May 27, 2022

Why ‘The Real World: New Orleans’ Star Danny Roberts Matters

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To some subset of the audience of the 2000 reality show “The Real World: New Orleans,” Danny Roberts was the biggest celebrity on TV.

Roberts was the gay cast member on a TV franchise that placed a premium on frankness, openness, and unpracticed charm. The first episode of Roberts’ season saw him gradually and haltingly coming out to the six housemates producers had arranged for him to live with for months, at one point announcing he was gay in French so as to avoid doing so in English. Later on, his romance with a U.S. servicemember whose face had to be blurred in accordance with the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, was both tender and intriguing. Not immune to leaning into the inherent drama of being 22 and gorgeous and in love, Danny was a star. And he shone all the more brightly for the lack of others like him on TV.

In the summer of 2000, reality TV was still in its infancy: It aired concurrently with the first season of “Survivor,” which was (not incidentally) won by Richard Hatch, a gay man whose sexuality was rolled into the sense that he was the series’ villain. We’re all — viewers and stars alike — far more habituated now to the rhythms and tropes of reality shows; back then, in the ninth season of this franchise, it still felt novel. (This is why the presence of the fellow who was known, on “New Orleans,” as David and now goes by Tokyo is so remarkable: These days, producers would struggle to find such a genuine oddball among the current crop of media-saturated 20somethings.) Roberts was among the very last reality stars who wasn’t performing what the audience expected of him.

Which is a lot to place on someone who was, then, a young man and just figuring out who he was. And on the new installment of “The Real World Homecoming,” in which cast members from the series come together in the present day to exorcise old demons and rebuild relationships, Roberts seems somewhat exhausted by the experience of notoriety; he lives, we learn, in a small cabin in Vermont, isolated from a public that seems to demand something from him daily. He’s been known for his appearance on reality TV for what is now, 22 years post-”Real World,” precisely half his life.

“Homecoming,” which launches April 20 on Paramount Plus, is a brilliant idea for a show not merely because the “New Orleans” crew provides plenty of grist; the series starts with the revelation that Julie Stoffer, one of Roberts’ castmates, has been out of contact with her peers after what we might charitably call a misunderstanding over how she handled competition on the college-lecture circuit post-series. Stoffer, a complicated presence on “The Real World,” is strange and evasive when criticized — one of the many data points on this show working toward the point that people really don’t change.

But to many viewers, Danny’s return will be the event. I’d include myself in this: Watching “The Real World” at age 12, Danny seemed like the sort of person I could never be. He was smart but not irritatingly so, and charming; he always knew the right things to say, even if he had to try saying them in another language first. And after some initial discomfort, he was able not just to live openly as himself but to have both a sustaining relationship and strong friendships with people who saw him for who he really was. His friendships with Melissa (then Howard, now Beck) and Kelley (then Limp, now Wolf), two other cast members on the show, struck me then as the real action of the series. (Indeed, Melissa, with whom Danny shared an askew sense of humor and a say-everything discursiveness, is again one of the highlights of the series, in part for her and Danny’s mutual protectiveness of each other when both of them are up against Julie.) Dating and sex were utterly abstract concepts. But to have people want to be your friend even after they knew you were gay? What a thrilling idea.

Now substantially older than Danny was then, I see how the psychic weight of however many millions looking at Danny’s story and seeing in it a version of their future took its toll. Well-wishers or not, the people who Danny describes as making it impossible for him to go grocery shopping with his boyfriend without being surveilled had a negative effect. But it’s hard to break an old habit, to stop wondering how his life is going out there in the woods, trying to suss out in his story what 44 might look like, in just the same way I once wondered if 22 would be anything like what I wanted.

Danny wasn’t the first pathbreaker in the “Real World” franchise, and his impact wasn’t the same in scope as, say, Pedro Zamora’s. (Zamora, of the show’s 1994 San Francisco season, may likely have been the first HIV-positive person many Americans saw onscreen.) But he came onscreen at a tricky moment in history, when gay people were visible but hardly celebrated. Ellen DeGeneres had only recently torched her career by coming out; it was not lost on me, then, that her coming-out resounded loudly while her show getting canceled in short order met with less notice. What a pleasure, then, to see in Danny a person who was willing to share his humanness, with all that implied: his joy, his lustiness, his nerves, his hard days. A future like Danny’s seemed almost believable because it actually wasn’t perfect — it was just honest.

That level of public openness isn’t sustainable as a way of life long-term, and among the tricky, fascinating things about the first couple of episodes of “Homecoming” is a guardedness in Danny. He’s all too aware that Julie’s attempt to short-circuit conversations about the past by offering a quick and easy apology; he weighs his words with care. I guess that’s part of getting older, realizing that always knowing the right thing to say takes more deliberation than pure charm.

This show is all about the passage of time, and its two-week clock makes the matter quite literal; these people have a short period during which they need to say precisely what they want to say, to one another and to the public that made them, for a moment, celebrities. And a viewer in a certain cast of mind will feel the minutes fly by in a painful way — it’s fairly apparent that after this, we will not be seeing Danny bare his soul on TV again anytime soon.

It’s hard to know what TV has given Danny: The rewards (magazine covers, red-carpet appearances) were fleeting, and the long tail seems to be a lack of privacy without remuneration. But one hopes, at least, that there was something in the “Homecoming” experience that made him feel the experience was worth it. These aren’t concerns I usually feel for people on TV, who — now and, really, even then — have some sense of what they’re signing up for.

But something about Danny’s story sets him apart even among reality stars, and makes me glad we’re getting another look at how his extraordinarily ordinary life is going. Maybe it’s that it was part of a franchise that, before it pivoted to tales of college drunkenness among people who just wanted to be on camera, specialized in a kind of breezy, amiable openness. Or maybe it’s his ease in telling it to an audience of young people, some of whom really needed to hear it, that one’s twenties could be fun and empowered and free. His greatest contribution is not his coming out, but everything that followed — a life lived, for a moment, in public, with joys he was willing to share with viewers who might, before he came along, never have imagined them.



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