Why “The Real World” Needed To Get Real, Again
When I activated my 7-day trial with Paramount in order to partake in the long overdue reunion fest featuring the OGs of one of the most viable TV franchises of the past two decades, The Real World — I wasn’t quite sure what to expect outside of the sweet nostalgic vibe of reconnecting with cultural pieces that helped define the start of a prolific era.
The older you get, the more you tend to melt in a puddle of emotions when events and people from your past abruptly appear as a reminder of how much time has gone by, and why those scars never heal.
When The Real World: New York made it’s highly-anticipated debut back in 1992, almost 30 years ago (WTF?!), I was a 19-year-old college sophomore, stuck in a similar scenario as the young, bright-eyed cast mates, who were selected to participate in a one-of-a-kind experiment that would require sharing a loft apartment with strangers in a trendy section of the city that never sleeps.
In my situation, I was sent to a two-year, all-girls college in a Midwestern town nobody had heard of, and just as you would imagine, I was one of three Black girls of African descent in a student body that boasted 350.
My first two years in college weren’t the best time of my life, but my adolescent years in boarding school that began at the fragile age of 11, thanks to Nigeria’s homage to the system of British colonizers, definitely prepared me for the regimen of respectfully sharing spaces with people I don’t know.
Perhaps that was the reason for my fascination with the first reality TV show most of us had ever entertained, that documented the raw footage of how a diverse group of young adults from all walks of life, submitted to the priceless experience of demonstrating the relational complexities of our existence.
Like most Gen Xers, I was glued to the old-fashioned TV set, soaking in each new episode of what turned out to be a goldmine for MTV, as it began its gradual expansion into unscripted territory.
Real World: New York was quite the spectacle, but in an endearingly revolutionary way. Watching seven strangers make the most of their televised adventure into the unknown, since there was no blueprint to utilize for reference was a weekly treat back then, mainly because there were considerably fewer choices for viewing audiences.
Each of the now famous housemates: Eric Nies(model, Mark Wahlberg prototype), Julie Gentry(youngest housemate, aspiring dancer), Becky Blasband (Lilith Fair hopeful, original Karen) Norman Korpi (openly LGBT creative), Andre Corneau (zen-like guitarist for an indie band), Heather B. (up-and-coming rapper/TV personality) and my fave Kevin Powell (oldest housemate, writer and Black activist), instinctively embraced their destined roles.
29 years later, The Real World Homecoming: New York remarkably returned the much older, less impressionable former MTV guinea pigs to the old stomping ground where history was made, and explosive episodes were created to reflect the realness of racial tensions when blatant ignorance and potent Blackness collide.
The six-episode, limited series was a surprisingly smooth ride, outside of the disappointing physical absence of Eric Nies, who had to make appearances via a large screen hoisted on the wall, because of his COVID diagnosis that forced him into self-isolation. We can also add the resurrected debate about race and racism between Becky and Kevin that ended badly.
As someone who invested a big portion of her youth and beyond to the Real World franchise and countless spinoffs, it was quite something to behold the original cast inhabiting the very same surroundings that initiated the journey of a lifetime, and set the standard for what eventually evolved into caricatures that were fed by exploitative motives.
And of course with the glitzy arrivals of Bravo’s Real Housewives phenom and E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians that found lucrative avenues by feasting on fantastical themes of blinding excess and shameless coercion for ratings, the prized genre of “reality TV” has veered away from the grittiness and mostly unfiltered delivery that dazzled viewers who tuned into the series that started it all.
The familiar faces from the orchestrated world that became too real in recognition of the tumultous social climate of the early nineties, have actually fared quite well, considering how long it’s been.
Our bonded friends are middle-aged, functioning men and women, who perfectly resemble the legendary status of their forgotten generation in ways that are reassuringly relatable to my own rollercoaster ride, both professionally and personally, and how it informs where I currently dwell.
Julie is married with kids, and so is Andre. Heather B. is married and still based in New York where she flourishes as the cohost of a popular radio show. Becky hasn’t given up on her music career. Eric overcame his crippling addictions to emerge as a lifestyle guru. Norman continues to fuel his creative pursuits as a painter. And Kevin hasn’t wavered in his mission statement to make white people uncomfortable about the white privilege that’s tactlessly weaponized.
