When The Real World premiered on May 21, 1992, no one could have predicted the impact the show would have. While it may not have been the first reality series, The Real World ushered in a new age of television. Created by Jonathan Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim, The Real World was not like anything on TV in 1992.
The premise of the show was featured up front in the opening credit voiceover by the cast, “This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped to find what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” The ‘seven strangers’ were Becky Blasband, Andre Comeau, Heather Gardner, Julie Gentry, Norman Korpi, Eric Nies, and Kevin Powell. Each of them was from different backgrounds which provided some moments of conflict between the roommates.
What made The Real World groundbreaking is the conversations the roommates would have concerning race. One of the biggest was the argument between Julie and Kevin. While Kevin was seen as the “angry black man,” his exchange with Julie as well as his debate with Becky on privilege were seen as eye-opening conversations on race in the United States.
SPOILER WARNING: If you have not seen The Real World Homecoming: New York
With the launch of the new streaming service, Paramount Plus, the seven former roommates reunited 29 years later for The Real World Homecoming: New York. As part of the show, the seven would return to the original loft they lived in during 1992 for six days. Over the course of the six episodes, moments from the original The Real World were revisited to allow the cast to have a dialogue on what happened and, if necessary, address any conflict from that time.
Near the end of the second episode, the roommates get an incoming message on the television in their loft saying:
“Nearly 30 years ago, you had some of the most important conversations on television- right here in this loft. Turns out that these conversations are just as relevant and necessary today.”
The video clip played after the message is the conversation between Kevin and Becky on race and privilege which included Kevin’s comment, “Race plus power equals racism.” Once the video clip ends, Kevin reveals he intentionally has not watched that episode since 1992 because it was a traumatic moment for him. Kevin also discloses that a lot of people attacked him over that argument with Becky, and says that before his heated discussion with Becky there was never a moment in television history when a black man talked to a white woman like he did.
Kevin then apologizes to Becky for calling her a bitch during that argument in 1992 and expands on how he had to learn to listen. He says in an aside:
“Years of therapy, years of spiritual work has calmed me down. Interacting with a wide range of people, I learned there’s different ways to communicate what you feel.”
As the conversation between the roommates continues, Becky contributes by explaining she was not trying to be racist in 1992 and adds:
“Of course, I was young and defensive. I’m excusing that. I apologize for it, that I couldn’t listen. But I never met anybody of any color where I thought, ‘Yeah, they’re less than me.’ And I always had a tremendous amount of respect for you.”
Acknowledging what Becky says, Kevin tries to illustrate a point about listening, but Becky keeps interrupting him. When Kevin elaborates on the system and the notion of white supremacy, Becky lets her inner ‘Karen’ out on full display. Kevin calls her out for doing what a lot of white people do, put words in people’s mouths and Becky goes full nuclear Karen by saying as she keeps interrupting Kevin, “Can I finish my thought?”
As the conversation keeps going, Becky keeps digging a deeper hole with racist undertones. Finally, Kevin elaborates:
“The sad thing about all this is we’re now 29 years later, and you are still doing what white folks have said to black people and other people of color over and over again. Black people have been told you can’t show a range of emotions.”
Becky denies this and contradicts herself as the episode comes to an end. The argument continues into the next episode. As the debate moves forward, Becky, true to Karen form, tries to say she can’t be racist because of the many Afro-Brazil dance classes she takes and her immersion into black culture.
While watching the episode, you can see the other roommates become increasingly uncomfortable as Becky keeps interrupting Kevin, and making the conversation more and more about her. Julie says the most profound thing on the subject:
“If we don’t meet people where they are, then we aren’t going to communicate. Then it’s not for anything either. And everyone’s at a different place and you got to meet where they are. And that can be frustrating. But I think when I was 19 and did the show, I felt like, ‘Okay, well these are my intentions and I’m not racist.’ It took this many years to realize, ‘Oh, I have to be anti-racism.’ And, at that time, when I was 19, I did not know that.”
It is through watching these episodes that Paramount Plus and MTV have shown how much Becky has not changed in 29 years. By the end of episode three, Becky decides to remove herself from the show.
Kevin’s views are right on target with the climate of race in this country, and sadly too often there are people that act like Becky, not willing to listen to someone who sees things differently when it comes to racial inequality.
It is moments like these why The Real World Homecoming: New York is necessary to watch. The conversations that are broached are still moments this country struggles with, especially considering we are living through a moment where Derek Chauvin, the cop that had his knee on George Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes resulting in Floyd’s death, is on trial for this but it seems that his lawyers want to pass the blame to Floyd who is no longer here to defend himself.
In the last episode, Jonathan Murray and George Verschoor, showrunner of The Real World come to discuss the roommates’ experience in the first season and the reunion show. As they all discuss the legacy of the show, Norman and Jon Murray, who is openly gay as well, discuss Norman’s impact not only on representation for the LGBTQ community with casting for The Real World but also Murray praises Norman for being a leader in being who you are without labels. Verschoor tells a story about casting for the London season how a 16-year-old guy who walking in the casting room just to thank them as well as Norman and Pedro (Zamora) for helping him find the courage to be open about being gay. A montage of clips of LGBTQ Real World cast members including Norman, Pedro, Genesis (Moss from Boston cast), Katelynn (Cusanelli from Brooklyn cast), and many more plays with a voiceover of Norm giving the producers props for bringing these issues to television.
I strongly recommend watching The Real World Homecoming: New York on Paramount Plus. All six episodes are available to stream now.
Writer’s Note: This is the opinion of one contributing writer and may not reflect the views of Instinct Magazine itself or fellow contributors