The 'Jersey Shore' Curse: Why MTV's Smart New Show Is Probably Doomed

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TMC

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Nov 29, 2012, 9:20:29 PM11/29/12
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http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/10/the-jersey-shore-curse-why-mtvs-smart-new-show-is-probably-doomed/263646/

OCT 15 2012, 4:40 PM ET
Underemployed is the network's best scripted drama in years, but the
channel's fixation on increasingly outlandish reality TV may have
killed audience appetite for programs like it.

Ever since Lena Dunham's Girls premiered to the alternately rapturous
and outraged reactions upon which zeitgeists are made, networks have
been scrambling to find "a voice of a generation" of their own. Just
last week, Comedy Central ordered a pilot of Broad City, a comedy web
series about a pair of friends trying to make it in New York. A few
days later, NBC announced plans to develop a sitcom based on the
Tumblr blog "Fuck! I'm in My Twenties." But MTV must have worked fast:
Its version, Underemployed, premieres Tuesday night.

The comedic drama follows five college friends' post-collegiate lives
in Chicago, playing up the incompatibility between these creative
types' lofty ambitions and the bleak career prospects that now await
most newly graduated humanities majors. A bookish and sexually
innocent academic achiever takes a job in a doughnut shop, complete
with a humiliating doughnut-shaped beret. An idealistic
conservationist must beg his polluting businessman father for a
corporate job after his ex-girlfriend surfaces, nine months pregnant
with his baby. Glossier and more self-serious than Girls,
Underemployed's warmhearted portrayal of these characters and their
relationships (not to mention its appreciably more diverse cast) makes
it more than just a crass attempt to cash in on TV's vogue for aimless
young adults flailing in urban settings.

As promising as the show is, though, it may already be doomed. Drama
series have long been a dicey proposition for MTV, and most of its
recent attempts at scripted programming that aims to realistically
portray young people lives' haven't fared well. Although Underemployed
could turn out to be an anomaly like Awkward, a remarkably smart and
punchy teen comedy that will air its third season in 2013, its
earnestness may consign it to a fate more similar to last year's
notorious flop, Skins. The heavily hyped American adaptation of a
risqué British teen drama generated plenty of controversy but couldn't
attract enough viewers to survive past its first season. I Just Want
My Pants Back, which followed the personal and professional lives of
20-somethings in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, suffered from a similar lack
of interest.

Conservative critics see no difference between these shows and Jersey
Shore or The Real World, characterizing all of the above as morally
bankrupt depictions of debauched youth. In fact, the Parents
Television Council's campaigns against MTV reality shows look
downright tame in comparison to its outrage at Skins, which it branded
"the most dangerous television show for children that we have ever
seen." But in their outrage at any depiction of sex or drugs,
regardless of context, groups like the PTC miss the truly worrisome
difference between the network's scripted and unscripted series. Skins
took young people and their problems seriously, while Jersey Shore
positions its cast members as empty-headed clowns. In yet another of
so-called reality TV's many ironies, MTV's alarmingly unrealistic
reality programming has so fully imposed its hard-partying, fist-
pumping, ambition-free vision of youth that it's turned its entire
audience away from more universal teen and young-adult narratives of
self-discovery. After years of watching famous-for-being-famous
alcoholics fight and hook up outside the context of any significant
storylines or stakes, MTV's viewers seem to have become unreceptive to
multilayered characters whose struggles bear more resemblance to their
own.

This youth-culture identity crisis has, of course, been a long time
coming. It's just taken MTV's renewed enthusiasm for scripted series
to reveal the extent to which an endless supply of exploitative
reality programming has shaped its audience's tastes.


Although it's impossible to pinpoint when exactly MTV's portrayal of
teens and 20-somethings shifted from insightful and sympathetic to
frivolous, the fall 2003 premiere of Rich Girls is an important
moment. The year after the network set Daria Morgendorffer and Jane
Lane free from high school, it introduced us to a new pair of
teenagers: Tommy Hilfiger's daughter Ally and her best friend, Jaime
Gleicher. Their real-life social schemes and privileged problems
didn't provide much action, and Rich Girls only aired 10 episodes, but
the combination of fascination and derision its characters inspired
became a staple of MTV reality shows.

