It Still Stings: When MTV Pivoted Back to Reality, Leaving Faking It and Sweet/Vicious Behind

RIP all you ambitious, late-2010s MTV Originals. You met the moment, even if the moment didn’t meet you.

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It Still Stings: When MTV Pivoted Back to Reality, Leaving <i>Faking It</i> and <i>Sweet/Vicious</i> Behind

Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our new feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:

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In July of 2016, right as MTV was hitting a creative sweet spot with shows like Awkward., Teen Wolf, Faking It, and Scream, Viacom tapped VH1/Logo President Chris McCarthy for MTV’s top executive gig.

With a background that included training at Drexel as an industrial engineer, co-creating CMT’s singing competition hit Going Country (with Jeff Probst!) and hawking mtvU credit cards to unsuspecting college students, McCarthy might have cut an unlikely savior figure at the time. But by every quantifiable measure, tasking him with a whole network rebrand was maybe the smartest move Viacom (now ViacomCBS) could have made. To hear the trades tell it, in fact, McCarthy’s savvy decision-making took MTV from ratings deathbed to digital dominance almost overnight. “The impact he has had on the business has happened faster than most people would have thought,” a media analyst from Jefferies told Forbes in a 2018 piece profiling McCarthy’s incredible success. And all it cost? The shuttering of the network’s entire scripted originals division.

I’m still mad about it.

Look, I’m no Wharton grad, but even I can understand that the numbers Forbes reported in that same 2018 profile—the network’s ratings having dropped nearly 50% in the core 18-49 demographic in the five years leading up to 2016, during which period its operating revenue fell more than 17%—were bad. I can also understand that increasing revenue by $1.2 billion by the end of 2017, and then going from No. 6 in the 18-49 demographic in 2016 to No. 1 in 2019, were good. But what I can’t countenance—as a fan of, you know, art—is the fact that, to get to that point, McCarthy had MTV pivot away from what had become a genuine hotbed of ambitious, teen-focused storytelling, and to… a reboot of the Jersey Shore franchise. Followed by Floribama Shore. Followed by Siesta Key. Followed by Ex on the Beach.

“Our DNA is the unscripted space,” McCarthy explained. “And for me it’s like, all right, what’s already working? And then how do we actually take it to the next level.”

“When Chris started at MTV, he came to the same conclusion I had when I ran International—unscripted programming is at the heart of MTV,” Viacom’s CEO Bob Bakish told Forbes next. “So he repurposed money that had been used on more expensive scripted programming and started spending it on unscripted programming, producing more hours of content that is consistent with what the audience wants.”

Excuse me while I go scream into a pillow!!!!

Speaking of Scream, this absolutely gonzo 2015 “Killer Party” promo for the slasher franchise spin-off might just be the best example of the stylish ambition everyone in that scripted programming department was spending MTV’s money on shortly before McCarthy came aboard:

A slow tracking shot moves its way through a warmly appointed SoCal bungalow filled with the campily bloody bodies of the network’s hottest scripted series stars, the eerie strains of Rilo Kiley’s “It Just Is” playing in the background. Here’s Awkward’s Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards), her throat slit clean across, staring at nothing as she bleeds out. Here’s Faking It’s Amy Raudenfeld (Rita Volk), sprawled in a papasan chair, her chest a bloody mess. Here are Teen Wolf’s Lydia Martin (Holland Rosen) and Scott McCall (Tyler Posey), the former leaning like a gory portrait against the glass patio door, a hatchet buried in her clavicle, the latter caught like a deer in the wolfy headlights, a butcher’s knife buried in his temple.

Of course, here, too, are Ridiculousness stars Steelo Brim and Chanel West Coast, and The Challenge mainstay Johnny “Bananas,” representatives of the unscripted programming MTV hadn’t ever let go of, even in its scripted heyday. But that doesn’t distract from the point. If anything, it adds to it—in 2015, the MTV brand was about trying to meet teen and twentysomething audiences on every creative level. Here you’ve got your sharply drawn, progressive social satires (Awkward., Faking It); here, your campy supernatural horror drama that’s secretly about male friendship and not so secretly about lacrosse (Teen Wolf); here, your cult-favorite reality competition series (The Challenge) and clip/comedy shows (Ridiculousness, Wild ’n Out). Between MTV’s near-total brand awareness in the American pop culture psyche (98%, per McCarthy) and the creative latitude given to scripted series showrunners like Jeff Davis, Lauren Iungerich, Terri Minsky, Carter Covington, and Jenn Kaytin Robinson, MTV from 2011-2017 felt like a real model for what a modern, 360-degree youth-oriented network could be.

You want it all? You can have it all!