This was a bone of contention that flowed through the inaugural season of Real World: New York, resulting in the damaging vilification of Kevin Powell, who was way ahead of his time as a relentless Black activist, who loudly speaks truth to power and unapologetically holds his white challengers accountable for their lacking knowledge about race in America, despite the glaring signs of civil unrest.
It was an uneasy feeling to watch the earned rage of a young Black man directed towards young white women, who relied heavily on the practiced response of claiming their white victimhood with the anchor of white feminism that was just as traitorous then as it is now.
Even Heather B. the only Black woman in the designated house of real-life characters, who made her triumphant return for the reunion special, sincerely conveyed her regrets to the only Black ally she had, for not catching on fast enough to provide the allegiance that Kevin could’ve used to offset his demonized branding.
Again, Kevin Powell was truly ahead of his time when it came to presenting his authentic self, as a young Black man in America, a country rigged against him with his survivability in question, based on the systemic violence and injustices that are direct missiles of white supremacy.
The Real World needed to get Real (again) in an effort to revisit the poignancy of a notable period in our culture, and readdress unresolved issues that unfairly depicted a Black scholar as the scary Black guy with a chip on his shoulder, who thrived from his combativeness with victimized white housemates.
Julie Gentry, may be the youngest of the group, but her overall growth as a human being with raised awareness and dedication to the continued education about social issues, particularly the deadliness of racial injustice is a refreshing update that her former verbal sparrer and lifelong friend, Kevin Powell, acknowledges with gratitude and pride.
Unfortunately, Becky Blasband, who infamously butted heads with the only Black man in the house didn’t demonstrate an ounce of maturity or humility when given the opportunity to engage in a healthier, progressive debate with the same Black man she recklessly degraded as punishment for his ability to flawlessly call her out for her racism.
The revived discussion about race relations in America, and why the systemic oppression of the Black community is the constant horror that white folks are automatically spared, went all the way left with a quickness that took the documented household by surprise, based on the unsightly obstinance of a white woman, who is willfully against her much-needed rehabilitation.
The exhausting back-and-forth that unearthed bitter memories was thankfully diffused by Kevin’s determination not to naively fall into the trapdoor of “he said, she said” with unnecessary detours that always lead back to how the fragility of whiteness is no match for the stark reality of the Black experience.
In the end, shit got too real for Becky’s “Karen” persona, and the older but not wiser returnee abandoned her housemates in a predictable move that verified the staunch cowardice that afflicts so many like her, who share the distorted views that aim to uphold the purity of whiteness as the weapon of choice, when confronted with the truth of their deadly complicity.
Kevin’s graciousness to extend a triggering conversation with an unreasonably argumentative white oppressor, only exacerbated his frustrations and sadness as the realization of an unreachable agreement that isn’t at all flexible began to take hold.
Once Becky was out of the house she helped build, to the dismay and general relief of the remaining cast members, the reset button was hit as the mood shifted to more meaningful socialization with sappy trips down memory lane, and replays of epic clips, capturing the magic that amazingly stood the test of time.
Getting real, again, was the gratifying closure both viewers and renowned cast mates of the very first Real World project, didn’t know we deserved until the re-creation of a winning formula brought all the vital pieces back together for one more round of filmed reality.
And true to form, the brutal inconsistencies of real life took centerstage with heartfelt admissions of hard times, and the resilience that never fails to kick in, paired with the sweet release from trying to change the unchangeable, all set against the iconic backdrop of the irresistible energy of NYC.
In the real world, friendships end, love is lost, and white people who can’t garner enough empathy and humanness to shut up and listen in order to master how to be dependable allies will never be worth the effort of those repeated attempts to selflessly educate at the expense of re-traumatization.
They say some things are better left in the past, but in the real world, those demons are never completely vanquished, and overtime, the plot thickens.
It really does come down to the basics.
We do the best we can. We love those who love us back and finally discard the ones who either refused to meet us halfway or inconsiderately rejected the gesture to move an inch towards a compromise.
Real World Homecoming splendidly showcased why going back to where it all began can be the therapeutic reconciliation that gives the rest of our days the armor required to thoughtfully maneuver each of our realities.