MTV turns 30 on Monday, and while that’s usually an age where we stop being childish and start getting down to business, the channel’s focus remains where it has always been: on the interests and preoccupations of those in their teens and twenties.
While it started out as simply a place to watch music videos, little by little MTV added series to the mix – mostly just video-based shows at first, then news, then game shows, and finally reality shows, which is pretty much all MTV does these days. In honor of the big 3-0, here’s my list of the top ten series in MTV history, presented in no particular order.
Punk’d: Don’t laugh! This was an amusing show that was likely underrated because of the involvement of Ashton Kutcher. The premise was simple but effective: a Candid Camera knockoff which put celebrities in embarrassing or awkward situations as a practical joke. Highlights included a teenage Hilary Duff cursing when a driving lesson went badly awry, and (most memorably) Justin Timberlake going into an epic meltdown when a fake IRS unit arrived to confiscate his possessions on the grounds that he owed back taxes. A key member of Kutcher’s repertory company in the early days was Dax Shepard, who is currently proving he can really act on Parenthood.
120 Minutes: Back when it was still predominantly a music-oriented channel, MTV had numerous shows devoted to particular genres, and 120 Minutes was the best of them. Airing late on Sunday nights, it turned the spotlight on alternative rock, a term never easy to define except that it lacked obvious commercial appeal, as well as the hairsprayed look common in mainstream American rock of the 1980s. There wasn’t much to the show other than videos, but in the pre YouTube days, it represented the first time that many great artist got any sort of wide exposure.
Beavis and Butt-head: Mike Judge’s sense of humor isn’t for everyone, and the animation in this wasn’t much better than I could manage. But beneath the sophomoric humor was a clever takedown of some of the day’s bigger video artists, mixed in with some oddball supporting characters and even the occasional bit of social commentary (the duo’s hippie teacher was a dead-on satire of a specific type, as anyone who was in school in the 1970s like Judge would instantly recognize). The stars of the show may have been idiots, but their intuition about which artists were cool and which sucked was almost 100 percent accurate.
The Osbournes (Season One): The series became impossibly fake and scripted after the first season – that is, once everyone on it realized they were now TV stars and that the audience had certain expectations for them. But in its first season in 2002, The Osbournes was a sensation and deservedly so, portraying rock’s aging Prince of Evil as an addled family man along the lines of every sitcom dad of the last 60 years. The show launched the reality show careers of daughter Kelly and (especially) wife Sharon, but more importantly, set the tone for the literally dozens of “celebrities at home” series that would follow.
Unplugged: Even in its early days, MTV never had a lot of use for videos from contemplative or non-edgy artists, but Unplugged provided the stars the chance to prove their serious musical cred in an intimate setting, with acoustic concerts before a small audience. The results were often interesting and even transformative. Leaving aside overproduced stunts such as what one sees as the VMAs, the best of the Unplugged shows stand out as the signature musical moments in MTV history. In the current era, where people have come to tolerate $100 tickets to watch performers who lip sync, it’s unclear if there is even an audience left for the notion of music in its most basic form.
The State: MTV’s tries at sketch comedy haven’t typically gone over well with viewers, but the best of them had a few loyal followers who are always pleased to find they aren’t alone. The State took its name from the troupe of young comedians that made up its cast. Like its just-as-ignored HBO contemporary Mr. Show, the sketches were way too strange and non-pandering to ever catch on with a mass audience, even during a time when MTV was more adventurous than it is today. Cast members have continued to work together on various projects such as Reno 911!; the best known member of the cast is probably Michael Ian Black.
The Jon Stewart Show: Stewart was a young comedian working stand-up in New York when he auditioned to host Late Night, a job that eventually went to Conan O’Brien. MTV offered him the opportunity to host a similar show, and even though young viewers typically aren’t thought of as big consumers of late night talk, Stewart did well for the channel in the brief time it aired the program (it eventually went into syndication). It didn’t have the political content Stewart would later become known for on The Daily Show, but it allowed him to develop his chops.
The Real World (1992-2000 or so): It’s been past its prime for the majority of its seasons on the air, but it’s almost impossible to overstate the influence of The Real World, which pioneered the evolution of MTV into a reality channel, and is the longest-running reality show, period. It was highly watchable and even thought-provoking in its first three seasons, and remained at least a guilty pleasure for several years after that, before drunkenness and brainlessness took over. As it comes up on its 20th anniversary, the early seasons now serve as a time capsule in a way that even the videos of the era can’t match. Yes, there are now Real World cast members in their forties in our midst.
Daria: It never had the cultural cachet of the show that spun it off, Beavis and Butt-head, but in its celebration of smart girls instead of dumb boys, it was more believably set in the real world, and remains a favorite of women to this day. In a television environment where teenagers who were “different” were invariably depicted as being paralyzed with anxiety by that knowledge, Daria was generally OK with it, taking pride in standing outside the crowd and seeming to take comfort in being sure that her time would come. The network that has given us Heidi Montag, Snooki, and Katy Perry really ought to try female intelligence again sometime.
Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes: Warhol was always interested in new media (does anyone doubt that were he still alive, he’d be tweeting away in his 80s?), so it wasn’t surprising that by 1985, he would want to be associated with the hot new cable channel, and that MTV would want to work with him. And who better to embody the MTV ethic of the disposable pop star than the man who predicted the era of the disposable celebrity? There wasn’t much to this show, which was basically a televised version of Warhol’s Interview magazine, but it might have amounted to something bigger had the artist not died suddenly in 1987. As it was, it was still pretty cool.