Porn-lite and bland biography

MTV can't get enough sex, while VH1 keeps strip-mining rock history.


Joyce Millman
August 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

It may come as a surprise to those of you who spent many happy hours vegged out in front of MTV during the '80s, but music videos are in short supply on the music channel nowadays, at least in prime time. And the same goes for MTV's geezer-friendly sister channel, VH1. Ah, it seems only yesterday that "Thriller," "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "Hot for Teacher" were blasting from televisions across the land ...

On Aug. 15, VH1 is premiering its first original TV movie, "Sweetwater," a biopic of the rock-classical fusion group from Los Angeles that played the opening set at Woodstock and faded away soon after. And last month, MTV launched its first original drama series, "Undressed." But at least "Sweetwater," which is subtitled "A True Rock Story," remains relatively true to VH1's slogan, "Music First." With the addition of the concupiscent "Undressed" to an MTV lineup that already includes the sex advice show "Loveline," the kiss-and-tell show "The Blame Game" and the current wild season of "The Real World," Music Television's motto might as well be "Sex First, Music Later."

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For both MTV and VH1, the increase in non-video programming is a matter of survival in the face of fragmented musical tastes. The music channels divvy up viewers this way: VH1 gets the graying boomers, Lilith fans and anyone else who can't deal with rap and teeny-pop. MTV gets the kids.

For aging music fans, VH1 is just a few aching joints away from A&E or the Hitler, oops, the History Channel -- it's all nostalgia, all the time. "Before They Were Rock Stars" digs up yearbook photos and audition tapes; "Behind the Music" charts meteoric rises and tragic flame-outs; "Where Are They Now?" spotlights the vanished acts whose declines weren't quite spectacular enough to get them on "Behind the Music." It makes perfect sense that VH1 is branching out into rock star biopics because, before shows like "Behind the Music" (and A&E's "Biography") elbowed them out of vogue, biopics were how celebrity life stories got told. Go rent "The Buddy Holly Story" or Bette Midler's fictionalized Janis Joplin bio "The Rose" or the 1979 miniseries "Elvis" and you'll realize where "Behind the Music" got its dramatic rhythm -- rise to fame, fall from grace, redemption.

Watching "Sweetwater," it's as if the biopic never went away. This is not entirely a good thing. "Sweetwater" suffers from the lack of humor that embalmed "The Rose." And it drags in every cliché in rock biopic history, starting with its hoary framing device: A music television producer goes searching for the members of Sweetwater for a Woodstock 30th anniversary special, and when she finds them, it's flashback time. We see how the band took off after singer Nansi Nevins (played by Amy Jo Johnson of "Felicity"), a high school senior, talked her way onstage with them at a club gig. They get a record contract, play Woodstock, have a minor hit with a flute-driven cover of "Motherless Child." But then Nevins is in a near-fatal car accident; she recovers, but her vocal cords are damaged. Without her, the band loses its record contract and the members drift apart.

Back in the present, "Mix TV" producer Cami Carlson (Kelli Williams of "The Practice," under the mistaken impression that she's the star of the movie), a recovering drug addict who is down to her last chance to keep her job, swiftly realizes that the key to her own redemption lies in finding the reclusive Nevins and getting her to speak on camera. Not only does Cami find her, she also ends up reuniting the band. "Sweetwater" is every "Behind the Music" producer's dream.

I don't mean to make it sound like "Sweetwater" isn't entertaining -- it is. And that's mostly because of Johnson, better known as Felicity's sad, waifish, guitar strumming friend, Julie. Johnson does her own singing in "Sweetwater," as she does on "Felicity." But she forgoes Julie's breathy, dear-diary inflections for a bigger voice that sounds like a sweeter Grace Slick. As Nevins, Johnson gets to wear flowing hippie chick dresses, smoke pot in the band van, roll around under the covers with her older lover, band leader Alex Del Zoppo (Kurt Max Runte) and front a multi-culti ensemble of dudes in muttonchops, Afros and ruffled shirts. She looks like she's having the time of her life. Johnson is a bewitching little flower; when she smiles (which she doesn't get to do much in "Felicity"), she lights up the tube. Johnson is a small-screen Julia Roberts, and I don't even care that she used to be the pink Power Ranger, she's a star.

