When Tami Roman, the breakout star of The Real World: Los Angeles, was asked to reunite with her roommates in the same Venice Beach house where, in 1993, she decided to terminate a pregnancy, she said no. Then she said no again.
“I said no so many times,” Roman says. “I just felt like I had done my time in reality TV.” The 51-year-old holdout who went on to appear on Celebrity Wife Swap, Marriage Boot Camp, and Basketball Wives, adds, “I hadn’t spoken to these people in 27 years.”
But the more she thought it over, the more she realized that she and her Real World castmates “were really the pioneers of the genre,” she says. “So I felt there was no harm, no foul in going back to finish what I helped start.”
Exactly what The Real World started, particularly the first three seasons in New York, L.A., and San Francisco, is now canon. The groundbreaking MTV series launched the modern-day docuseries soap opera. Its goal was to mine the lives of seven strangers from different walks of life and reflect it back at us with rawness and honesty. The show’s method was tossing telegenic aspiring models, singers, and actors into a big loft with a giant aquarium, then miking everyone up to the gills to—say it with me—find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.
Now the season 2 cast—minus conservative surfer/econ major Aaron and Irish music critic Dominic, who are not returning—will gather around the old Venice fish tank for The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles, airing on Paramount+ on November 24.
In 1992, there was nothing else like The Real World. Critics called the franchise “painfully bogus.” Viewers were enthralled. Tami, a Black Muslim woman, worked at an HIV health clinic in the city and, in a shocking TV milestone, let viewers see her abortion. David, a Black standup comic, got kicked out of the house (a Real World first) for ripping the covers off a barely clothed Tami, in spite of her and Beth S.’s screaming protests. He also exposed himself. Beth S. called him a rapist, and uncomfortable discussions ensued between the roommates, who debated whether this was really assault or a bad joke turned tragic. The reunion revisits many of these moments.
“We did delve back into race,” Roman says. “We did delve back into the abortion situation. We did delve back into the issues with #MeToo and that particular incident with David. A lot of people saw me get my mouth wired and deal with bulimia, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders. We talked about all that this time around. But with a more respectful eye.”
As Real World seasons dragged on, they departed further and further from reality. Critics lamented both the producer-meddling to gin up drama and the typecasting that felt tailor-made for scapegoating: the angry Black man or woman; the country yokel; the gay or bisexual character meant to incite homophobia or at least discomfort. But they were, at first, truly diverse casts, including Black, Latino, and queer roommates from different socioeconomic backgrounds, who argued bitterly over issues of race, gender, class, and same-sex marriage. The debates the show sparked are Gen X’s official televised contribution, imperfect as it is, to what we’d now call “doing the work” of hashing out differences and injustice through dialogue for the lowercase real world of 1993.
The frenzy of reality shows that followed—from Survivor to The Bachelor to Jersey Shore to The Real Housewives—focused on far less noble spectacles. Rather than bringing together diverse casts to see what unites and divides, they tend to focus on subcultures fueled by petty gripes. Viewers have been left to gawk at horny housewives and basic husband-hunters who pass out drunk in hot tubs. Tami and David’s drama seems somewhat highbrow and well-intentioned by comparison.
In 1993, when Real World: Los Angeles first aired, the city was still reeling from the Rodney King riots. This magazine’s July cover story that year asked Angelenos if they could even afford to still live in their own city. Venice was still a cheap boho enclave for bodybuilders, skaters, artists, and weirdos—the average home price was $251,000—facing increasing gang violence and homelessness.
Today, Venice is a gentrified playground for tech bros in $400 joggers shooting B12 algae, where home prices hover around $1.8 million and where the same beach house on 30th Avenue still stands, worth over $3 million. And where, until very recently, the beach a block away showcased an ongoing humanitarian crisis for the unhoused.
The cast members have also, of course, grown up. Tami is an actor and producer. Jon Brennan, the country singer from Kentucky, is a youth pastor. Joining them are Beth Stolarczyk, who runs her own production company here; former sheriff’s deputy Irene Berrera-Kearns, who now has a wellness business; Beth Anthony, a production coordinator in town; Glen Naessens, a coffee shop owner; and David Edwards, a local comedian and writer.
In a brief preview clip of the reunion provided by MTV, we see little of the house or neighborhood, except for a cab arriving in the back alley waiting to deliver David. There, Tami, Irene, Jon, and Beth S. munch on chips in the kitchen, debating nervously how things will play out. Jon asks the women how they think it’s going to feel. “I think it’s going to be a little awkward,” Tami says. Beth S. notes that while she has no relationship with David whatsoever, “We all get a redo now.”
For Jon, whose rural Christian roots delivered on the culture shock, but whose season-long growth upended the stereotype, returning was about closure. “What I tried to do then, and what I try to do today, and what I tried to do at the homecoming, and what I try to do as a human being on this planet, is say, ‘You know what? I disagree with you,’” he says, “wholeheartedly and passionately. But I love you, and I can respect that we’re different.’ And that’s what The Real World is as a show, especially the early years.”
The reunions certainly capitalize on Gen X nostalgia, but they’re also proof of that generation’s early clumsy efforts to grapple with the issues of the day. Those conversations have grown so sophisticated now that early seasons almost look like Degrassi Junior High. Still, there’s often a lack of credit given for the effort to confront the issues at all.
“I wasn’t trying to be the Roe v. Wade spokesperson,” Roman says of her decision to allow her abortion to be filmed. “But it was just showing, in real time, real life, what this really looks like and feels like from an emotional and physical standpoint.”
In the past three decades of reality TV, we’ve gone, it seems, full circle, from booze and earnest dialogue to booze and shallow exploits to booze and racial reckoning (and hot tubs). The Real Housewives franchise recently added Black actress Garcelle Beauvais to Beverly Hills, and Asian actress Tiffany Moon to Dallas. Southern Charm added Persian entrepreneur Leva Bonaparte. Such casting has, at least on some level, echoed the genre’s origins for generating modern-day discussions of many of the same issues The Real World tackled 30 years ago.
Is that superficial change or enough to call it progress?
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