When WE first meet 16-year-old Chris in an episode of the MTV documentary series “True Life,” he’s practicing skateboard stunts with his buddies and ignoring the floppy brown hair that hangs like a curtain across his eyes.
Typical teenage stuff, right? Not exactly. Chris is deaf. And as the show proceeds, he undergoes surgery to have a cochlear implant inserted into his head, allowing him to hear for the first time in his life. Moments after the implant is turned on, he walks through a parking lot and revels in the symphony of unfamiliar sounds. “I can hear the wind,” he signs. “And I can hear cars going by . . . and people walking. . . . And talking everywhere. I can hear it. It’s cool.” It’s a quiet triumph, an extraordinary moment in the life of an ordinary (read: unfamous) person.
This scene, from an episode that will air later this month (1 p.m., July 20), might seem unusual for MTV, a network better known for shows such as “The Hills” and “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila.” But when the channel’s original -- and perennial -- reality series “The Real World” set forth in 1992, it created two paths for MTV’s unscripted programming. On one side are the drunken hook-ups of Tila Tequila; on the other is “True Life,” which captures the intimate and sometimes harrowing moments in young people’s lives, as they face off against some of life’s most daunting challenges (as well as some rather idiotic quests; see: “True Life: I’m Horny in Miami”).
This year marks the program’s 10th anniversary, an enviable record for any television show and especially one that targets the famously fickle tastes of the 12- to 34-year-olds MTV targets. This year, the premiere of each episode has drawn around a million viewers, which is lower than other MTV staples -- an episode of “The Hills” brings in an average of 4 million viewers -- but higher than most documentary series on cable.
The show’s longevity springs from an enduring formula of first-person storytelling combined with a close attention to cultural trends and compelling topics. Chris’ scene comes from “True Life: I’m Deaf”; other episodes in recent years have included “I’m Gay and I’m Getting Married,” “I’m Coming Home From Iraq” and the series’ most-watched installment, “I Have OCD.”
The show follows two or three people per episode as they approach some turning point: trying to quit drinking, coming out to their parents, going to the prom, returning to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “It’s a first-person series in which neither the protagonist nor the viewer knows what the outcome is going to be,” said Dave Sirulnick, MTV’s executive vice president for news and production and the show’s co-creator. “We’re all heading toward this crossroads together.”
The result can be voyeurism at its best, allowing the audience to walk for an hour in the shoes of real people dealing with drug addiction, financial troubles, disabilities, social ostracism, relationship dramas -- a veritable catalog of the crises that define the American experience of adolescence and young adulthood.
Judging by its steady viewership, the show feeds a hunger for true stories of how life is lived in these confusing times. It’s a yen that few other networks have recognized. “There’s not a lot of documentary geared at young people,” said Betsy Forhan, the show’s executive producer.
In the 2006 episode “True Life: I’m Addicted to Crystal Meth,” viewers watched Ashlee, her lips pursed in concentration, as she slipped a drug-filled syringe into the crook of her arm. Later, the audience rode along as Ashlee and her friend Paula headed to a motel, where Paula traded sex for drugs.
These are raw, unadorned moments: no talking heads, no voice-overs, no experts explaining the risks of such behavior, just a simple and relatively unadulterated glimpse of a life most people might not otherwise encounter.
When MTV finds strong protagonists and pairs them with field producers who can draw out the vulnerability and authenticity in their stories, even seemingly trivial experiences can resonate. On the quintessential “True Life” episode in 2002, “I’m Getting Plastic Surgery,” Los Angeles Barbie dolls Rachael and Allison, both of whom had faced the knife multiple times by age 20, seemed especially vapid compared with morbidly obese Julia, who underwent gastric bypass surgery in the episode. Yet when Rachael, her nose bandaged from the latest operation, softly said, “Hopefully I’ll have the confidence to maybe complete the other goals in my life now, like being in Playboy and maybe finding a boyfriend,” the show revealed the pathos lurking inside her synthetic nose-jobbed and implanted shell.
“True Life” was created in 1998 by Sirulnick and another MTV executive, Lauren Lazin, who together ran MTV’s documentaries division. At the time, they were producing mostly one-off programs, including profiles of musicians that occasionally touched on issues such as alcoholism. Sirulnick and Lazin decided to split off the music documentaries into a show called “Ultrasound” and launch a series to cover nonmusic topics -- whether weighty, trifling or bizarre -- and that became “True Life.”
At a meeting recently in Sirulnick’s office at MTV’s headquarters in New York, he and the show’s other producers, Forhan and Marshall Eisen, ran down a list of about 20 ideas for future episodes. Each idea had already cycled through the network’s research department, a team that sends out feelers to gauge whether the topic is viable: Are enough young people experiencing this issue or problem? Are the right protagonists out there? Are they willing to put their lives -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- on camera? Are the stakes high enough to make the audience care?
With very little debate, “I’m a Couch Surfer” gets nixed. “I’m Giving Up My Baby” stays in (but “the title needs to change because that’s not a nice way of saying it,” says Forhan).
Others elicit more discussion. “I’m Losing My Home,” all agree, would be especially timely given the wave of foreclosures that’s forcing many holders of sub-prime loans out of their houses. But these stories “can take a long time. People are on the cusp of the banks moving in to foreclose and that can take a while,” Forhan says. And since most homeowners are over 25, MTV will have to cast young people living with their parents, along with perhaps one owner in his or her 20s. “I like it,” Eisen says. “I think the difficult thing is, what happens after they vacate the house? Is it an interesting situation, or is it just that they move into an apartment? We have to find the right people.” The show goes into the “greenlight” pile.
The MAGIC elixir to any successful “True Life” is choosing the right topics and filling them out with protagonists whose stories are compelling and representative. Finding these characters can be a mammoth task. An upcoming episode, “I’m Living Off the Grid,” presented a special challenge: You can’t get much more on the grid than MTV. Producers had to find people who were rejecting the mainstream culture that MTV basically helped to create but who were also willing to star in an MTV show.
After a lot of false starts, the producers located a cooperative organization, the Teaching Drum Outdoor School, that connected the show with a couple of people who were about to enter the school’s yearlong wilderness survival program. Some of the early footage shows Derek in his family’s Minneapolis-area kitchen as he boils pig brains and then whips them up in his mother’s blender before brushing the mixture onto a bear hide he’s tanning.
With scenes like this, the series stands apart from MTV’s typical offerings, which glamorize wealth, excess, fame and debauchery, inviting viewers to indulge in a toxic mixture of envy, fascination and disgust. “True Life” offers a glimpse of something authentic and, however odd, more relatable.
“Audiences are skeptical about reality television. I think they appreciate the realness of ‘True Life,’ ” Eisen said. (The show, however, may not always meet its own high standards of authenticity: Roxie Patton, who appeared in “I’m Happy to Be Fat” in January, said on a Television Without Pity message board and several other websites that a field producer asked her to reenact a scene the cameras had missed. The show’s executives dispute Patton’s account and say they would not use footage that had been staged in any way.)
The show succeeds most when it imparts, with little fanfare, the small, personal victories and failures of its characters. “In the end, that’s what a lot of people associate with the series,” Eisen said. “They don’t have to be outrageous moments. It just has to be emotional moments. On the ‘Deaf’ show, someone’s going to hear for the first time, on camera. That’s a big moment.”