The surreal network.
As a cable network, VH1 arrived too early for its own good. Christened "Video Hits 1" in 1985, the network spent the better part of its first decade desperately looking for ways to outflank MTV—it was "MTV for Old People" during its adult-contemporary phase, when the network seemed to be a shrine to Phil Collins, and, later and more charitably, it was "MTV With Music Videos." It's ironic that this dreary period in VH1's history is the one the network chooses to revisit—again and again—in shows like I Love the 80s, I Love the 80s Strikes Back, and the 40 Most Awesomely Bad Break-Up Songs … Ever. It's like a twentysomething leafing through his high-school yearbook and wondering what might have been. To understand the much-heralded renaissance of VH1, in which the network has gone from unwatchable to riveting, the place to start is with its inferiority complex.
After years in the adult-contemporary ghetto, VH1 showed the first signs of a new attitude with Pop-Up Video, the series that debuted in 1996. With cheeky info-bubbles interrupting music videos, the show was subtly anticipating two values that would form the new VH1. First was the obsession with commenting on pop culture. Second was that in order to be a success, VH1 was going to have to adopt the pose of an outsider. Unlike MTV, which cozied up to celebrities lest they skip the Video Music Awards, VH1 was distinctly B-list. And rather than trying conventional methods to improve its status—such as moving into new genres or attemptingnoble pop scholarship like Behind the Music—VH1 began to exult in its second-tier status. If MTV was going to be the A-list star, VH1 would become the heckler on the rope line, the hyperarticulate commentator on pop.
VH1 executives like to talk about the network's "voice"—the one that has been adopted by its hosts, regular stable of pop commentators, and announcer. Affectionate and highly ironic, the voice sounds a bit like a gentle imitation of Chuck Klosterman. It is the kind of voice that would thoroughly dismantle a Madonna video, pointing out the gratuitous excess and the cheesiness of the mise-en-scène, before admitting, "But wasn't it great?" VH1 cultivated this voice in I Love the 80s (2002), a show in which hipster comedians riffed on a decade's worth of pop, cracking wise on everything from INXS to Child's Play. (Dee Snider: "It's a doll! Step on it! It's over!") In recent years, VH1 has developed two types of nostalgia programming. There is reflective nostalgia, like I Love the 80s. Then there is what you might call "instant" nostalgia: Best Week Ever, in which a cast of comedians riffs on the last six days, and more recently Web Junk 20, which surveys stuff that's going around on the Internet. Turning the pop present into instant nostalgia keeps the network fresh, explains Michael Hirschorn, VH1's executive vice president of original programming and production.
These days, VH1's sister network is not MTV. It is ESPN. In ESPN's freewheeling early days—back in the 1980s, before it became a sprawling sports empire—the network had the feel of an exclusive boys club. SportsCenter anchors were minor celebrities, playing to young males who shared a set of cultural references (years of accumulated sports detritus), and more frequent viewing let you in on the inside jokes. VH1 aims for a similar appeal. Hipster comedians (Michael Ian Black, Hal Sparks) replace hipster sports anchors, and the furrowed-brow sports debates have become meditations on extinct TV, nearly forgotten music, and the most awesomely bad breakup songs ever. VH1's ideal viewer, like ESPN's, is a male in his late 20s nursing a pop hangover, and the comedians are his spiritual gurus. To further the "just us guys" aesthetic, VH1 gives its shows (which can cost a fortune to produce because of rights fees) a kind of low-fi authenticity that contrasts with MTV's slicker productions. "Part of the VH1 approach is having it look tossed off, when in fact it isn't," says Hirschorn.
The network's other chief interest, in its new identity, is reality TV, which it calls "celebreality." Here, VH1 shows the same cheeky indifference toward celebrity, and walks the same thin line between nostalgic affection and outright ridicule. As a rule, the "celebrities" that pop up on VH1 are not, and never were, big stars. They are niche types (Hulk Hogan), nobodies (Wendy the Snapple Lady), and has-beens on the verge of an emotional breakdown (Danny Bonaduce). The network's reality shows exist to show what desperate lengths they will go to revive their careers. VH1 is the network where a has-been will submit to live in a house with other has-beens (The Surreal Life), go to fat camp (Celebrity Fit Club), or endure a prolonged and excruciating emotional crisis (Breaking Bonaduce). It is riveting television, and more than a little bit cruel. Having been exhumed as kitsch icons on I Love the 80s, the has-beens are now taking turns being smirked at in the flesh.
So, is VH1 any good? Well, whatever joy I Love the 80s once elicited, it's safe to say the network has strip-mined the last three decades for all they're worth. ("We're nearer to the end of that than we are to the beginning," says Hirschorn.) And if the house comedians seem to be a little flat as of late, the network can still turn out genuinely brilliant television, like TV's Illest Minority Moments (2004), which highlighted the racism that regularly infiltrates network TV. The celebreality shows are uniformly good. And then there's Flavor Flav, the former "hype man" of Public Enemy, whose recent cultural renaissance is due to his permanence on VH1. Withered and scratchy-voiced (he's like a corporeal embodiment of a has-been), Flavor has lately gone searching for a romantic partner on his show Flavor of Love. He seems caught somewhere between nostalgia and the pop present, between finding new dignity and lapsing into self-parody—he is, in short, the perfect celebrity spokesman for VH1.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.