‘The Real World Homecoming: New York’ Highlights the Subtle, Seismic Ways Gen X Changed the World
Paramount+’s The Real World Homecoming: New York is an atomic explosion of Gen X nostalgia. Reuniting the seven original strangers picked to live in a house (and you know the rest), the series doesn’t just catch us up on what the original reality show stars are up to now, but reveals how they impacted society as a whole. It’s all well and good to recall how Julie and Kevin’s heated argument about racism transfixed America in the early ‘90s, but it’s downright seismic to learn that Julie’s own teen daughter is now a committed Civil Rights organizer. The Real World Homecoming: New York highlights the subtle, but monolithic ways that Gen X — and MTV’s The Real World — changed the world.
I do remember life before The Real World premiered in 1992, and it was decidedly more lame. The Real World was launched in a time where the most risqué shows about young people were produced by Aaron Spelling for primetime. Beverly Hills: 90210 might have pushed the envelope by showing teens having sex (and having opinions), but it was still a carefully curated vision of America. All white, all wealthy, and all beautiful, the characters were aspirational to the extreme. I was in grade school and remember watching it with my family; that’s how relatively tame it was. MTV’s The Real World, on the other hand, was a show that I had to sneak into my college-age sister’s room to watch.
I think it’s important that my earliest memories of The Real World are entwined with my older sister. Growing up, she was the coolest person in the world to me. My sister was — and still is — the epitome of a Gen-Xer. She can’t tell you shit about social media, but remembers the liner notes of Madonna’s early albums. She’s also the person who first pointed out systemic racism to me, the glories of grunge music, and why it’s important to remember that you never know where another person is coming from. Her world-view was more open-minded than our parents’ and her obsession with the arts molded me into who I am today. Watching The Real World Homecoming: New York on Paramount+ made me realize that without Gen Xers like her — or The Real World itself — our society might look starkly different.
The Real World was initially conceived as a 90210 knockoff, but when its producers realized how costly it was to pay actors, writers, crew, and the like, they opted for a cheaper option. They would film seven young artists living together in a New York City loft. The original Real World cast members — Norman Korpi, Julie Gentry, Becky Blasband, Kevin Powell, Andre Comeau, Heather B. Gardner, and Eric Nies — represented a wide swath of American experiences. Kevin was then and still is a Black Right activist while Eric was a male model hurtling into fame via fitness tapes. Julie was a teenager from Alabama and Heather B. was an established hip hop star from the city. Thrown together, they not only represented the social differences tearing America apart, but the optimism of a generation who wanted to confront societal norms to make things better.
And the thing is…I think both Gen X and The Real World did make the world a better place? I think?
Sure, The Real World kicked off decades of lurid reality programming, culminating in a culture where some people turn their own lives into how they make a living. However Gen X’s version of The Real World was all about confrontation. The big fights weren’t storyline-driving feuds, but difficult debates about the cancers feeding on society just under the surface. Julie’s daughter doesn’t become a passionate advocate for Civil Rights in 2021 unless her mother has her own implicit biases tossed in her face on national TV in 1992. The AIDS crisis doesn’t have a face in many households until we fall for Pedro Zamora’s sweet vulnerable heart. The Real World gave a platform to hundreds of ambitious youths hungry for camera time, but it also introduced middle America to marginalized groups, like the LGBTQ+ community, people living with addiction, and survivors of abuse. Hell, the San Francisco season showed us what living with an unhinged sociopath looks like with Puck! The Real World.