The Real World Homecoming: New York is six perfect episodes, a look back three decades that’s firmly grounded in today. It celebrated the original show while also offering something new. Paramount+’s other nostalgic MTV reality show, The Challenge: All Stars, did not.
The Real World Homecoming opened a wormhole back in time for me, moving seamlessly from the dawn of reality TV to today. Would someone who didn’t watch season one of The Real World in the 1990s be as affected? Possibly. But I suspect this is a series made for those of us who watched back then, and have aged alongside the cast.
Besides revisiting what made season one such terrific, groundbreaking television, the new season primarily focused on systemic racism, and in doing so, did two important things: It unequivocally validated Kevin Powell’s 1992 wisdom—he was talking about privilege and systemic racism long before many of us were willing to hear it—but also showed us how that affected him, and showed us two completely opposite paths in Julie and Rebecca.
I was riveted and amazed by the profound change from 1992 Julie to 2021 Julie, and complete lack of change from 1992 Becky to 2021 Rebecca, and the contrast between the two.
1990s Julie was cast as the naive, young girl from Alabama. She was savvy and progressive enough to use the camera crew to call attention to homelessness, and also befriended her roommates, but she was also the person who immediately asked Heather if she sold drugs because of Heather’s beeper, and who famously argued with Kevin about racism on the street outside their loft.
Almost 30 years later, Julie has raised an activist daughter in Birmingham. She understands the difference between having Black friends and being anti-racist, and the difference between owning your privilege as a white person and flaunting it.
Rebecca—despite insisting that she’s progressive and not racist—does not understand any of this. Rebecca is so not invested in trying to understand that, after watching her 1992 conversation with Kevin about racism and power, she can’t even listen to Kevin talk about systemic racism and how it’s affected him.
As Kevin talks about both that conversation and his life since, Rebecca constantly interrupts him. What important things does she have to share? At one point, she explains that she can’t possibly be racist because she took an African dance class. That would have been absurd satire, except she was completely serious.
It’s an excellent illustration of how so many (progressive, liberal, educated, and/or wealthy) white people behave today, though. They cannot admit or accept that Black people have a considerably different—and worse—experience just by existing. I know, because I used to think that way, too. 1992 Andy was undoubtedly on 1992 Becky’s side of that argument. But over time, I’ve listened and learned, and do my best to keep doing that, while also pushing for change whenever I can.
Norm—who’s right there between Rebecca and Kevin just like he was during that initial “What power do I have, Kevin?” argument—finally tells Rebecca to shut up. As we find out later, he’s actually trying to protect her. The cast has agreed to support and protect each other. “I kept thinking: what is this going to look like when it airs?” Norm tells us later.
Rebecca packs up and leaves, barely even talking to her fellow cast members. Her rationale for bailing is that she’s been blindsided and set-up by the producers who dared to show them footage of a show that aired 29 years ago. (Rebecca has since posted and deleted an incoherent Instagram statement about her decision to leave.)
“Not much changed from The Real World then to The Real World now. It’s kind of in its own time warp. You know, the conversation hasn’t evolved,” Becky says in an interview. But she fails to realize that what didn’t change is her. Instead, she blames others: “it’s because people want to fight. I’m not in the fight.” Last year, many white people finally understood why racism is our fight, too. As Julie says, it’s not enough to just not be a racist.
The editing is brutal in making the point that this is what Becky did in 1992, and also that 2021 Rebecca is mostly interested in talking about her house in France.
If there’s a misstep in The Real World Homecoming: New York, it’s in how often the show returns so frequently to Rebecca even after she leaves. Instead of focusing on systemic racism, or the people affected, we’re focusing on her antics. That’s something that happens far too often. It is, however, understandable: the cast was only together for six days, so Rebecca’s abrupt exit was still reverberating.
In its final episodes, the show does turn its attention elsewhere, such as to Norm’s financial struggles, and the heartwarming way his roommates spring into action to help him monetize his artwork and take advantage of the platform the show will provide him.
The final episode is also perfect: Echoing the moment when Eric Nies went into the control room, the producers break the fourth wall again by having co-creator Jon Murray and executive producer George Verschoor join the cast for a chat on the couch. And there is a poignant segment dedicated to co-creator Mary-Ellis Bunim, who died in 2004.
So many of the conversations, including this one, touch on how the cast members became avatars for their identities, and how much of a burden that placed on them. In one hilarious but pointed moment, Jon Murray starts saying, “As a gay man…” and Norm interjects, “I hope I helped you!” I was one of those people he helped, though Norm did not call himself gay in 1992, but instead identified as bisexual. Jon Murray points out that he, too, was ahead of his time, because of how an increasing number of people are like, “fuck labels. I think you were a leader in that.”
