Matilda Dixon-Smith: Is MTV Secretly The Home of Badass Television?

Posted on February 18, 2013


I’m as surprised as you are that MTV is producing quality scripted television. Look, I get it; it’s hard to believe. Let’s just do this thing where we close our eyes and pretend that the US Skins never happened, that no one tried to remake The Inbetweeners, that Jersey Shore doesn’t exist.  If you can forget all that, then maybe you’re ready to get down with three of the boldest, most flat-out entertaining shows I watched in 2012.

IT’s clear MTV has a bad habit of producing shoddy remakes of things that already exist and totally don’t need a remake. Something that already existed and totally didn’t need a remake was the 1980s Michael J. Fox movie, Teen Wolf. You guys, I know. I know. We all laughed our collective asses off when we read that MTV was jumping on the supernatural teen drama bandwagon with a reboot of this. Well, I am swallowing my guffaws, and I’ll tell you what, they taste damn good and they also have glistening abs.

MTV’s “Teen Wolf”. Two seasons of glory, y’all.

Teen Wolf is smart and beautifully made; it is peppered with fantastic performances from fast-talking, dorky dreamboats (and when the performances are less fantastic, there are more glistening abs); but the absolute best thing about this show is that it has huge balls. In some ways it’s one of the bravest shows on television, because it’s not afraid to just own what it is—a sharp, sexy, terrifying, ridiculous teen soap. And that’s precisely what makes it brilliant.

Dopey, asthma-suffering Scott McCall (Tyler Posey) and his ADHD friend Stiles (Dylan O’Brien, International Treasure) are out looking for a dead body one night (like all normal kids do) when Scott is attacked by a wolf. The bite is one of those lose-the-glasses-gain-an-instant-hot-body-and-incredible-abilities bites. Scott is suddenly the star of the Lacrosse team, and apparently sexy enough to interest the new town hottie, Allison (Crystal Reed). But whoops, he’s also a murderous werewolf, with a scary new buddy, glowering town weirdo Derek Hale (Tyler Hoechlin—also a murderous werewolf). To add to the drama, new girlfriend Allison’s super intense parents (J.R. Bourne and Eaddie May) are werewolf hunters. I know, right? These kids and their darn bad luck! Shirtlessness, cattle-prod-related fighting and “Archaic Latin” ensue. And hijinks, so many hijinks.

The show has corset-tight storytelling; there’s strong purpose backed up by mind-bending mythology. Sure, there’s teenage nonsense and icky love stuff. But above all, it’s a touching exploration of friendship (made achingly clear with the introduction of Issac in season 2). It’s also horror story that’s not afraid to have a teenager climbing out his girlfriend’s bedroom in one scene, and a snake coming out of someone’s eye socket in the next. And it features possibly the first character on television who doesn’t give a crap about being a gay teenager; who is not only well-adjusted (all visiting gay bars and slammin’ hotties) but the most popular guy in school. AND NOBODY EVEN CARES BECAUSE THAT’S NORMAL. These are Teen Wolf’s massive balls—these progressive, fun, clever stories.

Series creator Jeff Davis cites Buffy The Vampire Slayer as a major influence, and there’s Joss Whedon-inspired stamps all over Teen Wolf. There’s a realm of cultural studies dedicated to Whedon’s Buffyverse, so when can I read a Teen Wolf thesis, damnit!?

MTV’s delightful “Awkward.”

Awkward, MTV’s exquisite teen comedy, may be a little less sexy, (although I could stand to see Beau Mirchoff take off his shirt a bunch more times) but it’s just as brilliant.

The series is a weird and wonderful look at high school through the eyes of Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards). In season one, Jenna achieves immediate notoriety when an accident in the bathroom is misconstrued as a suicide attempt. The accident is unfortunately timed, as it occurs right after Jenna has swiped her V-card with school heartthrob Matty (Beau Mirchoff) at summer camp. So when Jenna returns to school, battered and humiliated, it’s to find that Matty doesn’t want anything to do with her in public. On top of all that, someone’s sent Jenna a nasty letter (dubbed a ‘care-frontation’) detailing all the ways in which she is desperately uncool. Now Jenna must deal with her sudden notoriety; juggle the affections of cowardly but devastating Matty and sweet, dorky Jake (Brett Davern); and solve the mystery of ‘Who Sent the Letter?

