A Reality Show That Portrays the Serious as Well as the Silly

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 6 2012 11:08 AM

A Great Reality Show Returns to MTV

truelifebraininjury
A still from the True Life episode "I Have a Traumatic Brain Injury."

The fifth—and, Spaghetti Monster willing, final—season of Jersey Shore premiered last night on MTV. But while the Jerseyites have been getting all the attention, another MTV show returned quietly last week: True Life.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

True Life has been on MTV since 1998, a relative eternity on a network famous for short-lived reality/documentary shows. (Who besides me remembers PoweR Girls with Lizzie Grubman?) Each hourlong episode of the fly-on-the-wall show focuses on a single issue while following one, two, or three people through their daily lives.

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Over those 14 years, it has mastered the tricky art of the highbrow/lowbrow appeal: In addition to fluffy episodes on having a hot mom and summer romance, it addresses serious topics as well—including addiction, placing a baby up for adoption, and post-traumatic stress disorder. And it does both well, thanks to excellent storytelling and (usually) top-notch casting: Whether addressing a unique circumstance or a universal stage of life, the characters are compelling.

Don’t believe me? Check out three of the show’s best episodes from each side of the coin.

Serious Subjects

Following three young men recovering from automobile and motorcycle accidents, this episode should be required viewing in high-school health classes. Particularly heart-wrenching is a scene in which one man, a formerly hard-living partier who is now unable to lead an independent life, attends a concert with his old friends, who are struggling themselves to come to terms with his accident.

I Have Schizophrenia,” 2008

Two men and one woman, each suffering from schizophrenia, discuss services for the mentally ill, medication, hospitalization, and the terror of not controlling their thoughts. It is deeply compelling and helps fight some of the stigma of a devastating, poorly understood disease.

We watch two young women hunt for their sisters—including one girl who travels with her adopted mother to Guatemala to search for her long-lost twin.

Fluffy Fare

The episode follows 15-year-old Grace from the world of Connecticut prep schools as she and her family relocate to New Zealand for a year. No matter how old you are, watching Grace navigate a new school, new country, and a crush in gorgeous New Zealand is worth a watch.

I Have a Summer Share,” 2003

Our star Tommy spends the summer working the week, then heading to the Jersey shore for the weekend with his buddies. There, he dances out his anger at clubs, feasts drunkenly on cheeseballs, and almost never visits the beach.

“I’m Getting Married,” 2002

This episode followed three couples—a wealthy pair from Florida, two gay men having a commitment ceremony, and a Staten Island couple with a child. While each story was compelling in its own right—particularly the gay couple’s worries about their parents attending—the Staten Island groom, Charlie B., stole the show with a rant in which he told a tardy limo driver, “I’ll hunt you down like fucking cattle and I’ll gut you, you understand?”

Without Charlie B. and Tommy, there could have been no Jersey Shore.

Of course, not every episode is a winner. Whoever decided to green-light not one but two episodes about a nauseating family of hard-partying teens in the Bayou should be sentenced to True Life probation. But those are ultimately minor blemishes on what is, for an MTV reality show, a surprisingly stellar record. If you haven’t already, give it a shot. And let’s hope it outlasts its louder, orange-tinted cousin.

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