The original MTV generation, now cruising into middle age if they aren't there already, often complains that the channel isn't what it used to be -- not enough music, too many shallow kids on reality shows. To some extent, it's they who have changed and not MTV, which is always going to follow (and create) youth trends.
But something strange happened last month: the debut of the first MTV show in years that is more likely to be appreciated by the parents of the channel's usual target demographic than by teens themselves. The high school newspaper staffers that make up the cast of The Paper are recognizably kids, with their petty jealousies, cliques, and insecurities, but the show presents a much more realistic preview of what the wider world of work is like than does The Hills, with its socialite magazine "interns."
The Paper is set at the enormous Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla. Journalism is apparently a huge deal there; the school paper, The Circuit, has nearly 70 people working on it in some capacity. The school year is just now ending, but The Paper comes to an end on Monday with back-to-back episodes.
The main ongoing conflict of the show was set up in its premiere episode, set at the end of the 2006-07 school year, when four juniors vied to be named editor-in-chief for the coming year. The winner was copy editor Amanda, the sort of theatrical and ultra-prepared girl who you remember from high school as the one whose best friends were the teachers. Even in the adult workplace, there is always going to be tension when a person is elevated into a position of responsibility over former peers, and while The Paper never lets viewers forget these are still kids, the conflicts in the little newsroom often seem like sneak previews of what these students will face over the remainder of their lives.
The three also-rans for the editor-in-chief post dealt with the disappointment in different ways. A girl named Giana, egged on by her boyfriend, made no attempt to hide her hostility and ended up as the ringleader of an openly disrespectful clique. Advertising manager Adam, a first-class eccentric who was named the school's "Most Dramatic" and reacted to the news by pitching a fit of protest, threw potshots behind Amanda's back but didn't do much to undermine her on the job. A boy named Alex is in the most ambivalent position; as both the runner-up for the editor-in-chief title and as a friend of Amanda's going back years, he resents having her in a supervisory position but seems to be uncomfortable listening to the worst of the sniping about her. With his iffy complexion, his shambling speech, and his visible tug-of-war between going with the crowd and sticking up for his unpopular boss, Alex is the most stereotypically "teenage" of the kids.
The portrayal of Amanda has evolved as the season has progressed. Early on, she seemed overly mannered and self-important (she's an actress as well as a journalist), and the fact that she celebrated winning editor-in-chief by getting a summer nose job didn't help. But while she at first came across as needing a lot of work on her people skills and as uncertain about the right way to lead, recent weeks have shown her making an effort but not being met anything close to halfway by her main enemies.
What's most likable about Amanda -- aside from the fact that even with the new nose there just aren't many girls who look like her on MTV -- is that she's unapologetic about wielding power, and doesn't put boys at the center of her world. Where most teenage girls in pop culture would react to being ostracized by playing down their intelligence, Amanda knows she's good and is proud of it. She's not a machine -- you can tell she's bothered by the disrespect and the chatter behind her back -- but Amanda is willing to stick up for herself when she believes she's right.
Since the season finale (MTV is casting for future seasons, presumably at a different school) won't deal with graduation or any other natural end point, we can assume that the final episode will either find Amanda asserting her authority once and for all, or being overcome by the petty nitpicking. Like most teen misfits, she's almost certain to find more kindred spirits in college. Let's hope Amanda sticks with print journalism, which always needs good new blood, and doesn't get sucked into the reality TV maw -- because she's certainly memorable enough to get new offers.