This isn’t to say that every show MTV greenlit was great—I mean, I love Teen Wolf, and even I’m happy to admit that as much as I enjoyed every minute of Scott’s puppy dog idiocy, Stiles’ slapstick genius, and Lydia’s general superiority in all things, the storytelling was… bad. But in terms of style, ambition and sheer cultural coverage, MTV’s mid-2010s game was hard to beat. Honestly, even today, The CW and Freeform wish they could be what MTV was in its scripted originals glory days.

Of course, it’s the nature of TV shows to come to an end, just as it’s the nature of entertainment brands to evolve. And anyway, just because we lost the entire MTV Originals department in 2017 (after Jenn Kaytin Robinson’s sensational anti-rape-culture action comedy, Sweet/Vicious, took its final bow), that doesn’t mean we lost the ambitious Teen TV future they laid the groundwork for. I mean, sure, here at the start of 2021 in a streaming landscape replete with woke Saved by the Bell, voraciously queer 19th-century poets, and whatever it is Euphoria keeps insisting on doing, the premises of MTV’s short slate of scripted series might sound like par for the Teen TV course, but that’s only because, half a decade ago, the network let its scripted division take some enormous creative swings. Honestly, between the groundbreaking teen titles that various ex-MTV showrunners have gone on to helm (Andi Mack, On My Block), the cult-favorite teen titles that various ex-MTV leads have gone on to star in (Katie Stevens, Aisha Dee in The Bold Type, Alex Saxon in Nancy Drew), and the absolute tidal wave of audacious teen titles that have hit just about every streaming platform since 2016 (Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, The Society and Daybreak; Prime Video’s The Wilds; Hulu’s Marvel’s Runaways and Love, Victor; YouTube Premium’s Impulse and Wayne), Teen TV in 2021 can draw a bright, shining line straight back to MTV circa 2011-2017.

And yet, I’m mad. Because not only did Chris McCarthy cut MTV’s hemorrhaging scripted originals division off at the knees, but ViacomCBS has gone on to make it *nearly impossible* to enjoy the majority of the cast-off shows that move left in its wake. Sure, you can watch Awkward. on Hulu; yes, you can binge Teen Wolf on Prime Video; fine, you can stream The Shannara Chronicle on Tubi TV. But the rest? Finding Carter, Eye Candy, Scream, Faking It, Sweet/Vicious? You could pay for every streaming subscription in the country, and you still couldn’t access a single one of them. (Editor’s Note: To say nothing of 2015’s forgotten nostalgia gem for the 20-something crowd, Hindsight, starring Sarah Goldberg who is now on HBO’s Barry.)

That’s right! In the year of our Streaming Overlords, 2021, an entire swathe of critically well-received, recent programming is just… unavailable. I mean, sure, you could buy any of them—$2.99 per episode, via iTunes, YouTube or Prime Video, or $24.99 for a whole season. But calling them up through an existing subscription to Netflix (which McCarthy tapped to run Paramount Network’s Emily in Paris, and which recently got the rights to ViacomCBS properties Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra), or Prime (which has been a solid home for Teen Wolf), or even the umbrella corporation’s own streamer, CBS All Access? Forget about it. No MTV Originals for MTV has come to mean no MTV Originals for anyone.

And forgive me, but that sucks. That sucks! There is no reason for a single one of those shows not to have a streaming license somewhere. Moreover, the fact that I can’t evangelize for new viewers to pick up Faking It, the painfully sharp social satire from Carter Covington, Dana Goodman and Julia Lea Wolov about a pair of best friends who pretend to be girlfriends to scheme their way into popularity at their hyper-progressive Austin high school, or Sweet/Vicious, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s audaciously black action comedy about a sorority girl and a stoner queen teaming up to take toxic rape culture head on, masked vigilante-style, is a pop culture travesty. Each of those shows are easily Top 10 Teen TV material, deserving both of constant rediscovery, and of prompting semi-regular bursts of social media Discourse—two things, not for nothing, that ViacomCBS’s The Legend of Korra has repeatedly benefitted from since being added to Netflix for the first time last summer.

For now, though, all I can do is point would-be fans to this, the first nine minutes of Sweet/Vicious, which MTV has at least been gracious enough to leave up on their YouTube channel since 2016:

And this even shorter clip from the first season of Faking It, which demonstrates in a few brief minutes the tone of a nearly perfect show literally no one without a bottomless digital media budget can be inspired to start watching:

Did I mention that all of this, it still stings? Because man, it stings.

Faking It, Sweet/Vicious, Eye Candy, Finding Carter and Scream are available for purchase (and for purchase only) on YouTube, iTunes, and Prime Video. The Shannara Chronicles, Teen Wolf and Awkward., at least, are available streaming on Tubi TV, Prime Video and Hulu, respectively. The Challenge still airs 1000% of the time on terrestrial MTV, like it has since 1992, and like it probably will for the rest of time.



Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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