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'The Real World: Homecoming' finale shows how easily a '90s Becky becomes a 'Karen'

The dominant themes of the first-ever "The Real World" were race and racism. The 30-year reunion showed how much — and how little — has changed.
Image: The Real World Homecoming: New York
Kevin Powell, Heather Gardner, Julie Gentry and Norman Korpi of the Paramount+ series "The Real World Homecoming: New York." MTV 2021 Paramount+, Inc.

When MTV’s “The Real World” debuted in 1992, it centered around seven 19-26 year olds from across the country, gathering to live together in New York. It was one of the early explorations in the form of reality television that viewers know today. The show's beauty was that there was no parental and little producer supervision, but there weren’t scripts either. The seven roommates — Kevin Powell, Norman Korpi, Heather Gardner, Julie Gentry, Andre Comeau, Rebecca “Becky” Blasband and Eric Nies — had their lives and conversations documented as they unfolded.

Almost 30 years later, the original cast reunited in New York, filming six episodes that finished in early January. It’s called “The Real World: Homecoming,” and the finale airs Thursday on Paramount+.

Given “The Real World: Homecoming” is only a mini-series, it doesn’t take a lot of time to set up the cast mates’ past, and seemingly expects even newer (and younger) viewers to recognize everyone upon their return. But then there are those of us for whom the first season aired before we were born.

So before starting the reunion, I had to go back and watch the original to understand both the cast and the moment in time in which it aired. It felt like another world — one in which people scheduled their landline phone calls and said goodbyes at actual airport gates.

Despite the city’s and country’s landscape changing drastically, the events taking place seem, sadly, to have remained the same.

It was a uniquely strange experience watching a group of friends who were then the age I am now when the series (and reality TV) started who grow up together and come back together at the same age (or older) than my parents.

“Really what I want to see is 50 years. That would be interesting to see us at 70 years old,” Nies says in a throwback clip. Watching them sit together and reflect on their younger selves and the world as it used to be is one of the compelling parts of this season.

And, unlike modern reality shows like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians'' or the “Real Housewives'' franchise, MTV at the time cast people representative of their own generation’s experiences. It allowed for subjects like race, sexuality and women’s rights to appear on television in millions of households across the world, and some places, for the first time.

During the first season, for instance, Kevin and Becky engaged in intense discussions regarding racism. Julie used the fact that the cameras followed her to shine a spotlight on homelessness in New York City. And Norman, who was the first openly LGBTQ+ cast member on the show, still faced backlash from the community for not fitting into a label.

For the reunion, filming amid a global pandemic — which sets in on set after Nies calls from isolation after a Covid-19 diagnosis — and national Black Lives Matter rallies, the group returned to the same discussions they had decades ago, including watching footage of their younger selves grappling with the Los Angeles riots and police brutality. Despite the city’s and country’s landscape changing drastically, the events taking place seem, sadly, to have remained the same.

It felt like another world — one in which people scheduled their landline phone calls and said goodbyes at actual airport gates.

So, too, have the conflicts. The season's central conflict is between Becky and Kevin, who revive their old conversation about racism in America. The show seemingly attempts to give it a genuine and modern lens, as Kevin tries to keep Becky from becoming the next internet “Karen” with her tone-deaf ways of playing the victim that don’t appear to have changed much from when she was originally on the show.

Becky feels that the producers are setting her up as an example of “white privilege,” but her individual decisions are the ones causing the issues. It ends up highlighting something for younger viewers that has perhaps gone somewhat unspoken about the Karen phenomenon, which is that those sorts of behaviors and pronouncements clearly were once seen as more socially acceptable among young, middle-class white women who have now grown up, rather than something so out of the ordinary that they’re worth videotaping and calling out on the internet.

Still, when Becky packs her things and leaves the house in the midst of the reunion, clearly on bad terms with many of the roommates, the tension almost feels forced — rather than the “real” part that viewers appreciated about the show when it started. Other reality show participants have stayed through far more tense moments than the ones seen here.

In the season finale of “The Real World: Homecoming,” Becky doesn’t return to the house to resolve things, and the other cast mates seemingly just move on in a better mood without her — despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the majority of the airtime to that point focused on Becky’s dynamic with everyone else. Again, it perhaps displayed concretely exactly what Black women have been saying about “Karens” as they have captured the public imagination more recently: that their antics and feelings about how people respond to their racist behavior ends up taking up most of the attention, rather than the racism itself.

Still, it seemed like the cast had managed to remain friends for several decades, so it must have hurt to watch that dynamic get thrown away permanently. Yet, as the six remaining in the series packed their things and said their goodbyes on the last day, the show hinted that this likely won’t be the last time we see them together.

While “The Real World: Homecoming” had production constraints due to the pandemic, the isolation it imposed on the case also allowed for more feelings and more extensive talks to bubble to the surface. Compared to the first season they spent in New York, which was able to strike a perfect balance between being moving and fun to watch for viewers, the spin-off felt touching but like some of the entertaining elements had been removed. (That could describe the last year for many of us, though.) And, once the world opens up again — whenever that may be — filming a second reunion season does have the potential to be more watchable than ever.