Words by Jessica Lipman
Illustration by Stav Sela
My Life as Liz. It’s bubble gum meets Passion Pit meets displaced Brooklyn hipsterdom. It’s live-action kitsch Daria. It’s the reality version of My So-Called Life, except set in a substantially more media-conscious social sphere than that of the lovely Angela, Rickie and Rayanne. Teetering between narrative (particularly mockumentary format) and reality genre, the MTV crew follows Liz Lee, a misfit high school senior in a small Texan town, as she endures the social nightmare of being a hipster. With the second season, MTV follows Liz to college — Pratt Institute — where she nestles into Clinton Hill, Brooklyn with her fellow kind (extremely strange art nerds who’re just trying to figure out love, making art, and being really drunk and poor in Brooklyn). In terms of reception, the show is a success, boasting an 89% increase in viewership from Season 1 to 2. MTV is currently shooting Season 3, and Liz has dropped out of Pratt to pursue her future MTV VJ career (rumor has it).
Liz: I totally approve of your career transition. You’re not the first to mobilize a professional public figuration through the vehicle of an MTV reality television program. But let’s face it: that move, along with a laundry list of problematic factors within your show, point to the larger authenticity issues that plague the reality-claims of the show while subsequently directing the viewer to the blatant artifice and sloppy narrative strokes enacted by MTV on your behalf.
What interests me most about Liz is the way the show and the language used to describe the network’s project exhibits an evasion of genre identity. MTV couches the show’s sloppy generic identity within the context of innovation.
In stark contrast to the receptive energy backing the show, Liz is critically bankrupt, which more or less stems from the show’s hybrid genre. Is it a mockumentary, reality television, a sitcom, or a scripted reality comedy? This genre confusion seems to, in part, point to the question of whether or not a singular, pure genre identity is even desired anymore by television viewers. However, there is a clear distinction between MTV’s lack of assertion of the show’s identity and critics’ registered reaction in relation to this unidentifiable genre.
According to CNN, “MTV …told the Los Angeles Times last year that neither the terms ‘reality show’ nor ‘sitcom’ fully captured the show.” The MTV network in this instance is positioning genre as an afterthought. Critics wouldn’t have this at all, though. Todd VanDerWerff of The AV Club gave the first episode of season one a C rating. Comparing Liz to Coen Brothers films and to the mockumentary sensibilities traced in Christopher Guest’s work, he accuses it of having learned all the wrong lessons. He takes issue with the show’s obvious scripted nature, and ultimately critiques this particular tenet for its dishonesty and lack of self-awareness or declaration of a particular formal or conceptual identity.
MTV producers have been able to tool this generic confusion toward a construction of a deeply crafted cultural figure with Liz and her friends, and they were ultimately able to do so at an extremely low cost. Considering John Ellis’ understanding of reality TV as a genre that “depends on putting the reality of ordinary people into defined artificial situations and letting viewers discover and condone the sincere and trustworthy,” MTV is denying the viewer an opportunity to perform the particular receptive work paired with reality TV programming. Alternately, one can also see how MTV is duping the viewer into performing the work of condoning fictive characters and situations, all within the comfy terrain of genre ambiguity. Moreover, critics, as well as common viewers, are only aware of this problematic receptive issue due to MTV’s loud proclamation of its formal deviations from reality TV in conjunction with the show’s enactment of real people as its only significant claim to reality television genre. The production quality is aesthetically reminiscent of reality televisual traits, while frequently shifting to a more stylized and fun editing format, accented with scripted confessional sequences with Liz and friends. Think the aesthetics and banter of Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, with terrible acting and pseudo-real/constructed dramatic scenes, and you have My Life as Liz.
Due to this major factor, Liz’s commodified persona (you can purchase her look, literature, irony, and prescription-free glasses at your nearest Urban Outfitters) becomes highly problematic when assessing her authenticity. Liz stands in as the archetypal hipster whose manicured and highly fictive nature is rendered invisible within the show’s genre-free format. CNN consulted author of American Nerd, Benjamin Nugent, on the matter. He stated, “When you have people choosing to be nerds, questions of authenticity can come up. Before, you had no choice to be a nerd. Now that it’s an acceptable option, you can accuse someone of being that way just to be cool. When it was uncool, you never had to worry about authenticity.” MTV posits commodified ‘uncool’ within the figure of Liz without exposing to the audience the devices that have produced this fictive characterization.
MTV is characterized as consistently touting innovative programming, what with Beavis and Butthead, My So-Called Life, while within the last five years taking on more and more reality programming. Liz enters into MTV’s canonical shift toward reality programming. However, the receptive claims of innovation seem irrelevant when a network cannibalizes certain fiscally-rewarding aspects (i.e. non-actors) in order to hide behind the reality television genre, especially when the show obviously opts for a mockumentary-style narrative comedy format. Ultimately, the show calls into question the permissibility of genre-blending that increasingly comprises televisual formatting across different networks. ◥
Corner, John. Studying Media: Problems of Theory and Method. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. Print.
Ellis,John (2009) “The Performance on Television of Sincerely Felt Emotion.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 625 (1). ISSN 1552-3349.
VanDerWerff, Todd (January 18, 2010).”My Life as Liz.” The AV Club.The Onion. Web.