In its ongoing effort to become a full-service network that only occasionally shows ancient Whitesnake videos, MTV hatched The Real World, a documentary series that will begin its third year of following a group of camera-conscious roommates — this time in San Francisco — on June 23. The channel has also launched a sketch-comedy series, The State, which apes the sporadically funny Kids in the Hall while being significantly less than sporadically funny. (New, and possibly improved, editions of The State will start airing in July.)
Indeed, aside from Beavis and Butt-head — now such a pervasive cultural icon as to be utterly irrelevant — laughs are at a premium on MTV. Until recently, only the channel’s contribution to the talk genre, The Jon Stewart Show, could be relied upon for a few good chuckles. But no new editions of Stewart are in production right now, and it seems likely that this amiable joker’s status as front-runner to replace Arsenio Hall in syndication will soon have him taking his chuckles elsewhere.
MTV recently picked up a cartoon series, Rocko’s Modern Life, from sister station Nickelodeon in an apparent attempt to lure Beavis and Butt-head fans to a new fount of vulgarity. This show about an Australian wallaby arriving in America is, however, little more than a witless rip-off of Ren & Stimpy: mucus jokes without the redeeming surrealism or contempt for authority.
All of which brings us to MTV’s latest, and in some ways most successful, variation on conventional television — its version of an action-adventure series: Dead at 21. The premise is simultaneously cornball and convoluted. Twenty-year-old Ed Bellamy (Jack Noseworthy) discovers that when he was a baby, scientists used him in an experiment, implanting in his brain microchips that make you really smart. But, as someone explains, ”by the time you’re 21, your brain waves get too intense; you can’t take it anymore, so you die.” As Snoop Doggy Dogg music thumps in the background, Ed and his girlfriend, Maria (Lisa Dean Ryan, of Doogie Howser, M.D.), try to track down the scientists who did this to him. Oh, and Ed is being chased by a stubbly-faced fellow (Whip Hubley) with a big gun who says he’s a government agent, but may just be a bad guy.
Dead at 21 is exactly the right length — just 30 minutes — and it features all the quick cuts and jangled editing we’d expect from a project designed to hold the attention of MTV’s audience of Pearl Jam fans. The dialogue is lame, but Noseworthy is a lissome hunk, and the subtext of the series — when you move out of your teens, your head hurts, and maybe it’s better to die — plays brilliantly to the adolescent self-absorption of the MTV audience. Sure beats watching John Norris.
Veejay Norris, the scariest dresser in video culture, is a regular contributor to MTV’s most familiar nonvideo programming, the MTV News spots sprinkled throughout the programming day and The Week in Rock. Ever since the last presidential election catapulted coanchor Tabitha Soren to Pale White Embodiment of Her Generation, it has been tempting to dismiss MTV News as bleeding-heart journalism with its eye on record-company advertising money, but this is mostly a bad rap. Soren probably has more hard-news integrity than any local-news anchor in the country, and if she kisses up to the occasional rock star interviewee, her buttering up Evan Dando is a lot more harmless than Ted Koppel’s fawning over Henry Kissinger.
As befits a channel that prizes personality over content, MTV News is mighty lucky to have anchor-writer Kurt Loder — Edward R. Murrow in a black turtleneck. Over the years, Loder’s initially taciturn camera presence has mellowed into a witty drollness. Increasingly, Loder doesn’t bother with the TV-news pose of objectivity; his reports on youth culture-student protests, AIDS research, government policy decisions relevant to MTV’s demographic as well as music-related items-are laced with wry commentary and pointed criticisms. Curt Kurt exists to refute the premise of Dead at 21. Your brain doesn’t have to collapse even when you’re well beyond legal age. Dead at 21: B+