BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 21 JAN 22

A New 'Real World' Reaffirms Reality TV's Portentous Effects

The series reboot is a solemn reminder of the tribulations that come from being under the voluntary and constant scrutiny of the roving lens

BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 21 JAN 22

The Real World (1992–2019) debuted on the cable network MTV, which had reached cultural saturation among younger adults during the primordial years of the internet in the early 1990s. In a time before the current infinitudes of ‘choice’ content, a 23-installment season was appointment viewing, then relentlessly rerun as marathons throughout the summer. It is now something of a mainstay and a quaint throwback: reality television 1.0.

Over the winter holiday, I subscribed to the Paramount+ streaming platform and discovered years of the show cached there, like boxes of embarrassing Polaroids from high school. As a teen living in the rural west of the US, I was mesmerized by the first season (downtown Manhattan) and the fourth (west London). Now careening into middle age, I was quickly drawn back in and noticed that the producers – Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray – had recently reunited the cast members of The Real World: New York (1992) and The Real World: Los Angeles (1993) to live together in their old digs for several weeks. I did not expect much of The Real World Homecoming (2021–ongoing) beyond a bit of nostalgia and winking opportunism – of which there is plenty. Yet, last week, as I watched the final episode of The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles – which premiered in September 2021, six months after The Real World Homecoming: New York – I felt an unnerving poignancy, of the kind that is all-but-impossible to muster in the face of most contemporary reality viewing.

The Real World Homecoming 2021
The Real World Homecoming, 2021. Courtesy: © Danielle Levitt/MTV and Paramount+

The strength of this spinoff is that it delivers on the show’s initial promise to function as a social experiment. When the series debuted in 1992, documentary verité was hardly new as an artistic premise, but the showrunners’ conceit was: to throw seven strangers into a house, subject them to persistent surveillance and exact regular diaristic ‘confessionals’. Of course, we now know the genre is highly performative, a stream of artifice both cynical and sentimental. But, while these initial tranches of strangers tended to be young creatives hoping to gain some career exposure, it is also clear that, for several seasons, the roommates were relative innocents – neither as polished nor as willing to debase themselves as we now expect of the ‘talent’ in these setups. In the days before everyone cultivated a personal brand on social media, it really was unclear what constant mediation and all-consuming self-awareness could do to someone. 

Thanks to The Real World Homecoming, we now have longitudinal data and the results are not promising. Like good researchers, the producers lured much of the cast back and made space for chance interactions to rekindle old friendships or forgive petty skirmishes now that each is a little greyer and, presumably, wiser. Then, amid the predictably banal chatter of 50-somethings (‘You got married!’ and ‘Look at my kids!’), the on-set television would fire up and air some of the most heated clips from the initial run. Two of the more controversial arcs – journalist Kevin Powell calling singer Becky Blasband a racist in season one; comedian David Edwards pulling a duvet from an apparently naked Tami Roman in season two – are framed as opportunities for personal catharsis and as indices of how far we may have come socially.

The Real World Homecoming : New York
The cast of The Real World Homecoming: New York. Courtesy: © Paramount+

Certainly, the context has changed. When Powell and Blasband first had their conversation in season one, against the backdrop of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, he was depicted as a militant Black man. Now, many housemates listened raptly as the discussion turned to antiracism and the Black Lives Matter movement. At one point in The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles, Edwards refers to a ‘concerned’ castmate as ‘a Karen’. Remarkably, both series devolve for several episodes into uncanny rehearsals of the source material. Blasband feigns newfound understanding before reverting to the ‘I don’t see colour, ergo I’m not racist’ canard, ultimately leaving the house claiming persecution. Roman is made to explain to Glen Naessens, a white former rocker, that it’s never acceptable to use racial slurs, even if he is talking about something that happened to a Black friend. At one point, Norman Korpi, the resident artist, reminds Blasband that the show will be aired internationally and she will look clueless at best, likely worse. He’s right. The focus of the recently concluded The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles is relitigating Edwards’s behaviour, including exposing himself to women in the house, that led to his housemates successfully lobbying producers to evict him midstream. Echoing the ongoing reckoning with misogyny in the stand-up comedy arena, Edwards leads by openly laughing at the replay, saying it was funny then and, to him, still funny now.

Real World Homecoming 2021
The Real World Homecoming, 2021. Courtesy: © Danielle Levitt/MTV and Paramount+

Perhaps more powerful than this dismal performance of how the lessons of recent years have failed to land with a seemingly liberal cohort, are the ways in which The Real World Homecoming powerfully foregrounds trauma. At times, these are heartfelt remembrances of lost loved ones, or of living with substance abuse and body dysmorphia under the probing gaze of the camera. The new series goes to pains to remind us that its first iterations were genuinely pathbreaking, foregrounding queer people and the HIV/AIDS crisis for mass audiences, arguably for the first time – a burden of which Korpi and others were keenly aware. Though, my ultimate takeaway is that it was The Real World itself that altered these lives irrevocably.

Tellingly, two of the original cast members refused to participate, while others returned with trepidation, plainly unmoored by the experience and seeking resolution. While the fallout makes for compelling viewing, it also proves the old adage: ‘You can’t go home again.’ The two figures that seemed to have fared the best are those that leaned fully into the distorted mirror that the series wrought: Eric Nies was a chiselled-ab presence on MTV for years before reinventing himself as a spiritual guru; Roman became a reality-genre fixture. Both stood out for their fluency in a medium of which their peers seemed wearied – but at what cost? If these first Real World ensembles are missives from the recent past for what happens to people under the voluntary scrutiny of the roving lens, the message is clear: delete your social media today. 

Main image: Season 1 of The Real World, 1992. Courtesy: © MTV and Paramount+

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).