"The Come Up" wants to be the "real world," but it's too polite to be real

IIn the winter of 1992, MTV moved seven young adults with creative aspirations into a loft in Soho, surrounded them with camera crews, and fed the raw footage into The real world— a provocative, unscripted drama that invented reality television as we know it. Thirty years later, Disney’s YA-oriented cable channel Freeform is essentially repeating that formula with The Come Up, named for its six stars’ self-identification as emerging icons of downtown culture. But since Gen Z isn’t Gen X and reality TV is no longer the revolutionary form it once was, the experiment yields a strangely empty, inert show with little insight into today’s youth culture.

At first glance, the cast of The Come Up, which premiered Sept. 13 in a four-episode block that will begin streaming on Hulu the following morning, embodies everything cool and subversive about a generation that’s just starting to emerge. Sophia Wilson is an in-demand photographer struggling to balance meaningful assignments and coursework at NYU. Taofiq Abiako started his fashion label Head of State while still in high school. Eben Gore has found her people in the queer nightlife community, where black trans organizers like her are on the rise. When we meet model Fernando Casablancas, who is the son of the founder of Elite Model Management John Casablancas and half-brother of Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas, he is recovering from a difficult breakup with an even more famous model. And Claude Schwartz, a New York native who bills herself as a “trans woman who wants to be an actress,” stars as Ben Hard’s sherpa, a wannabe comedian fresh off a plane from Texas.

Sophia Wilson, left, with friend in

Sophia Wilson, left, with a friend at The Come Up

Freeform—Adeline Lulo

in Real World: New York in other words, Ben is the show’s Julie: a broad-eyed Southerner who has come to the big city to broaden his horizons and discover who he wants to be. Acting lessons, open-mic nights, and flirting with boys ensued in an environment more welcoming to his budding bisexuality than San Antonio’s family environment. As mundane as they are, his adventures with Claude…The Come Upa real find on, a funny and observant commentator despite the limited material – and a low-key bouncing Fernando take up most of the four episodes sent for review. If it’s a spoiler to reveal that Ben kisses a boy and likes it, well, it shouldn’t be.

This tale, as old as time, about a new kid in town takes screen time from the two most obviously talented members of the cast: Taofeek and Sofia. He’s built an aesthetic and brand around his childhood in Nigeria, it’s focused on reviving analog photography in the digital age, and we see how their shared preferences for black models and subjects bond. Unfortunately, their storylines on the show aren’t as compelling as their work. (Generous footage of a head of state fashion show is easy The Come Up‘s highlight.) Almost halfway through the first season, I still can’t figure out who they are as people. Even less developed is Ebon, who doesn’t get more than a few minutes of attention until episode 3.

Perhaps the more accomplished cast members had less incentive to open up. It might be worth noting that Sofia, Taofiq and Ebon are black, while Ben, Fernando and Claude are not. But what is certain is that the cast doesn’t really function as a cast. They live separately, in Manhattan apartments whose rents the young artists without obvious day jobs probably couldn’t pay on their own, eliminating any opportunity to capture occasional late-night gossip sessions or confrontations. The producers don’t even manage to get the entire cast in the same room with the kind of contrived social gatherings that fuel Real Housewives storylines.

Claude Schwartz in The Come Up (Freeform—Adeline Lulo)

Claude Schwartz in The Come Up

Freeform—Adeline Lulo

Still, I doubt that tweaking the format will fix the show. The vulnerability producers would have to wrest from their subjects to create an honest account of life “up front,” in a gentrification-ravaged center where rich kids play Warhol superstars while the world burns, just seems impossible to a generation that grew up understanding the tropes of reality television. (Even The real worldwhich last aired a new season in 2019on Facebook Watch, has been a drunken, lobotomized shell of its original self for at least two-thirds of its cycle.) What’s more, Gen Z grew up in a culture shaped by 24/7 peer monitoring, of which reality television is only one extreme manifestation. Success in social media, now critical to all types of public creative careers, requires continuous self-education for maximum engagement and approval.

I’m not talking so much about the so-called cancellation culture as the fact that anyone in the public eye ends up being the subject of a social media discussion that tends to cast them in the main roles of hero and villain, experimenter and troubled a person that can be hard to shake. This is not a problem for Christine Quince and Spencer Pratts of the world who are happy to play hill in exchange for money and attention. But for The Come Up cast members hoping to use Freeform as a springboard to something other than more reality TV fame, it’s imperative that viewers like them, or at least dislike them. Because they have a product to sell: themselves.

And they seem shrewd enough to know that. Asked the open-ended question, “What is downtown?”, Claude contextualizes the scene within a history of bohemian cool defined by IT girls from Grace Jones to Chloe Sevigny, then goes back a bit. “I don’t know if we can call it this bohemian paradise where creative endeavors are funded by venture capital,” she points out with a rueful smile that suggests she understands the same criticism applies to Disney-backed reality shows. Such flashes of self-awareness don’t stop a series based on authenticity from ending up as glossy advertisement for the cluster of defying the pandemic, possibly-already-passé downtown scenes that are currently gaining buzz under the media moniker Dimes Square. However, they do wonders for the cast members’ personal brands.

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