It's no longer news that MTV long ago abandoned music programming in favor of low-cost/high-trash reality shows like Buckwild and Jersey Shore. But a more recent, and more troubling, development is MTV's dramatic plunge down the social ladder. Shows like Buckwild, 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom, and Catfish are a part of a new generation of MTV programming that focuses — uncritically — on the lives of young people whose ambitions and opportunities are severely constrained by geography, social class, and dysfunctional families. And these shows are popular: In its first season, which concluded in February, Buckwild was the No. 1 show on cable with viewers between the ages of 12 and 34 — the prime MTV demographic.
But now Buckwild and the network are in an unwelcome spotlight. Yesterday, authorities fished the body of Shain Gandee, the 21-year-old star of Buckwild, out of a Ford Bronco had that crashed into a mudhole in Sissonvile, West Virginia. Gandee, his uncle, and a third man died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to the Bronco's muffler being submerged under the bog.
Gandee was the breakout personality in a show chronicling the exploits of a group of young adults growing up in Sissonville, and had described himself on camera as a "redneck MacGyver" for his ingenuity at finding big thrills in a small town. Cameras followed along as Gandee and his friends went off-roading, mudding, and squirrel hunting.
Gandee's exploits were a far cry from 1990s MTV reality shows like the The Real World, which were more aspirational. Always set in a major metropolitan area, The Real World typically featured a multi-racial cast with characters pulled from all parts of the country — and the small-town boy or girl was inevitably the foil for the more cosmopolitan crew. In the early days, every cast comprised of a group of young adults with big dreams of being actors, models, writers, or rockers. (And let us never forget the London cast, which had low drama but featured an aspiring race car driver, a techno noise musician, and a playwright.) Through social tensions and house meetings, each season would end with the group melding together, wherein the more urbane cast members would learn to be more compassionate of small-town American citizens, while the yokel would learn how to embrace the rainbow riot of city life (I most often think of John, the virgin from Kentucky, and Irene, the deputy marshal from Real World: Los Angeles). Granted, this story line was always a little corny, and the shows proved to be more popular when people were triple kissing in hot tubs than earnestly dialoging on socially relevant issues — but, they tried.
The shift in programming started after the popularity of Jackass, which was broadcast from 2000 to 2002. No doubt, there was a gleeful nihilism to the Dogtown ethos of watching apolitical skater guys body slam themselves against a wall of nails, and there was a certain delightful absurdity to the pointless stunts and phrases like "Hi, I'm Johnny Knoxville, and this is poo cocktail!" But both audience members and a naked Bam Margera were in on the joke.
Now, the giddy abandon of Jackass has morphed into the fatalism of downwardly working-class kids being put on camera so the audience can slum it. Watching shows like Buckwild, it's impossible to shake the omnipresent sense that if the cameras weren't turned on, these would be lives we'd run away from.
Even when MTV pandered to greater class aspirations of its viewers by touring the lavish mansions of celebrities on Cribs or filming inside the extravagant Sweet 16 parties of petulant teenagers, or following Lauren Conrad (The Hills, Laguna Beach) from her tony beach-city life to her time working for Teen Vogue, there was a continual sense that the viewer was witnessing something grander than their lives.
But now it's all much bleaker. We've entered an American Gothic world of cramped one-bedroom apartments belonging to pregnant 16-year-olds and the sickly lit trailers of pathological liars (Catfish). We go inside the Rust Belt homes where single moms raise their kids without support and to Sissonville, where the best gig in town is working at a spark plug factory.
What's more, it's not like MTV is incapable of taking the issues of addiction, teen pregnancy, poverty, casual sex, and binge drinking seriously. Their long-running (and excellent) documentary series True Life gave all these issues the gravitas and serious thought they deserve. But these new shows exploit as they sanitize. Buckwild cast member Salwa Amin has pending felony charges for heroin and oxycodone possession with intent to distribute, and last week on Teen Mom 2, cast member Janelle got into a blowout with her mother because she wanted to smoke weed with her friends rather than babysit her own kid (whom she does not have custody of). On Monday, a promo for Teen Mom 2 on MTV's website asked, "To baby sit or blaze?" That's not a real question. That's a punch line.