used to seem very cool has fallen deep down the QAnon rabbit hole, and Uncle Nathan won't be getting the vaccine because that's how the government gets you.
Those early Real World seasons, especially if you watched them at an impressionable, aspirational age, did feel strangely familial in a way that faded as the seasons went on. Homecoming's appeal is watching this family come back together with the very real emotions, fondness, nostalgia, and reminiscences that come with it. But culture is very different in 2021 and at age 50 than it was in 1992 at age 20. Media has fractured and split in hundreds of different directions since then. There is no one MTV Generation. Back then, MTV was the center of a very real kind of youth culture, and maybe you were into different wings of that culture — hip hop or grunge or soul or metal — but it all revolved around the same central hub. And at age 20, those cultural signifiers that MTV represented were a huge part of your life. That's not the case at 50.
Even if there was still a central cultural hub known as MTV (there isn't, unless you believe that the center around which all of popular culture revolves is interminable Ridiculousness reruns), one's life at age 50 is complicated by your job, your health, your kids, your politics, your accumulation of life experiences. And as much as those common experiences can unite, they can also isolate and divide. The Real World Homecoming has shown us both. This week's episode features the roommates rallying around Norman, whose career has been in a nosedive since the pandemic set in. It's a rather heartwarmingly familial moment that helps to offset the fact that you can't talk to Becky at Christmas Eve dinner anymore because she's going say something stupid and racist.
And so, nearly 30 years and an infinite number of changes in the world later, The Real World has returned to reflect another kind of truth back to its audience. It's not always happy truth — though a lot of it has been; Julie seems to have evolved into a best-case-scenario version of herself; Kevin and Andre are closer today than you'd ever have expected back then; Heather is as delightful as ever — but it's, for lack of a better or more cliched word, "real." Sometimes you really can go home again.
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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.