I am happy to report that Netflix’s new reality show Twentysomethings: Austin did not annoy me as much as I thought it would. You see, I’m a native Austinite, one of those embittered townies who’s always complaining about what the city has become and the newcomers who have made it so. A reality show dedicated to some of those newcomers—eight young ones, to be specific—had the potential to be my own personal hell. It physically pains me whenever Elon Musk and Joe Rogan talk about my hometown, and I couldn’t imagine it would be any easier to see Austin through the eyes of a 23-year-old whose rent is paid by Netflix.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Austin in Twentysomethings: Austin is pretty unrecognizable. In the first episode, when the eight kiddos (Raquel Daniels, Abbey Humphreys, Bruce Stephenson, Kamari Bonds, Natalie Cabo, Keauno Perez, Isha Punja, and Michael Fractor) went to the Wheatsville on South Lamar, I said out loud, “Oh cool, that’s the Wheatsville on South Lamar!” But after that, whenever they went to a store or there was an exterior shot of some bar, my usual reaction was along the lines of “I have no idea where this place is” or “I’ve never seen this building before in my life.” (Except for Rain, the iconic downtown gay club. It was fun when they went to Rain.)
The vibes are familiar, of course. They feel like “new Austin,” emphasis on the “new.” The two matching houses the twentysomethings live in are the crisp, boxy, bland, farmhouse-meets-mid-century architectural style that is all over the city’s east, north, and south sides. The bars the cast members visit are sleek but casual, and the boutiques are full of quirky, boho clothes that seem unique but are actually like uniforms in their ubiquity. I recognize that this cool, modern city is Austin, which one of the twentysomethings (honestly, I don’t remember who) describes as a “hub of people trying to figure things out.” But I can also dissociate a little, because aside from some overhead shots of Lady Bird Lake, this place might as well be Nashville, or Denver, or any of the other cities all of America’s young people seem to be flocking to.
If I could ignore the Austin element of the series, then I could focus entirely on the twentysomethings. I should also clarify that I am in my mid-thirties, and I remember how embarrassing I was ten years ago. So my other consistent reactions to the events unfolding on-screen were along the lines of “Oh, sweetie, don’t say that on TV,” or “Bless your heart, this is going to bite you in the ass.” I did a lot of cringing, like whenever Michael did stand-up (and who moves from L.A. to Austin to do stand-up?), or when Abbey confidently insisted she could handle a friends-with-benefits arrangement with Kamari. LOL, girl. No, you cannot.
The kids feel just as generic as the city they inhabit. Aside from Abbey, who hails from Houston, none are from Texas. They’ve arrived from other Southern states, mostly, with two coming from as far away as California. None are able to articulate why Austin, of all places, is the city they’ve decided to settle in; they seem to be there only because it’s where Netflix set the reality show they’ve been cast in. It’s uncomfortably formulaic. Cell phones and dating apps are the only things making this an updated version of MTV’s The Real World. If there were hosts breaking down the drama for the audience, it would be almost indistinguishable from the Japanese reality franchise Terrace House. Twentysomethings’ only significant revelation is that every cast member gets their own bedroom, which makes it less awkward for the whole house when two of them hook up.
But a reality show doesn’t need to reinvent the genre in order to work. Reality empires are built upon cringe, and Twentysomethings: Austin has much to offer in that regard. The cast members may be in their mid-twenties, but they have the social dynamics of teenagers. When Michael bombs at an open mic, he trashes his bedroom in anger, and the girls come in to clean it up. (I would have codependently cleaned up a boy’s room when I was nineteen, no questions asked.) There’s heart there, too, some of it forced, such as every character’s insistence that they have come to Austin to “work on themselves.” It’s debatable whether or not Austin is still a good place to sort oneself out, but I can guarantee that adding alcohol and a television crew to the mix is an incredibly inefficient way of making that happen. The kids get drunk, flirt, overshare, and embarrass themselves. Twentysomethings: Austin strikes the classic reality-show balance of being both hard to watch and impossible to turn off.
Perhaps the best way to categorize the show is with the following anecdote. After binge-watching the first six episodes of the series, which dropped on Netflix December 10, I was describing the plot to a friend. When I was done, she said it sounded like the perfect thing to watch on the day after getting a COVID-19 booster shot, when you might be feverish, tired, and only half paying attention. If you ask me, that’s exactly what every reality show should aspire to. Well done, Twentysomethings.