Jonathan Murray, co-creator of MTV’s The Real World, talks about getting the gang—and the loft!—back together for The Real World: Homecoming on Paramount+.
TV reboots have become popular in recent years, but one of 2021’s most surprising and necessary reunions was Paramount+’s The Real World: Homecoming, which reunited the cast of the original The Real World.
“We knew the 30th anniversary of that seminal 1992 first season was coming up,” says series creator and executive producer Jonathan Murray. “We had conversations with MTV about whether this was the time to reflect, both for the cast and the program, on everything that had happened since then and how all of us had been transformed by our participation in it.”
However, Paramount+—not MTV—proved to be the perfect opportunity to get the gang back together, even if a global pandemic like COVID-19 wasn’t ideal. On the other hand, while Murray was in isolation to prep for his appearance in the series’ final episode, the show provided him with his own voyeuristic entertainment while staying confined to the Soho Grand Hotel.
“What better to have during a quarantine when you’re stuck in a hotel room than to have a non-stop 24-hour feed of The Real World?”
A Positive Omen from Churchill’s Granddaughter
As if it weren’t enough of a miracle to get the original cast of The Real World back together for six days, Murray lucked out and was able to secure another important element of the original 1992 series: the loft.
“It was a bit of one of those magical moments,” says Murray. “It’s been lived in by Winston Churchill’s granddaughter [since 1995]. It just happened that she was selling it, which created a window for us to use it as part of the whole transaction. We considered it a positive omen. Every once in a while, things will just line up perfectly.”
But because they filmed during a global pandemic, the team was taking a risk in getting the cast back together. Unfortunately, cast member Eric Nies came down with COVID right before they started filming, and they were forced to include him in conversations virtually.
“We had to quickly figure out how to incorporate him, but the fact that he ended up getting COVID was a very powerful reminder that we were telling a story that was very current.”
Another reminder of how current the story was, and maybe how not much—and so much—has changed in 30 years, were the conversations about race in the house. While the beating of Rodney King was the topic of conversation in 1992, in 2021, it’s the death of George Floyd, with cast member Kevin Powell, who’s African American, once again at the center of these discussions.
“When we cast [Kevin] in 1992, I don’t think we understood what he’d experienced as a black man in America. So when some of that surfaced in ’92, it wasn’t necessarily something we expected but it was a part of what makes this Real World format so great. If you cast a diverse group of young people, you will get stories, because everyone brings their own life experience. Remember, this was our first season, so we were just learning all that.”
While during the first season Kevin was seen by the cast as perhaps more of an instigator when it came to conflict—and also maybe even to audiences—30 years later, the roommates have more of an understanding of where he’s coming from.
“Even Heather said, and she’s a black woman, she didn’t really understand [Kevin]. I think everyone was more open to hearing what he had to say and he himself was also better at expressing it, because Kevin worked through his own issues. He came into it an evolved man who is himself open to listening to what other people had to say.”
Learning from The Real World
However, while most cast members became more open to listening after 30 years, one did end up leaving during the third episode, because of a conversation with Kevin about race.
“I think we were all surprised Becky chose to leave early. The cast was certainly surprised. They consider themselves a family and I think some of them were more hurt by the fact that she didn’t stay, that she left the family instead of trying to work through the issues. I think it was not something we would hope would have happened, but it very much showcased that good people like Becky, that lead their lives in a way they feel is open to others, can sometimes seem to be a little tone deaf in terms of understanding what’s going on.”
But as much as that friction ended up causing Becky to leave, Murray also emphasizes that this open dialogue is what he loves about the show.
“We try not to take sides. We try to let people come into it and let them form their own judgments and how it relates to their life and what journey they’re on.”
Even as the cast reconciles how they’ve changed in 30 years, so has the production team, with Murray acknowledging missteps. In the final episode, Murray and producer George Verschoor apologize to Heather for not showing her and her father together in the first iteration of the show, as it would have been a powerful moment to show a black girl and her black father.
“We were also aware of Norm and the challenges he felt as an openly gay men, how he was received. We had a sense of what the cast might be wanting to talk to us about.”
Thirty years on, there’s one person who doesn’t appear in the reunion, even though her name appears in the credits: series co-creator Mary-Ellis Bunim, who passed away from breast cancer in 2004 and whom the series is dedicated to. Murray describes their long partnership of failed projects and how The Real World was their last shot at doing something successful.
“She would be so so happy that we got to make this program, and she would be so happy the impact that the show has had.”
The Real World: Homecoming is streaming on Paramount+.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.