It’s been a month now since MTV’s big 30th Birthday Bash! On the big day, just about every media prognosticator gave their diagnosis of MTV — formerly Music Television, today just the acronym-less MTV (pronounced, only in my mind, as “mmm-tuhv” since it so determinately stands for nothing at all) — the still thriving, if not exactly in the preferred manner, cable behemoth.
The verdict: not great. MTV’s thirtieth birthday gave every single person who has been lamenting that MTV was so much better “before” (this is pretty much every person in America who is not a teen mother and who is not going by Snooki or The Situation) occasion to join hands and say — loudly, comfortably, and in unison — that MTV’s seeming abandonment of music videos, quality and outright sanity really sucks. Then we watched “Video Killed the Radio Star,” thought about the Moon Man, and we smiled. I’m pretty sure it was pleasantly nostalgic and universally cathartic. Good for us!
Well, it’s been a month now. A month jam-packed with premieres, finales, big announcements and MTV’s highest rated broadcast ever — the 2011 Video Music Awards.
MTV’s chameleonic nature has taken effect once again, and as we enter September 2011, the cable pioneer that once used to be all about giving kids the music videos and music news they wanted looks very little like what it was five or ten years prior. MTV barely looks like it did in July 2011. So I know that we all diagnosed the once-great music network as DOA at 30 only one measly month ago, but, in the interest of good science, I think it’s time for a check-up.
What better practitioner than me? I have no real prior experience with the network at all. I am way to young to remember MTV as a music video playground. By the time I was a teen, TRL was already a dinosaur. And I never cared for the network as a teen in the 2000s either (I am not alone there, not by a long shot). As a matter of fact, I never watched it, period. No Punk’d. No Osbournes. I’ve never seen Jersey Shore or Teen Mom or The Real World: Road Rules Challenge, whatever that is. I had never seen a VMA before, not even the Kanye one. I am completely MTV illierate, therfore I have no nostalgia for what came before, and therefore I am the perfect person to see what’s going on now and determining whether it’s worth a damn.
First Taste: Awkward
Awkward is a surprisingly intellegent, sneakily funny teen comedy. Turns out there is something worth a damn on this network, which is more than any of the death sentences I heard last month would have led me to believe.
See, I’m getting back into watching television casually after a year without cable, and so I’m trying to stake out what networks I’ll let my remote take me to when the mood to veg out takes control. Travel Channel, AMC, ESPN and Food Network are staples from the old days. And now, a new contender enters the arena. Little did I suspect that, after 22 years of being completely and imperviously ambivalent to MTV, I would suddenly find myself crawling over to MTV every once in a while to see what intriguing original scripted programming the network has going tonight. I can thank Awkward for this.
Yes that’s right. Original scripted programming, MTV and intriguing, all in the same sentence! A new day has dawned! Yes this is the same network whose Achilles heel has always been scripted television. Now MTV has turned in that direction in force, investing money from its Jersey Shore piggy bank in relatively intelligent properties and producing them with some level of acumen and flair. This is me being excited! Look, I think I’m commiting some horrible pop culture crime here, but I’m about to begin taking an indefensible pop culture position, and I’m going to try and defend it: MTV is really not that bad everyone, and if anything, it’s glory days of non-stop videos are overvalued while its current programming is largely ignored, seen neither as critically appreciated or culturally relevent. At a time when MTV is surging in both viewers and creativity, we just read the network its last rights and watched “Thriller” for the hundredth time. What’re we missing? Some of the shows on MTV are actually getting good!
Awkward is probably the lead footman in this charge. It’s sort of about a teenage girl who accidentally attempts suicide and becomes a “thing” at school because of it (I don’t understand this plot point either), but this knowledge is not in any way necessary to follow this show. There’s a loud, opinionated best friend, a kooky guidance counselor, a really mean girl, and a cute boy who might have a crush on our protagonist. All to say… this is a familiar set-up. The first time I watched it, I don’t think I got it. I expected to be able to flip the channels, pay mild attention, treat it like teen fare, pay only a little bit of attention, and find it moderately funny, and it just didn’t work that way. I recognized it right away as a strange mix between a Nickelodeon sitcom like Ned’s Declassified or Zoey 101 and an ABC Family treacler like The Secret Life of the American Teen. It looks so much like both of these series, but its beats and rhythms are different, it’s more mature, it has a bit of a shaggy dog aesthetic common amongst these new MTV shows (with one notable and very ironic exception). I kind of passed up on it the first time, dismissing it as same-old same-old teen stuff that forgot it was supposed to be making me laugh, but then I saw it again today. Same episode I caught last time, but this time I knew what to expect, and suddenly I found it all to be… funnier. Like a switch had turned on.
The show this is most like is probably Lizzie McGuire, which stormed the scene ten years ago when Disney Channel turned its focus towards live action programming and ushered in a decade of tween dominance. But the Disney Channel tween series has become increasingly trite and absurd in the ensuing decade, and the format needed a place to grow up. Since that growth could not happen in the Mouse House, the CW and now MTV took up the slack, but it is only with Awkward that a network has seemed to capture that same rough-around the edges, gangly teen, well, awkwardness, if you’ll excuse the obvious connection, that made Lizzie McGuire seem more frank, honest and relevantly funny then a lot of what was on in 2001.
Awkward, I realized today, has that same spirit mixed with a dirtier mind and a willingness to use foul language as long as its bleeped. But there’s the blissful lack of a laugh-track here, and voiceover narration, and horrible adult supervision, and a turn-everything on its head goofiness that only occasionally veers into maudlin ABC Family seriousness! (The most recent episode of Awkward has a plot point about a food journal and an overweight mean girl, complete with a drawn-out speech that is eerily reminiscent of the Miranda-wants to-be-thinner plot on Lizzie from ten years ago, though Awkward follows the serious moment with a joke and does not give its weight-conciouss girl an easy happy ending.)
Awkward could still definitely be funnier. Much of the material falls flat, like a weird subplot about a kid who’s selling T-Shirts that seem to be about Jenna, but aren’t because they’re about his band, but she doesn’t believe him so she beats him up, and then she apologizes because he’s totally not a stalker, it was all a misunderstanding, but then he turns to totally be a stalker!!! It makes no comedic sense in the episode either, and stalker kid is absent the next week which did not help me understand his purpose at all… But, in the end, this is the rare teen comedy that doesn’t try to trump up its drama, that puts its characters theatrics in perspective (everything seems bigger and worse when your 16), that allows itself and its viewers to laugh a little at what they might be going through, that shies away from overusing pop culture references and aims for something a bit more timeless, and that understands what can be funny about being 16 not when your 35 and looking back on it, but when your 16 and living it. All this from a show on a dead network that hasn’t done anything worthwhile since 1993… I hate to be that guy that says nostalgia sometimes clouds our judgement and blinds us to good new things, and no place on earth is more beholden to bitter nostalgia then whatever place on your dial is reserved for MTV, but it must be said — it takes creativity and direction to produce a show like this, and as MTV creates more and more intelligent scripted shows that balance out The Situation, maybe we should lend the network a bit more credence before celebrating its 30th birthday like we’re attending a wake. MTV may live again!
Coming in Part 2: Teen Wolf and Death Valley cash in on the supernatural “thing” we’ve had going on for a few years, but both do it well.