There’s a moment in Adaptation, the film based on Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, when Meryl Streep’s character is overcome by grief and sadness about her life. “I did everything wrong. I want my life back,” she wails. “I want it back before it all got fucked up. I want to be a baby again. I want to be new.”
What biology makes impossible, television makes possible.
I’ve spent full days, maybe weeks, this past year, going back in time, re-watching old TV shows: multiple rewatches of Golden Girls and new re-watches of Wings and Frasier, and revisiting reality shows from Survivor: Borneo to Instant Hotel.
In this time of death and pain, of incapacitating uncertainty and manifold loss, there’s comfort in revisiting the past, in being back together with old friends. I don’t need to learn names or think when I watch an episode of The Golden Girls for the umpteenth time; I just settle in, ready to laugh.
The Real World Homecoming: New York is different. Norm calls the show he’s on a time machine, but for me it’s a perfect wormhole between this pandemic year and my teenage years, allowing instant passage back and forth, so we can live in two places at once.
There is plenty of nostalgia, helped by music such as The Cure’s late 1980s hit “Just Like Heaven” (“I promise that/I’ll run away with you”), which opens the show.
But the premiere of The Real World Homecoming: New York does more than just flash back to the early 1990s and the original series. It bounces back and forth in time, weaving them together to create something new.
The iconic introduction, spoken by the cast members, has been updated to merge the past and present: “This is the true story, of seven former roommates, who returned to their original loft, to have their lives taped again, to find out what happens, when people stop being polite and start getting real.”
The production designers did an excellent job of updating that original loft, echoing the original without duplicating it—though some elements are exactly the same, like the column in the living room and the blue-tinted fish tank.
In an especially clever move, the editing continually splits the screen to show us moments from The Real World’s first season in 1992, and this 2021 reunion, which was filmed earlier this year.
I found myself tearing up at the split-screens: Kevin walking into the kitchen, Becky opening the fridge, Norm coming in with his suitcase. Sometimes those screens show slight changes: Andre shaking norms hand in 1992 and hugging Norm in 2021.
Those moments erased the time that’s passed between them, which somehow makes that elapsed time both significant and devastating. “I miss what I felt back then,” Heather says. “My mother was alive, my father was alive.” The seven strangers that entered a SoHo loft 29 years ago now have gray hair, kids, and more scars from what life has delivered to them.
But they are also the same friends I met back then, back when I was 15 or 16 and watching a marathon of their season. I was naive like Julie, privileged like Becky, and discovering my sexuality like Norm.
It’s such a relief that the people I spent time with still want to spend time with each other. Despite the conflict and arguments and fighting, and the dramatic differences between them, there is a strong, indelible bond between this cast that clicks in immediately.
When Eric Nies finally appears via video screen, sadness washes over them. Heather put her hands over her face. They knew exactly what was happening before he says, “Guess what I have?” (Eric said he tested positive for C0VID-19 on a Sunday morning, when the cast was scheduled to do pre-interviews—interviews that were cancelled, though the rest of the cast did not know why.)
Later, Heather and Kevin talk about their continual intention to get together as a group, but never actually doing that. They say the obvious: one or more of them could die, making a reunion impossible. Julie says, “That’s what makes me the most sad—just the time that goes by.”
How will they use the time they have together? That remains to be seen. The Real World Homecoming: New York—which premiered today on Paramount+, the re-named CBS All Access—will air new episodes weekly, which is very 1990s, but I am also glad there are not 10 episodes today, so I don’t feel pressure to watch them all immediately.
What will the cast use their time for? (And why is that time so short? This entire season was only filmed over six days, Becky revealed when she said, “Six days is not enough.”)
In the first day, there’s lightness and laughter: Heather unpacking the bar, the group taking a selfie with Eric on the screen and asking, “Why am I so red?” and Heather replying, “because you got C0VID, motherfucker.”
But as Kevin asks, “Is there some healing that needs to happen here?” Based on the previews: yes.
He appears to be referring to the conversations—arguments, debates, fights—he had with so many of the cast members about race back in 1992.
We see a clip from “the most famous argument in TV history about race and racism,” as Kevin calls it, but also an unaired moment from that argument, in which Julie tells Kevin, “You are the biggest asshole, black or white, I could ever hope to meet,” and Kevin replies, “and you’re a racist, simple as that.”
But we also see Julie’s daughter talking to Kevin, via FaceTime, and telling him about her job giving tours, where she “get to talk to people about like being a white person in a place that’s known for being racist.” Julie’s kid: an activist!
Becky says that, “When we got into arguments, you know, they were debates. That’s different than a fight where two people can’t hear each other at all.” Based on the previews, she may be describing what’s to come.
Kevin reminds us that the original series was airing in the era of conversations about sexual harassment at work, thanks to Anita Hill, and was being filmed when the police officers who assaulted and beat Rodney King were acquitted and Los Angeles erupted into protest. And of course, here is the reunion, in the wake of George Floyd and MeToo.
Outside of news shows, he points out that there wasn’t “where black people and white people were having really intense conversations about race and racism.” So what happened on The Real World, “we had never see that before, ever.”
A lot of that was thanks to Kevin, who pushed his roommates to think and consider his perspective. “Where’s the lie?” Heather says of everything Kevin said back then. She’s right. Yet the episode also ends with Kevin—not everyone else—critiquing his own behavior and argumentativeness. Perhaps he’s just way ahead of the curve again.
Also ahead of the curve were the show’s creators: a documentarian and a soap opera producer. And there they were in the credits again: The Real World Homecoming’s editors used the original closing credits title card, and when I saw “created by Mary-Ellis Bunim, Jonathan Murray” in that jaunty all-caps typeface, I lost it.
How many times did I see that on TV? And now here I am, 28 years later. It’s been 17 years since Mary-Ellis Bunim died. Last January I sat in Jon Murray’s office and interviewed him. How did I get from teenager on a couch at home watching what he’d created to 40-something on a couch in his office?
In this first episode, we hear Murray’s voice—I’m pretty sure—as he interviews Julie during casting. “Do you have a good understanding of what we’re trying to do here or what this show is?” he asks.
Of course she did not; no one did, not even the producers. Heather reminds us “there was no motivation” to go on TV and “no blueprint” for anyone.
Now, almost three decades later, the blueprint has been so firmly established that it’s impossible to escape. The reality that The Real World created is quite literally everywhere, from the previous occupant of The White House to kids performing on TikTok.
Feeling the weight of those 30 years, but also the disappearance of that time, bonded me immediately to this new show. There’s a phenomenon called the “mere exposure effect,” which The Atlantic described as what happens when “we like something more merely because we’ve been previously exposed to it.”
I’m sure that’s happening to me here: I love this cast because I already know them. Maybe The Real World Atlanta kids had equally honest conversations, but these people with their gray hair and lower metabolism are my television friends, and I’m glad to be with them again, so we can time travel together.
Real World Homecoming: New York: A