SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched the premiere episode of “The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles,” streaming now on Paramount Plus.
During the summer of 1993, reality television cameras captured the moment when David Edwards, a cast member on MTV’s “The Real World: Los Angeles,” pulled the covers off of Tami Roman (then Tami Akbar), who was lying nearly naked in bed. What seemed to start out as innocent teasing between roommates turned darker as he kept yanking on the blankets, which she was desperately trying to keep wrapped around her body, resulting in her also being pulled out of bed and into the hallway in a vulnerable position. Roommate Beth Stolarczyk, who threw her own body on top of Roman to shield her from the cameras and the eyes of the others in the house, compared his problematic disregard for consent to a rapist’s behavior. The action led to Edwards exiting the show about a third of the way through its run, and almost three decades later the incident is still creating story opportunities for the franchise.
“The Real World: Los Angeles” certainly featured other stories that caused just as much conversation, if not controversy — from Irene Berrera-Kearns filming around her LAPD schedule before leaving the show because she got married, to Roman having an abortion. But it was the chance for Roman and Edwards to clear the air that kicked off “The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles,” the second reunion season, which launched Nov. 24 on Paramount Plus.
“if Tami and David didn’t want to discuss the blanket incident, it probably wouldn’t make sense to have done the season,” “The Real World” co-creator Jonathan Murray tells Variety.
The premiere episode saw original “Real World: Los Angeles” cast members Roman, Edwards, Stolarczyk, Berrera-Kearns and Jon Brennan returning to the same Venice Beach they lived in during that fateful summer in the early 1990s. Glen Naessens and Beth Anthony, who stepped in to replace Edwards and Berrera-Kearns, respectively, also joined the “Homecoming” season right from the jump. The group spent a short amount of time catching up quickly before sitting down together to rewatch and address the footage of the blanket incident.
Murray says that was a topic about which the cast members came in during the pre-interview period of pre-production with a lot to say. What became very clear was that there was an opportunity not only to simply rehash a youthful mistake, but also to provide context for why Roman got so upset (in part because she lived with body issues and an eating disorder, she shares in the episode) and to let Edwards reflect on how hearing his name near the term “rape” affected his career (he front-loaded opportunities before the show was released in case he became a pariah, he admits) and to reconsider the action with hindsight and through a 2021 lens.
“We knew they would be discussing it in reference to some of these current issues that we’re all talking about now, in terms of, what is consent, which is not something that was as much in the world; the MeToo movement; and also stigmatizing Black men,” says Murray. “Some of the people came in saying, ‘Could they have handled the whole thing better?’ Some words were thrown around that I think some people wish they hadn’t thrown around.”
Berrera-Kearns is one cast member who says in the premiere episode that she regrets not doing more to help Roman in the moment, especially because she was a cop. Edwards, on the other hand, still resists apologizing, using the excuse that since everyone was laughing, it couldn’t have been that serious or traumatic.
After the inaugural season of “The Real World Homecoming,” which reunited cast members from the inaugural season of “The Real World (New York),” Murray says the production team checked the availability of cast members from a few different “Real World” seasons to determine what would be the sophomore “Homecoming” run. Ultimately, despite not getting Aaron Behle or Dominic Griffin to agree to return, they stayed true to chronology and moved forward with “Los Angeles” because of the storytelling potential producers saw in those who would return.
“As we talked to them, part of it is first assessment of, ‘Where are you in your life? What’s going on? How do you think this experience, 28 years ago, has impacted your life?’ It’s not just, ‘Can you come?,’ it’s also, ‘Are you coming to it with a desire to really embrace the experience?'” says Murray. “Partly the reason we choose a cast is because we think there is going to be current story, not just reflecting on the past.”
Some of that story plays out on-screen, as Anthony and Roman talk about how Anthony is now married to a man. (In their “Real World” season, Anthony entered the house in a shirt that said, “I’m not gay, but my girlfriend is,” and her openness about being a lesbian created opportunities for Roman to learn more about the LGBTQIA-plus spectrum, as well as her own potential biases.) Some of that type of storytelling may have even more resonance around the show.
The premiere episode of “The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles” features never-before-seen footage of the roommates watching but barely discussing the verdict in the case of Rodney King’s beating. Another clip shows Berrera-Kearns handling her firearm mere feet from Brennan, who makes a joke about target practice. It is not something that, as of yet, is addressed on-screen, but gun safety is something, especially in light of the tragedy on the set of “Rust,” Murray knows is on the forefront of people’s minds.
“Irene was a sheriff’s deputy and she was working while on ‘The Real World’ so she had to have her gun with her. And as I can remember, she locked it up in the house each night, but she had to deal with it when she would come and go,” Murray says.
Although there were no incidents with the weapon during the filming, according to Murray, he admits that if they were casting the show today, they might have to “deal with it” differently “based on what’s happened in the last 28 years.”
“Part of the interesting aspect of ‘The Real World is that for these ‘Homecomings’ we are both seeing where the cast was and where the country was 28 years ago,” he says. “Yes, things change, attitudes change, different aspects of this evolve.”
Another thing that evolved, even from the first “Homecoming” season to the second, was the production process. The “New York” season incorporated the COVID-19 pandemic into its story when the roommates rallied around Norman Korpi, who was “stuck” because of it, while Eric Nies had to video chat into the loft because he had contracted the virus, despite testing negative before flying to New York for the quarantine and filming period. Months later when the “Los Angeles’ season was gearing up, the pandemic was still ongoing but vaccines were available. Murray would not comment on whether there was a vaccine mandate in order to participate in the show, but he says they followed “a lot of the same protocols in terms of testing and quarantining” in order to keep safe.
“We went into this in a much more confident feeling that we were going to be able to get through without any kind of a shutdown,” he says.
Thanks to Stolarczyk, they were also able to return to their original dwelling from the ’90s, with a few “decoration improvements” made, including an upgraded confessional. (“The Real World: Los Angeles” was the first season to bring in that fourth wall-breaking production element.) ”Beth knew the person who had the house and I think she may have even given us the telephone number of the person and we were able to work out a deal to use the house,” Murray reveals.
Although it certainly was not an easy season to accomplish, between bringing enough of the original cast members back together and shooting with the additional safety measures in place, “I’m just so appreciative of the cast embracing the project and really digging in and using this opportunity to explore those issues,” Murray says.
“The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles” streams Wednesdays on Paramount Plus.