Archival photo of 'The Real World: New York' cast
Courtesy of MTV
March 4, 2021 3:00 AM EST

The history of popular art is, in large part, a history of young artists congregating in major cities and taking risks that ripple through the decades that follow. Dadaists at Zürich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 pioneered a nihilistic aesthetic, born out of the trauma of World War I, that is surely a great-grandparent of lol nothing matters GIFs. The filmmakers of the current Black Renaissance have taken inspiration from a generation of Black directors, known as the L.A. Rebellion, who started pouring out of UCLA in the late ’60s. And television has never been the same since May 21, 1992, when MTV introduced America to seven strangers picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.

If it seems hyperbolic to mention The Real World in the same breath as Rimbaud, then maybe it’s time to acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with the show’s groundbreaking first season. A hybrid nighttime soap and social experiment inspired by the explosive 1973 docuseries An American Family, its underlying question was: what if, instead of moving in with friends of the same class, race, gender and level of education, a handful of creative young people in downtown Manhattan had to live with peers from a wide range of backgrounds? The answer turned out to be not just surprisingly complex, but also uniquely absorbing.

As a result, we’re now living—perhaps paradoxically—in a world The Real World: New York helped create, to an extent that its cast never could have predicted. Which makes The Real World Homecoming: New York, a reunion series whose March 4 debut coincides with the launch of ViacomCBS streaming service Paramount+, more than a ’90s nostalgia trip. Revisiting the original season before screening the premiere, I found myself imagining a better, alternate version of reality TV that could’ve emerged from its example, one with fewer bachelors, housewives and narcissists, and more people who did come here to make friends.

Although producers eventually threw in challenges and twists to spice up an old recipe that fueled 33 seasons of The Real World (including the most recent, 2019 edition, which lived on Facebook Watch and played like an extended Instagram Story), every single iteration of the show has been made or broken in the casting stage. The cohort of Gen X-ers, ages 19-25, who moved into MTV’s cavernous, industrial-chic Soho loft in the winter of ’92 unwittingly set archetypes that still persist in reality television. And the genre became so popular in the decade that followed that it seems fair to say it, in turn, influenced fictional storytelling in every medium.

More than any other original roommate, it was sensitive model Eric Nies who represented the long-term future of MTV reality. Going on to host the network’s dance show The Grind before appearing in multiple seasons of the spin-off franchise Real World/Road Rules Challenge, Eric was, in retrospect, a best-case-scenario prototype for the preening boys of Jersey Shore. A reliably laid-back, funny presence, Heather B. Gardner was already on a path to success as a rapper affiliated with the Bronx collective Boogie Down Productions. Lovably geeky painter Norman Korpi set the stage for the show’s trailblazing representation of the queer community. Grunge frontman Andre Comeau focused on his band while singer-songwriter Becky (now Rebecca) Blasband became the first, but by no means the last, cast member to shatter the fourth wall by dating someone behind the camera. The eldest of the bunch, poet, teacher and activist Kevin Powell spent much of his 13-week stay struggling to make his five white roommates consider the world from his perspective, as a Black man. Six years his junior, aspiring dancer Julie Gentry was the wide-eyed, big-hearted Southern girl, leaving her conservative family behind to serve as an audience surrogate for teens in rural America.

The Real World is notorious for its conflicts—which, by the turn of the millennium, tended to mean drunken physical altercations between shirtless, bellowing muscle bros or sorority types in bandage dresses pulling each other’s hair out. And the original cast certainly did its share of complaining about typical roommate stuff: excessive noise, unwashed dishes, houseguests who wore out their welcome. But when they really got in each other’s faces, there was substance to their disagreements. In the most famous scene of the season, an offscreen altercation after which Julie claims to feel unsafe at home alone with Kevin erupts into a showdown on the sidewalk outside their building. “It’s not a Black-white thing!” she repeatedly insists. “Racism is everywhere!” he counters. “Because of people like you, Kevin,” Julie shouts, “not people like me.” Kevin has his share of ugly moments throughout the series (at one point he calls Becky a “stupid bitch”), but especially in retrospect, it’s also clear he’s navigating a gauntlet of white fragility. His ideas about the centrality of race in America, based on his own education and activism, keep eliciting responses like: “I have a lot of Black friends” and “No one here is racist.”