The very next year, the network returned with Laguna Beach, a sort of
Rich Girls set in Orange County, with a larger cast and contrived
storylines that yielded more drama. This time, the bratty characters,
their petty infighting, and their hedonistic nights out went over big.
Laguna Beach went on to spawn The Hills and The City, making tabloid
superstars (and multimillion dollar brands) out of each show's stars.
By the winter of 2005, it shared a network with My Super Sweet 16,
perhaps the most horrifying accidental critique of one-percenter
excess and the Millennial generation's entitlement to date.

It wasn't just the new shows that reflected MTV's shifting approach.
The network's long-running reality series stayed relevant by changing
the way they selected and depicted their cast members. The Real World
was never conceived of as highbrow entertainment, but its truly
experimental early years got viewers talking about race, sexuality,
and the AIDS crisis. In an interview that appears in Craig Marks and
Rob Tannenbaum's I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music
Video Revolution, Season 1 housemate Kevin Powell recalled his on-
screen confrontation with Julie Stoffer about racism. "People have
told me that was the first time they'd ever seen race talked about in
that way on national television," he said. "People have written
dissertations on our argument." Now approaching its 28th season, the
show has devolved into one long, intoxicated screaming match, and its
cast members' preoccupations are rarely more serious than The
Situation's. As former MTV VJ Dave Holmes put it in the same book,
"Have you seen the first season of The Real World lately? It seems
like a fucking Ken Burns documentary from today's perspective."

The documentary series True Life, meanwhile, has become a strange and
uneven amalgam of the old and new MTV. In its first season, which
aired in 1998, the episode about gay teen Matthew Shepard's murder won
a GLAAD Award for Outstanding TV Journalism. To its credit, True Life
hasn't entirely stopped exploring serious issues that affect MTV's
audience. In the past year it's given us episodes called "I'm
Occupying Wall Street" and "I'm Working My Way Out of Poverty." The
difference is that now those reports have to share the True Life name
with such daytime talk show-ready topics as "I Have a Hot Mom" and
"I'm Giving My Boyfriend an Ultimatum."

But no other show illustrates the contrast between how MTV approaches
its audience now and the way it spoke to the same demographic in the
'90s than Beavis and Butt-Head. When the network resurrected it last
year, critics lamented that, while the characters were as
entertainingly dimwitted and perverse as ever, we had to watch them
heckle MTV reality shows instead of music videos. They joked that the
new Beavis and Butt-Head were smarter and more self-aware than the
subjects of their mockery.

This complaint is a variation on the decade-old gripe that there's no
music on "Music Television" anymore. But what it reveals is far more
depressing than that refrain, which distracts from criticism of what
is on MTV by fixating on what isn't. So many of us used to laugh at
this pathetic twosome as they misunderstood the Sonic Youth videos we
loved. In their current incarnation, they mirror that very mix of
fascination and derision we feel towards the silly shows we can't stop
watching. Take away the nasal chuckles, and their jabs at Jersey Shore
and Teen Mom could come out of our own mouths. Now that watching MTV
has made us all into Beavis and Butt-Head, it's no wonder we don't
have the imagination or attention span for the network's attempts at
realistic, character-driven drama.

RichA

unread,
Nov 29, 2012, 11:12:10 PM11/29/12
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Never have so many words been wasted on so much crap.

Barb May

unread,
Nov 30, 2012, 1:08:08 PM11/30/12
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RichA wrote:
> Never have so many words been wasted on so much crap.

Present company excepted...
--
Barb


RedBlade7

unread,
Dec 1, 2012, 10:28:13 PM12/1/12
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On Thu, 29 Nov 2012 18:20:29 -0800, TMC wrote:

>
> But no other show illustrates the contrast between how MTV approaches
> its audience now and the way it spoke to the same demographic in the
> '90s than Beavis and Butt-Head. When the network resurrected it last
> year, critics lamented that, while the characters were as entertainingly
> dimwitted and perverse as ever, we had to watch them heckle MTV reality
> shows instead of music videos. They joked that the new Beavis and
> Butt-Head were smarter and more self-aware than the subjects of their
> mockery.
>

I didn't care that they were condescending on the MTV reality shows.
Maybe because I hate them so much and didn't really care what they said.

And the writing staff for the new B&B got the classic formula to work
again and could have kept the show going. Wikipedia says "on hiatus" last
I checked but that claim doesn't seem to be sourced anywhere. Would like
to have more new B&Bs.

--

Red Blade

President of alt.politics, alt.fan.rush-limbaugh, & talk.politics.misc
Fanfiction Committee Chairman of alt.tv.beavis-n-butthead

http://www.libertycolumns.com/
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