Awkward shares a couple of traits with Teen Wolf. It is also tightly plotted and terrifically performed by young stars who, refreshingly, are both attractive and talented. The first season hammered from episode one to the startling revelation of episode twelve with impressive finesse. The discovery of who wrote the letter (I won’t spoil it) was one of those Lightbulb Moments, where you looked back and discovered that silly things (seemingly designed to made the show light and fun) were also valuable and important. Creator Lauren Iungerich ties Awkward’s wacky humour and delightfully satirical teenage world to the story’s strong message and its big heart.

Once you move past Jenna’s corny voiceover, you appreciate Rickards’ pointed comedic timing; and then tender moments with her are utterly heartbreaking. Mirchoff also gets his time to shine in season 2, while Jillian Rose Reed’s Tamara—so fabulous in season one—wears thin in the sophomore outing. The creators know what their audience is after, so a lot of the action is centred on the dreaded Love Triangle. But even that is done with so much style; the idea of Jenna choosing one of these boys represents an important step of self-discovery and maturation. What’s most important is not the chosen boy—although both are gorgeous—it is Jenna’s increased understanding of herself and what she wants.

It’s an impressive, outrageously funny series—even after its major stumble at the end of season 2. It’s really a contemporary screwball comedy, and it takes after timeless rom-coms like It Happened One Night and A Philadelphia Story. But (appropriately for MTV) gone is the black-and-white, and what replaces it is a vibrant splash of technicolour.

MTV’s P.Y.T. cast, in “Underemployed”.

Last on my “MTV’s Greatest Hits 2012” list is a fledgling series about twentysomethings, one which strongly resembles the group it is trying to animate. Underemployed can be patchy: sometimes it’s self-indulgent, or overly sentimental, and often it reaches too high. It’s a lot like the way everyone’s always describing Gen Y—a little self-centred and lazy, and a lot idealistic. And that is why it’s perfect.

Underemployed follows five Chicago-dwelling hipsters (replete with their inconceivable spacious lofts, ombre hair and inappropriate midriff tops) through the trials of post-College existence. Sophia (Michelle Ang), the show’s sometimes-narrator, is a struggling writer who works at a trendy doughnut shop, and spouts insipid Carrie Bradshaw-style reflections and witticisms; Raviva (Inbar Lavi) is the sassy, motor-mouthed struggling musician and part-time bartender; Lou (Jared Kusnitz) is her boyfriend, the environmental sap forced into a soulless corporate job (though it’s possible he could save the planet simply by reducing the amount of pomade he slaps onto his revoltingly over-gelled coif); Miles (Diego Boneta) is the sexy wannabe model who moonlights as a cater-waiter; and gorgeous, bubbly Daphne (Sarah Habel) is the only conceivably successful member of the gang—a junior executive at a swanky ad agency (who is in danger of getting in over her head with her hot boss). When Raviva  shows up at Lou’s pregnant, things start to change very quickly for the gang.

Despite the cheap melodrama of the baby, and the romantic entanglement between Daphne and her boss, for the most part Underemployed is a pretty accurate representation of the trendy young thang lifestyle. Sure, it doesn’t have the gritty “realism” or the artistic merit of Girls, but then Girls isn’t very real either. Both shows are an over-blown depiction of some twentysomething lifestyles, and Underemployed has its merits. For starters, it’s a sweet show, where friendship is paramount, and selfish behaviour is rooted out and punished. And, much like Teen Wolf, Underemployed practices diversity without making a big deal out of it. MTV seems to understand that weaving sexual and ethnic diversity into the fabric of your series, not monopolising on it for drama’s sake (or excluding it) reaches audiences with much greater success.

Some of it is a little sickly—and Raviva’s pigheadedness and Lou’s weaselly nature do wear thin on occasion—but it’s such good fun (and Miles and Daphne are so damn attractive), it hardly matters. It’s a show that commands respect because it’s endearingly earnest, and it tries so hard to  connect meaningfully with it’s target audience.

So, before you diss a show that sports the MTV logo, take a closer look. It might just be the refreshing, tender, glorious thing you were looking for.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is You’re Dripping Egg’s editor-in-chief. Her column, Fantasise or Perish, which she refuses to cut down (because she’s the editor-in-chief . . . and she can), talks TV every Monday. 

What do you think of these MTV shows? Are you a fan, or would you rather be watching HBO?