Cast from the first 'Real World' returns to the loft

Nina Metz
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
The house where the cast from MTV''s "The Real World" lived is seen July 11, 2001, in New York City.

In 1973, PBS broadcast a documentary series called “An American Family,” featuring the very real, very unscripted lives of the Loud family, who invited cameras into their suburban home to film for several months, capturing the texture of their relationships with one another.

It would take nearly 20 more years before that idea was reimagined for the MTV generation as “The Real World.” Instead of centering a family, the show’s formula would become a standard-bearer for this nascent genre: A group of strangers agree to live together — a New York loft was the setting for that first season in 1992 — with a camera crew or three in tow, just to see what happens.

In early footage, 19-year-old cast member Julie Gentry is seen asking a producer, “Is it sort of supposed to be like a ‘New York 90210’? Or a documentary?” and she’s told, vaguely: “That’s close.”

Blammo, reality TV as we know it was born.

“The Real World Homecoming: New York” reunites the seven original cast members to share living quarters once again, in the same loft, almost 30 years later. It’s a premise that has the makings of either a Gen X nightmare or a fascinating opportunity for collective generational introspection.

The show is among the new offerings from Paramount+, the rebranded streaming platform formerly known as CBS All Access, a name change presumably set in motion because there’s a perception that the CBS brand tends to cater to the tastes of ... not young people. How’s that for diplomatic?

I suspect people who are paid think about marketing have a different perspective, but still, I don’t know how you shed that reputation with a new show geared to the nostalgic curiosity of people in their 40s and 50s. (If you’re wondering how MTV fits into all of this, the brand falls under the larger ViacomCBS corporate umbrella.) As for millennials and Gen Z, 1992 is ancient times TV-wise, so I’ll be curious to see if “The Real World Homecoming” picks up steam among viewers who weren’t around when the first season aired.

In addition to Julie (the sheltered girl from Alabama with dreams of a professional dance career), the cast then and now includes:

  • Andre Comeau (a rocker with a grunge look who would have been great in “Rent” if that were his kind of thing)
  • Heather B. Gardner (a rapper and the most effusive and fun-loving of the group)
  • Norman Korpi (a visual artist who was openly gay at a time when that was rare on TV; he memorably brought his doofy Great Dane with him that first season)
  • Rebecca Blasband (a musician as well, who broke the fourth wall when she started dating one of the show’s directors)
  • Kevin Powell (a writer and educator and perhaps the most socially and politically aware of the cast)
  • Eric Nies (the buff party boy and model who would go on to host “The Grind”)

“This is the true story,” promises the beginning of each episode of “The Real World.” But what is truth in such a uniquely artificial and commodified context? That original cast probably came the closest to actual honesty (even if they all had career goals that were, at the very least, fame adjacent and probably saw the show as a boost to that end) because they simply lacked knowledge of the form — the form didn’t even exist, really — and therefore also lacked the cynicism and sparring-for-the-cameras instincts that later casts would so fully embrace.

That’s not to say there weren’t verbal throw downs. There were. A lot, actually. But they mostly involved real issues about racism and privilege. Kevin, who is Black, wasn’t interested in letting his white cast mates off the hook. And as Heather points out in hindsight, “Where’s the lie?”

So far, Kevin is the one we see expressing the most introspection, contemplating the potential conversations he hopes to be having now, today. And because of that, he is the most interesting and thoughtful person on this reconstituted version of the show. “All human beings are imperfect and fragile and we can change,” he says, and it is a sentiment filled with optimism and openness.

Reality shows tend to quash that sort of thing, but it’s too soon to tell just how this group will reconnect. With that in mind, here are some initial thoughts. New episodes will stream weekly:

The series was filmed during the pandemic.

Each cast member was tested for COVID-19 and then quarantined alone for a period of days before showing up to film at the loft. As it happens, one cast member does indeed test positive, which means they can’t be there in person and can only join the group via video conference. It’s a transparent and wonderfully awkward revelation. You want reality TV? Here you go. COVID is our reality.

Something else that stood out: A producer asks Julie if she’s nervous. She is — she’s nervous that the group isn’t “going to give production what they want.” I was surprised to hear that. What an interestingly ... business-oriented thought to have. Who cares what production wants? It makes you wonder if that pressure existed, overtly or subtly, when they filmed the original show and she’s reliving that anxiety.

The editing feels like a parody at first. I don’t think it’s meant to be a parody.

It eventually settles down, but the first 10 minutes are almost unwatchable. The hyper-caffeinated editing style feels like it’s razzing MTV in its heyday (the “Real World” spoof from “Reality Bites” briefly flashed through my mind) and if only the show was actually doing something clever here. It’s not. It’s just bad editing that frantically introduces — sorry, reintroduces — the cast and the show itself.

The passage of time.

The group has obviously grown older — there’s gray hair among the men; or in Kevin’s case, no hair — but otherwise no one looks dramatically different. Weirdly, we aren’t told much about what they’re doing with their lives today, but we do learn that Julie is married and the mother of three teenage kids, living in her hometown of Birmingham, and Andre is also married with a young daughter of his own.

Have they grown wiser? The first episode works mostly as stage-setting, leaving that question untouched for now. But maybe some liquid courage will loosen things up. Heather arrives with a suitcase full of booze and the raised eyebrows made me laugh; once you hit middle age, the prospect of a hangover after just one or two drinks is real and you can sense some of those thoughts might be running through their heads.

Like everything else, “The Real World” is chasing the past.

Life was simpler, Heather says of their youth. All you needed was 50 bucks in your pocket and you were set.

I’m fascinated by this kind of nostalgia, because it seems universal and cyclical and also so, so flawed. Looking back, sometimes things do seem simpler — but only if you don’t look too close.

Here’s hoping “The Real World Homecoming” decides to look close.