There may be few ways of living more disconcerting than to be a one-season reality-TV star. The forced adjustment happens twice: First, suddenly, you’re thrust into the line of sight of the nation or the world, made into a symbol of something greater than yourself and flattened out into someone less than you know yourself to be. Then, gradually, you’re forced to watch from home as a new generation, then another, supplant you — making you into a “former” before you’ve had the chance to really be much of anything.
This is the experience explored by “The Real World Homecoming,” a show that concluded its third season June 8 on Paramount+. This viewer skipped the first two seasons, but tuned in for the reunion of the “New Orleans” cast, whose original outing, on MTV in 2000, was the first “Real World” season I watched in real time, compelled in particular by the story of cast member Danny Roberts. The series is a startling success on its own terms, and beyond them. It’s, as intended, a “why don’t they make the whole plane out of the black box” treatment of the concept of the reality-show reunion episode, generating weeks worth of incident and drama out of shared recollections and misconceptions. Beyond that, too, it is a compelling examination of our ability to change — and our tendency to get stuck in ruts. It takes the extraordinary experiences of its seven cast members, living in decades in a painful post-fame, and draws out unsettling, unanswerable questions about what it means to grow up, or to resist it.
The show’s format suited a cast whose web of connections tended to exist somewhere between utter fracture and benevolent neglect: Cast members were singled out and asked to reflect on what their “Real World” experience had brought to or taken from them. Danny, for instance, described his life as a protracted limelight, one that made him an unwilling political icon as well as an individual with no expectation of privacy in his daily life. (On “The Real World,” Danny had dated a military serviceman whose face was blurred on camera, making Danny both a sympathetic figure at a time of political change and an inherently intriguing subject of scrutiny from nosy passersby.) Melissa Beck (who went by Melissa Howard in 2000) reflected on the manner in which the show’s editing forced her into the “angry Black woman” stereotype; Kelley Wolf (formerly Kelley Limp) described her discomfort with having been put on display for public consumption.
All of these cast members seemed notably altered by their experience of television fame; Danny, who has moved to rural Vermont, weighed his words with deep consideration, as did Melissa, utterly cognizant, it seemed, that speaking with care and thought is a small sort of weapon against the threat of being edited out of context. (Both, 22 years ago, spoke snappily and offhandedly on camera; their gravity, now, seems hard-won.) Kelley had won for herself the ability to say no, and her bailing on this reunion season shortly before its conclusion could be seen as a small, melancholy sort of victory. Elsewhere, Tokyo Broom (formerly David Broom) had difficulty talking about feeling like the butt of a joke the culture made about his musical pursuits on the show; he reclaimed his reputation, sort of, with a sweet group performance of his signature, passionately wacky song “Come on Be My Baby Tonight.”
As chewily, imperfectly complicated as these threads were, there were as many elements of this season that stuck in the mind for their utter unresolvability. The picture that emerged as the season wore on was of a group of people who were uniquely equipped to understand one another’s experience but uniquely incentivized, after cameras stopped rolling, to move forward without one another’s company. Some cast members, like those mentioned so far, had experiences in which they had been made to feel helpless and alone; others, like Julie Stoffer, seemed conditioned by “The Real World” to experience attention as a finite resource from which one would be a fool not to grab the largest helping.
The season began with Julie and Melissa recounting a sorrowful incident that has long been part of “Real World” lore, about Julie’s allegedly sabotaging her castmates’ post-show speaking contracts in order to ensure her own success. Julie’s talking in circles about what had happened seemed to exhaust the group, before she went on to loudly announce, in a phone call to her husband caught on camera, that she was attempting to save the show by creating drama, including by purposefully drinking herself insensate. In this light, all that came after, including endlessly reversing claims of undeniable sexual attraction to and desperate need to avoid castmate Jamie Murray, was impossible to take seriously, but all too easy to see as part of a portrait of a woman made by the media age.
If Danny, Melissa, Kelley, and Tokyo were portraits of how lonely and isolating it can be to grow up, Julie — as the self she presented on-camera — is a portrait of how much one loses when one tries to fight the process. In 2000, Julie admitted to having been sheltered as a member of the LDS church and Brigham Young University student; she was on the show to seek new experiences. In 2022, Julie presents as someone trying to reclaim something she once had; while, for others, the conversation has moved forward, Julie continually reasserts that she belongs at the center for the noise she can make, the havoc she can cause. Even her late-in-the-show announcement that she and her husband have renounced their faith lands in the midst of her having shown off unclothed pictures of him and canoodled with him in the house’s public space: It’s all tied up in the Julie show.
This isn’t that kind of show — not least because no one is quite on Julie’s frequency. The closest anyone comes is probably Matt Smith, who was in 2000 her fellow traveler in devout religious faith; today, he’s similarly unequipped to address big and painful questions about the ways he’s isolated himself from his peers. (Meanwhile, for his part, Julie’s purported crush Jamie seems benignly oblivious to it all, and just happy to be hanging out. Some things never change, and sometimes that’s OK.) Julie is doing “The Comeback” — the fictional reality show about a faded star who will try any gambit to get back onto magazine covers — while her castmates are doing “42 Up.”
But it’s that collision that makes the show work. Julie’s right about this much: A TV show needs incident and contrast in order to be interesting. The incident comes from the processing her castmates are willing to do on camera; the contrast comes from her own insistence that “The Real World Homecoming” slide into chaos for entertainment’s sake. It’s a different kind of baggage Julie carries from her reality-show past, differently painful to witness for the ways in which she seems entirely unaware of its weight.
And it’s necessary for a show that encompasses all the different ways our experiences shape us. Having one’s youth documented and seemingly alive for a viewing audience is far less novel than it was in 2000; today, it’s the TikTok generation’s human condition. Questions of what we keep and what we let go grow more urgent when there’s an endless pixel trail of past selves. “The Real World Homecoming” presents a few models for changing or resisting change, puts them into conversation, and, finally, in a moment of grace, allows them to coexist. Julie doesn’t leave on bad terms with her roommates, but it’s not hard to imagine that today, she’s not really on terms with them at all. And that, like so much these seven have been through in their journey through American fame, might just have to be OK. An inflated reputation doesn’t leave much space in one’s life; maybe that’s a lesson that will take a lifetime to learn.