“I’ve been woke for a long time, let’s just say that,” is how Kevin puts it, almost three decades later, when the now-middle-aged former roommates move into a restored version of their old apartment for Homecoming. Indeed, from the concept of privilege to the insistence that it’s limiting to only celebrate Black people’s accomplishments as athletes and entertainers, his most incendiary talking points as reality TV’s first so-called Angry Black Man are now liberal orthodoxy. In the present, Kevin generously acknowledges that he didn’t have the “emotional maturity” as a young man to be patient with his mostly well-meaning roommates. Yet Heather, who explains that she wasn’t ready to participate in those difficult, cross-cultural conversations at 20 years old, has come around to Kevin’s point of view. “I had to live to appreciate it,” she says, during one of the reunion’s many heart-to-hearts. “Fast-forward: where’s the lie?”

They’re not the only cast mates who’ve become more reflective with age. Andre and Rebecca both lament their youthful arrogance. Eric—who has to join the party virtually, from a hotel room, because he’s come down with a mild case of COVID—shares that he’s undertaken an “epic spiritual journey” to become a healer. (The frustrating thing about Homecoming is that, presumably in a rush to have it ready for the Paramount+ launch, the season was shot during the pandemic. Eric’s quarantine aside, a locked-down city makes for a somewhat claustrophobic show. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the reunion to coincide with The Real World’s 30th anniversary, in 2022, anyway?) As for Kevin and Julie, they couldn’t be more respectful toward each other. He talks about the role feminism has come to play in his politics. Over the phone, she introduces him to her teenage daughter, who works with Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute.

What’s satisfying isn’t that the roommates have evolved to become what Kevin calls woke, so much as that (in Homecoming’s premiere, at least) they come off as thoughtful, empathetic, reasonably intelligent and self-aware adults. It’s hard to imagine many of their reality-TV descendants—some preternaturally vapid and others actively playing up their shallowness, on The Real World, but also in broadcast reality competitions and the docusoaps of Bravo, E! and, increasingly, Netflix—ever acquiring the same depth. And this reunited cast is perceptive enough to be ambivalent about its legacy. “The beautiful thing about The Real World,” Kevin notes, “is that it was the first time, outside coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, which was mostly news stuff, where you actually had a TV show where Black people and white people were having really intense conversations about race and racism.” Becky recalls the show was pitched to them as a documentary about artists: “We had no idea that it was gonna turn into this.” As Kevin points out, it all culminated in a “reality-TV-show President of the United States.”

The Real World was never an idealistic project, and remembering it that way does little to illuminate its legacy. The show was conceived, in part, as MTV’s answer to Beverly Hills, 90210. As Jonathan Murray, who created it with his late producing partner Mary-Ellis Bunim, admitted in a 1995 TIME interview: “This isn’t Frederick Wiseman, where you’re going to get a long, incoherent documentary with way more than you want to see.” And for all that it fostered important conversations about marginalized groups, it also reproduced that marginalization by devoting the bulk of its screen time to the most photogenic white cast members, Julie and Eric.

But maybe the past 29 years of American life would have played out differently if the emergent reality-TV genre had emulated the most redeeming parts of early Real World seasons—blunt conversations between real people about pressing social issues, engagement with politics in story lines that confronted everything from homelessness to reproductive-rights activism to the ’92 election—rather than the most tawdry ones. How refreshing it would have been to spend primetime, and to share pop culture for decades, with young people who wanted more out of their adult lives than to be famous for being famous—young people who modeled empathy, growth and forgiveness, rather than ruthlessness and revenge. “All human beings are imperfect and fragile,” says Kevin, who is shaping up to be Homecoming’s protagonist. “We can change.”

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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