Netflix has invested heavily in unscripted programming over the past few years, but the endeavor hasn’t exactly been an exercise in creativity. Instead, the streaming giant has tended to look to basic cable for inspiration, packing its library with shows that would fit right in at Bravo, Food Network, and HGTV. Now it appears to have MTV's The Real World in its sights with Twentysomethings: Austin, a 12-episode series that puts a 2021 spin on the age-old question: “What happens when people stop being polite and start getting real?”
Twentysomethings: Austin (which was originally announced with the title Roaring Twenties) follows eight twenty-somethings as they move to Austin, Texas to find success in life and love, all while navigating the later stages of the pandemic. These eight “roommates” (the men and women live in separate houses that share a backyard and pool) come from all walks of life, and they must learn to navigate their differences over the course of their first few months in Austin. As with The Real World, Twentysomethings begins on move-in day, and the roommates’ personalities soon emerge. At the center of much of the drama is Abbey, a Houston native who’s ready to explore her bisexuality after recently coming out of a divorce. She spends the first episode flirting with both Isha, a self-proclaimed “educated ditz” from Irvine, California, and Kamari, a 23-year-old North Carolinian determined to make it as a male model. Along with Bruce, the party-loving good Southern boy, Abbey, Isha, and Kamari are the kind of people we’re used to seeing on reality TV: they’re loud, flirty, and willing to open up for the cameras, even when doing so paints them in a less-than-flattering light.
The other four roommates, however, each bring something new to the genre. In the premiere, Natalie, who grew up in a strict Latin household in Miami, and Keauno, a second-generation American who recently came out as gay to his Catholic family, bond over their introverted nature and different ideas about conventional beauty. “I’m the only girl here with fucking meat,” says Natalie, as Keauno laments his “awkward” existence. Across the pool, Raquel, a Black woman who moved to Austin to further her career in IT, finds herself instantly charmed by Michael, a nerdy Jewish boy with low self-esteem who hopes to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. Michael and Keauno’s efforts to develop self-confidence are an early highlight, and their willingness to fall flat on their faces along the journey is oddly inspiring. Watching Michael bomb at an open mic with jokes about “pussy jobs” is peak cringe, but it’s undoubtedly “real,” as no one in their right mind would want that moment forever memorialized on camera (and streamed for millions around the world).
Though Twentysomethings is clearly borrowing The Real World’s premise — and that of subsequent MTV shows, most notably Jersey Shore — it does make an effort to update it for a 2021 audience. In the early days of The Real World and Jersey Shore, it made sense that a landline would serve as the housemates’ only tie to the outside world, but the genre’s commitment to continuing this level of isolation doesn’t gel with our modern reality (in Floribama Shore, for example, the cast is required to give up their cell phones and use a “crocodile phone” to organize taxis and order pizzas). In a smart move, Twentysomethings not only allows the roommates to have their phones and computers, but incorporates them into the narrative: Michael, Bruce, and Isha are constantly swiping through dating apps, and if something sticks, we see the actual date play out on screen. As a result, new people are constantly rotating through this already-fascinating world, bringing new drama and new problems along with them.
Twentysomethings: Austin also doesn’t shy away from depicting “the ‘new normal’ of 2020’s America,” as Netflix promises in the show’s official synopsis. The series was taped in early fall 2021, and COVID-19 is very much a part of the equation: many of the roommates have been laid off or experienced hardship during the pandemic, and they’re still looking to get back on their feet by the time they arrive. Of course, living in “2020’s America” also requires navigating a tricky political landscape, and no one, not even these good-time-seekers, is immune from the discourse. This becomes apparent when Isha worries that she and Bruce, a South Carolinian, aren’t a good match because he might be a Republican. With some advice from her roommates and a (somewhat) frank conversation at a gay bar, Isha resolves the issue, but new questions about the roommates and the people they meet in Texas are sure to emerge.
With The Real World Homecoming performing well on Paramount+, it was only a matter of time before Netflix released its own take on the MTV staple. As far as copycats go, Twentysomethings: Austin is one of the streamer’s better efforts. If the pattern holds, Twentysomethings spinoffs in Los Angeles and San Francisco should be announced within the year.
Part 1 of Twentysomethings: Austin premieres Friday, December 10 on Netflix. The remaining six episodes drop the following Friday, December 17.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.