Call me crazy, but when I tuned into MTV’s much-ballyhooed reboot of its iconic turn of the millennium music video countdown show Total Request Live on Monday, I expected there to be music videos. Or a countdown of some sort. At the very least some requests?
The frantic hour was the television equivalent of a strobe light, blinding viewers with nanosecond content that its unseasoned hosts couldn’t manage to keep up with, let alone anyone watching at home: A performance! Now 10 seconds of an interview! A game! A prayer! Back to the interview! Out to Times Square! Just kidding, back to the studio! A viral video! Ed Sheeran! Twerk on strangers! Should we do another prayer?
The premiere of this new, social-media age TRL unveiled a MTV populated by Vine stars, where music videos are watched on YouTube, and in which the teenagers in the TRL audience are experts at contouring and fashionable enough to star in their own videos—a far cry from the constellation of acne, rat’s nest of braces, and factory of Abercrombie t-shirts that defined the O.G. TRL aesthetic.
But the premiere didn’t just plant a flag in a New Age of MTV that has long evolved past the days of a countdown show that translated into album sales and stratospheric levels of celebrity for the Britney Spearses, Destiny Childs, and, yes, even Kid Rocks of a decade ago. It, to be honest, didn’t seem to even exist in the same universe in which I was watching it—and certainly not the same one in which the network was once the most influential cultural outlet for multiple generations.
Part of the awkwardness of Monday’s premiere was completely out of MTV’s control. The shooting in Las Vegas demanded to be addressed sensitively and compassionately. To ignore it in favor of a celebratory premiere episode would’ve been ghastly. But no one involved in this production seemed equipped to handle the tonal balance of acknowledging the tragedy and keeping up the energy of the show.
The day’s two main hosts, internet personalities DC Young Fly and Tamara Dhia, were far too inexperienced to juggle the tonal trickiness. DC Young Fly, seemingly cast by a producer who finds the work of Chris Tucker to be too subtle and subdued, could barely grab control of his manic energy long enough to properly articulate earnest well-wishes to the victims.
Throwing the duties over to DJ Khaled, who was introduced as a “godfather of TRL” and was tasked with speaking spiritually about the state of the country, proved disastrous. He called for a moment of silence twice, once so suddenly that it came off as if he was chastising the rowdy young crowd, all dutifully screaming hysterically as instructed for every other moment of the show. Once they finally hushed for his sermon, Khaled deemed it time for them to shriek their positivity again. Cheer for the brand new studio, Young Fly commands! No, stop! Khaled is going to speak again about love.
The poor teens had a look of sheer panic on their faces, especially when there seemed to be confusion over whether Khaled or Young Fly was supposed to speak further on the Vegas incident, leading to a solid minute of painful dead airtime.
In fact, there were at least four times when the cameras weren’t in the right place, guests weren’t ready to come out, hosts didn’t have microphones, and these young VJs stood staring at the camera like deers in headlights. Heeding driver’s safety protocol when it comes to deer collisions, the barrelling mess of an episode ran right over them.
There was a lot of hoopla leading up Monday’s premiere about the ways in which this new TRL would evolve the tenets of what made the original TRL work. “TRL was social media before there was social media,” Albert Lewitinn, MTV’s head of live programming, told Wired last week.
The show would produce buzzy, celebrity-driven moments. Kids watching after school would call their friends to debrief about it, and continue the conversation at lunch the next day. It was “going viral” before that was even a concept. In the age of Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and a constant loop of peer communication and internet virality, the new TRL would somehow deconstruct those very concepts.
Instead we get Migos performing a song that was so bleeped I initially thought the fire alarm was going off in my building, one of the stars of Riverdale informing us she’s not allowed to talk about the new season, and a “content curator” named Liza Koshy running around Times Square asking people to twerk with her. At some point a little girl who rapped “Bodak Yellow” in a viral video came on. That was cute.
It’s too cliché and grumpy-old-man of us to bemoan how different this show is from the original TRL. But it would be easier to not be offended at how grossly it fails to replicate any of the fabric of what made it work if it wasn’t so ill-cast and disastrously produced and directed.
One hour with DC Young Fly, Tamara Dhia, and Liza Koshy was downright exhausting.
They’re in stark contrast to the hosts of yesteryear—Carson Daly, Ananda Lewis, Dave Holmes, Bryan McFadden, Lala Anthony, Hilarie Burton, Sway—who were so muted in their energy and in calm control of the dizzying proceedings that they would at times, especially in Daly’s case, earn a reputation for being bored. They had an “over it” breeziness that projected confidence, whereas the rampant skittishness and high-pitched, to the point of nearly unintelligible, vivacity of the new hosts verged on completely off-putting.
And perhaps there’s no better signal for how much MTV has changed than how the news about Tom Petty’s cardiac arrest and dire prognosis broke while TRL was airing, yet the show never once interrupted to report it. There was a time when MTV, through TRL and MTV News, would have led the reporting on a music legend’s health, not completely ignored it.
The truth is that the MTV News team—the likes of Kurt Loder, John Norris, Suchin Pak, Gideon Yago, Tabitha Sorensen, Serena Altschul and Alison Stewart—were as integral to TRL’s cultural influence as the VJs and the musicians.
In the fallout of a major news event like Vegas, they’d be the ones not only distilling the information in a controlled, authoritative manner, but also guiding the youthful audience’s reaction to it, lending a context to speaks to them. That team, popping into TRL when needed, led its loyal audience through Columbine, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, elections, entire cultural movements, and, yes, the deaths of celebrities.
It’s getting harder and harder to feel compassion for MTV’s fumbling for relevancy when, even when presented with the opportunity to seize it, the network seems to be shirking its once-held responsibility to not just entertain, but mold a generation.
The new TRL seems keen to make a new segment called “Oh Hell Nah,” presumably about viral videos that make you cringe. We have an hour-long entry for its next installment.