In the third episode of The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans there’s a sequence that’s easily the best editing I’ve seen on a reality series in years.
A few of the reunited housemates ventured to Bourbon Street for a night of revelry. Many of them hadn’t seen or spoken to one another in the 22 years since their groundbreaking season debuted and a night out was both a celebration to mark this strange occasion and a way to ease the tension of getting reacquainted in front of cameras (again). But a night of drinking in your forties hits much, much differently than your twenties. Julie, who made history as the first Mormon on the series, drinks to excess—largely because she was forbade from drinking when she was originally on the show—and it takes the cast, security, and a show producer to get her off the dancefloor and into the production SUV shuttling them back home.
The rest is poetry in motion, really. Julie face-plants out of the car and onto concrete. She crashes into a tree and stumbles loudly through the house to the embarrassment of her housemates. “Girl, I don’t wanna be on a reality show with you falling all around and shit, because we are old. What is you doing?” Melissa says. But the real pièce de résistance is the camera zooming in on the saltine crackers Julie has puked up whole into a waste bin while Tokyo comforts her to the tune of Sade’s “By Your Side.” As he makes a cot on the floor next to her bed the camera slowly pans out of the room and gives us one final glimpse of her puke spilling from the knocked over bin into the hallway.
It was marvelous and deliciously unhinged and a reminder of what initially made The Real World so compelling for a stretch of time. Now that MTV is largely Teen Mom and Catfish or hours-long stretches of a clip show hosted by a former professional skateboarder it’s hard to fathom that the network once made television that changed that landscape of American pop culture.
“This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped—to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” That was the tagline of the social experiment the network launched in 1992. It was simple yet revolutionary. We hadn’t seen people live their lives in front of the camera in this way. The Real World was ground zero for a genre of television that fed on our desire to see how other people, regular or famous, lived—for better or worst (and of course the worse usually made for better viewing). As an elder millennial, The Real World was crucial to my development. I was a kid when the first season debuted and I watched it religiously with my stepmother. She happily engaged my curiosity about the issues that came up in the show. Watching The Real World made me conversational about sex, religion, race, politics, abortion, sexuality, AIDS, and substance abuse as a child. The show was juicy and irreverent, and downright hedonistic at times. But it was also life changing. I was young, Black and gay growing up in the 90s. There wasn’t much representation for me to cling to, and The Real World was a vital window into the queer experience in America that I just didn’t get to see anywhere else at a time when I needed it the most.
What makes The Real World Homecoming a compelling watch is its commitment to balancing the nostalgia we have for the franchise with the pressure cooker dynamics it innovated. The seminal casts that have so far reunited (the OG New York, Los Angeles are the others) are Gen X’s with no fucks to give when it comes to being real. They aren’t wide eyed twentysomethings searching for themselves. They are in their forties and far less filtered. They've already experienced the fame of this show, for better or worse, and Homecoming offers a chance to not only find closure from their original experience—but it offers them a shot at reclaiming personal narratives that got lost in the edit bay decades ago. In a sense Homecoming is essentially a watch party where clips of the OG season are played and the cast reengages on the issues that divided them with the wisdom of middle age—or at least that's the hope. It's compelling on its on, even without basking in the nostalgia of what this show—and these casts—once meant.
Now back to Julie getting shitfaced on Bourbon Street. In the most meta plot twist I’ve ever seen on The Real World—both in the past and in watching Homecoming—Julie’s night of debauchery was apparently her attempt to craft interesting television. She’s overheard telling her husband that she “took a bullet for the whole cast” and got sloppy drunk because she was bored of being in a house with fortysomethings that went to bed at 8 PM. The funny thing is Julie has actually been making compelling television all along. In her commitment to wanting to control the narrative she has morphed her into a white feminist caricature, and it's quite the doozy to watch.
She doesn’t remember much from being blackout drunk, but she’s absolutely certain the bruises she got are from Tokyo carrying her out of the club—and not from falling onto concrete or into a tree. Instead of offering gratitude for the care and comfort shown to her by the only Black man in the house, she accused him of roughing her up to several housemates. And this was after he gracefully slid into teacher mode to explain to her how fucked up it was that she, a white woman, wrote letters to get work opportunities taken from two castmates after the show aired (both of whom came from marginalized backgrounds rarely given the platform the show afforded them). That she couldn't grasp the optics of her actions two decades later is classic white victimhood.
But there’s something to be said about Julie’s desire to self-produce. The genre her franchise pioneered devolved became synonymous with drink throwing, hair pulling and heavily produced chaos long ago. Reality stars have not only become more aware of how they may be edited, they are more conscious about how they come across on social media and how they will be turned into GIFs and talked about. Julie is surely savvy enough to know that it will make for great television if she storms off from conversations and she's surely savvy enough to understand the the optics of a white woman saying a Black man harmed her on television. That she did it so quickly, and so callously, says a lot about the person she's become since her first rodeo on reality television. Instead of taking accountability for any of her actions she gaslights. She employs tears anytime anyone attempts an uncomfortable conversation. There are tantrums. There is passive aggressive projection. Every conversation is punctuated by a smug refusal to understand the harm she’s done, both in the past and now. Maybe this is who she's been all along. Either way it’s all extraordinarily unhinged and quite exhausting—which, of course, makes for absolutely addictive television.