This cast of seven strangers became leaders in so many ways, though they didn’t know that would happen. That experience connected them. “We have a bond, and it’s a very unique bond,” Heather B. says in the finale. “There’s a bond that we have that is unexplainable.”
Only those seven will know what it was like to have their lives taped and literally change the world. But the bond they had with us—with me—is also incredibly strong, even if is one-sided. I’m grateful for these six episodes to revisit and reestablish that bond now, as middle-aged people who’ve grown and changed in no small part because of The Real World.
The Challenge: All Stars’ aims for nostalgia but just delivers another Challenge
Like The Real World, The Challenge is an MTV reality show that I watched religiously and then eventually stopped watching.
It originated in an episode of Road Rules season two, where the cast was tasked with stealing the eight-ball from The Real World Miami’s house—while the cast was inside, filming. It was the next season of The Real World when there was more direct competition between the casts, as the seven Boston strangers competed against Road Rules season four cast in Puerto Rico.
That led to Road Rules: All Stars in 1998, and then The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, and in season 19, the franchise finally dropped its origin from its title. Today, The Challenge is airing its 36th season, and has become a home for reality TV stars from other networks, too.
Somewhere along the way, it went from the fun and playfulness of that very first Road Rules challenge to a “toxic,” sexist, “dangerous,” abusive environment.
After I stopped watching, I’d occasionally see people I respected talking about the amazing strategy that was happening, or a reader would recommend I check it out. Then I’d turn it on, and after watching a competition designed to maim or kill someone, be treated to drunk people screaming and punching each other as veins popped out of their bodies in a terrifying way.
None of that was of interest to me, and even if there’s compelling strategy amid all this, it’s like putting a couple strawberries into a feces milkshake.
To its credit, The Challenge: All Stars’ has great production design (the waterfalls at the elimination arena are quite impressive). And the editing does have more playfulness than I was expecting from The Challenge, squeezing quite a bit of comedy out of the age and physical condition of its players.
“Welcome to the Challenge: the senior edition. Today looks like recess at the old folks’ home,” Teck said of the first competition. “A lot of old people going down today, ya’ll. Myself included.”
I have high standards for competition design, thanks to the high bar Survivor set, and The Challenge rarely meets it. The challenges themselves are too often about brute strength, and I find that to be generally uninteresting. Others just seemed so poorly designed that I am genuinely surprised no one has been killed.
That must be part of the attraction, though. In the first challenge, which required contestants to swim and dive in freezing water, Laterrian struggled, and his teammates shouted that he was drowning, and screamed for the lifeguard to hurry. As a single lifeguard paddled over slowly in an inflatable raft, the editing showed us him sinking under water, and cut to commercial letting us think he may have actually drowned. (He didn’t.)
The second challenge has the contestants answering Challenge trivia questions while suspended above a lake. If they’re wrong, they take a step forward, eventually standing on a piece of drywall, which gives way and they fall to the water below. But they also fall between metal trusses, and to me this looked incredibly dangerous. And then Katie fell and hit her face against the structure.
“I hit my face again you fuckers,” she screamed, her face covered in blood, and TJ Lavin leans over and laughed maniacally. I suppose some people find that funny; I did not, and since this is what The Challenge: All Stars finds funny, it’ll be the last episode I watch.
The Challenge: All Stars has a cast of people who haven’t been on the show in a while, but it’s not too interested in revisiting its cast’s history. It’s interested in using them as gladiators in its often-brutal arena. For the cast members, this is entirely transactional: they’re here to win $500,000. And I can’t blame them for that.
But it makes for less-interesting TV, in part because it’s hard to revisit the history of 22 people, never mind develop them as characters now. There are moments that attempt this, like Trishelle apologizing to Aneesa for her “racially insensitive” comments and their violent fight nine years ago. But it’s quick and perfunctory, and none of this is new for The Challenge. It already revisted its contestants’ pasts, with seasons literally named for past rivalries and vendettas.
Ultimately, then, The Challenge: All Stars is just another season of The Challenge, just with contestants who haven’t played for a while. That’s fine. Perhaps real Challenge fans will find something more here than in a typical season. Given the choice between watching people suffer and then getting drunk before thrashing each other around, and people sitting in a living room talking about their lives and ideas, I’ll choose the latter every day.