The odd thing about "Sweetwater," though, is that, as a movie, the band's story -- capped by Nansi's terrible post-crash descent into addiction and homelessness -- looks and feels like just another tired rock melodrama. But imagine how riveting this all would have been as an episode of "Behind the Music." It even has the requisite happy ending (Nansi, who's played in the present-day scenes of "Sweetwater" by Michelle Phillips, got herself cleaned up, went to college and became an English teacher). Watching "Sweetwater" botch the telling of such a juicy story, you have to wonder if VH1's new interest in movie making will thin the pool of potential "Behind the Music" biographies. Or will the movies simply create demand for "Behind the Music" companion pieces? Probably the latter; we VH1 geezers never seem to tire of hearing the same rock fables again and again.

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Meanwhile, over on MTV, it's a nonstop beer blast (when it's not a nonstop pajama party) of Limp Bizkit, Britney Spears and lots of people in various stages of, well, undress. MTV is where Nickelodeon viewers go when they graduate from middle school. What? You think only college-age people are watching "Loveline" and "The Real World"? Ha! MTV is the place to be if you're 14 and horny, a fact proven once and for all by "Undressed" (rated TV14, by the way). This nightly jerk-off fest (described by one MTV flack as a cross between "Slackers" and "Love, American Style") is executive produced by Roland Joffe, who directed serious films like "The Killing Fields" and "The Mission." But I think "Undressed" is actually produced by Burt Reynolds' character from "Boogie Nights" and written and directed by the kids from "Dawson's Creek."

"Undressed" is about the sexual trials and triumphs of a revolving door of characters (at a total of 105 speaking parts and 23 story lines, that's a big revolving door) ranging from high schoolers to career couples in their 20s. What all of these characters have in common is a) they're incredibly hard up and b) they're incredibly unappealing. "Undressed" has some of the worst acting you'll ever see. My favorite performer so far has been the twitchy dude -- sorry, I didn't catch his name -- who plays Ollie, a slacker gigolo who looks uncannily like a pierced Greg Brady and speaks in a strange, giggly mumble. Keep your eye on this guy -- he could be the new Puck.

"Undressed" also has ugly, cheap-looking sets and laughably predictable stories. Everything is badly lit and cheesy. In fact, viewers whose tastes run to the X-rated will recognize in "Undressed" all the classic adult-film plots: the college coed who might be gay and her beautiful promiscuous roomie; the couple that brings home pick-ups to liven up their dull sex life; the cheated-upon halves of two couples who get together to cheat back. The first week's episodes, in fact, were a race to see which story line would be the first to put two women in bed together (much to Ollie's delight, it was his, the one about the swinging couple).

The show is chaste, though, when it comes to actual skin and sex -- you'll find more bare flesh and dirty talk on the average episode of "NYPD Blue." After all, 14-year-olds are watching. So the hum of the maybe-gay coed's vibrator is edited out, and there are responsible references to safe sex and condoms and how doing it with someone you love is always preferable to shagging around. Yes, "Undressed" has broken new ground -- it's TV's first "Afterschool Special" porn show.

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"Undressed" is so awful, it's bound to pick up a following on unintentionally funny ineptitude alone. But wait -- is it really unintentional? A couple of days before "Undressed" even premiered, I was alerted to a Web site called "MTV's Undressed Sucks," which has since been giving morning-after critiques of episodes along the lines of "You can't go wrong with attractive women having lesbian sex. But like everything in life, if you're going to do it, do it! All set up and no delivery makes 'Undressed' a dull show."

But what's this? MTV seems to be picking up -- a tad quickly -- on the idea that to watch "Undressed" is to hate it. On MTV's official "Undressed" site, you can take a survey rating the show and vote for which characters you like the most and the least (sadly, Ollie is not among them). Is there a "Blair Witch" in reverse happening here, a seeding of tantalizingly bad buzz? Hmmm.


Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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