Maligned when not ignored, Undressed still made MTV history

Maligned when not ignored, Undressed still made MTV history

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Some TV shows make it to 100 episodes thanks to high ratings. Others make it because critical praise interferes with network attempts to pull the plug. Other times, a vocal fan base helps a cult hit defy the odds. Undressed falls into none of those categories, yet produced 222 episodes despite never having performed well for MTV or having found a devoted audience to advocate for its continued existence. It was a show whose importance laid less in what it actually produced and more in what it helped facilitate. Undressed has praiseworthy attributes, but its real impact came from its place in television history. Whether it intended to do so is irrelevant; the half-hour soap opera took the “real” out of The Real World, making way for the scripted reality programs that dominate the current TV landscape.

It’s crucial to look at Undressed in the context of two other MTV programs that came to air within a year of the late-night soap’s July 1999 debut: The Real World: Hawaii and Total Request Live. These shows didn’t have any direct impact upon the content of Undressed, but nevertheless demonstrate two key aspects of the network’s programming strategy as the new millennium approached. With the Hawaii edition of The Real World, that franchise moved away from the muted approach of its earlier seasons and toward consciously populating its households with cast members who deployed exhibitionism without producer prompting. Past casts had seen their share of controversy, but when Tecumshea “Teck” Holmes arrived for the eighth season and instantly started skinny-dipping, a new baseline was established. Gone were the days of The Real World: London, in which half the cast slept through the season. Being real was no longer the primary concern. Being provocative was.

With Total Request Live, MTV leveraged an increasingly prevalent fact about its audience: What viewers wanted to watch, above everything else, was themselves. The shout-outs before and during the videos on TRL were as important, if not more so, than the videos themselves. TRL shout-outs were the precursors to selfies. While celebrity culture remained important, achieving visibility on the same platform as The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and other pop stars of the day turned into the logical next step. TRL gave voice to that desire, intermingling stars and fans in an intimate setting where the former was suddenly beholden to the latter in a visceral way. There’s a precedent for such interaction in the history of music-related programming. American Bandstand’s “Rate A Record” and Soul Train’s dance line showed fans interacting with musical culture, yet TRL’s shout-outs showed fans attempting to supersede it.

In light of these two trends, Undressed makes a lot of sense as part of an overall branding strategy for the network. MTV had attempted scripted dramas before (including a season of the Canadian import Catwalk and the 1994 original Dead At 21), but had far more success in the realms of comedy and animation. Roland Joffé, director of films such as The Killing Fields and The Mission, created and served as executive producer for Undressed. Joffé helped give the show credibility that previous shows lacked; his past television work included directing plays like The Spongers and ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore for the BBC. While a decade removed from his most famous works, Joffé still offered an intriguing creative center to the show’s production.

While not exactly theatrical, Undressed nevertheless involved a novel approach to serialized soaps: individual stories that rarely overlapped yet presented an overall mosaic of a specific slice of life. Those individual stories could be self-contained, last for a few episodes, or stretch out over the course of an entire season. Characters might spin off into another storyline upon completion, or never be heard from again. All of the narratives revolved around issues of sexuality, a topic that garnered the show lots of press attention upon its debut. Variety noted that the show, “…is so chockful of sex, drinking and masturbation it will have folks pining for the good old days when female soccer players appeared on national television in their sports bras.” Its approach to the topic was frank, but since Undressed aired on MTV, there were limits placed upon language and nudity. Undressed pushed those limits from its first episode, which featured a story involving one college roommate lending the other a vibrator in order to achieve her first-ever orgasm. Underwear always stayed on, but clothing was optional in most scenes involving characters who had graduated high school. With this show, MTV now had the ability to script the type of racy stuff often lacking in The Real World—without real-life downsides like Ruthie Alcaide’s onscreen drunk-driving incident in Hawaii.

Everyone on Undressed was horny, but very few knew what to do about it. Rather than play this naïveté exclusively for laughs (although the show did that quite often), the program used its characters’ restless, directionless energy to stage narratives in which unspoken questions received thorough examinations. Those examinations could be prosaic to the point of incredulity, as the rapid pace of the show coupled with its almost non-existent budget meant that episodes were produced out of necessity rather than artistic compulsion. The show ran for only a few months at a time, but usually aired four to five nights a week of original, first-run episodes. Even MTV Networks CEO Tom Freston laughed about the show’s production values upon seeing it for the first time, likening it to “local access” in a 2001 interview with The Observer. But that need for content meant that Undressed dealt with a shocking number of topics deemed taboo by most shows at the time. Any episode could feature couples, love triangles, or simply groups of friends that possessed an almost infinite amount of variations on class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. The show treated everyone it depicted with the same amount of blunt earnestness, which in turn helped demonstrate how similar each person’s experiences truly were.

Undressed also stood out for its depiction of same-sex relationships, since it was one of the only shows dealing with them at the time. The show didn’t treat gay characters with any more or less nuance than straight ones, but nuance was never Undressed’s forte. An early storyline concerning a “gay intervention” after one man finds straight porn in his partner’s apartment isn’t exactly trailblazing storytelling—but it was trailblazing TV, nonetheless. When contrasted with a contemporary series like NBC’s Will & Grace, the blunt way that Undressed dealt with the lives of its gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters is remarkable. Will & Grace dealt with sexual orientation but never sexuality. (To a large extent, the same criticism applies to Modern Family today.) In talking openly about the sex lives of these characters—and demonstrating how fun, silly, stupid, unnerving, and exciting they could be—Undressed served as one of the most inclusive shows of its generation, even earning a GLAAD Award after its final season.

Undressed was generally inquisitive rather than accusatory when it came to exploring its characters’ sexual journeys. It was perpetually sex-positive in its portrayals of teens and twentysomethings, portraying failure and frustration as a necessary part of eventual happiness—or at the very least increased self-awareness. Underneath the sexcapades of its characters lay a potent combination of liberal sexual attitudes and small-c conservative morals. Having lots of sex was never the point—finding someone with whom to share a life was. Sex was a means to an end for Undressed’s primary players, rather than an end itself. Multiple plots revolved around personal hang-ups that, once spoken, linked solitary individuals. Undressed was a show that always sided with those seeking connection. It just didn’t give a damn about what form that connection took.

If leveling the playing field universalized the show’s narrative depictions, then its near non-existent production values helped forge a connection with its audience. Most episodes of Undressed revolved around redecorating the same small number of sets for different storylines. Every college story, for instance, appeared to employ the same, cramped, dimly lit dorm room. There are multiple stories throughout the series that primarily take place in the back of a van. Yet the show’s cable-access approach worked in its favor. Rather than embodying the real-estate porn of such then-popular sitcoms as Friends, Undressed featured apartments lit by Christmas lights (probably inherited from the previous tenants). The show’s visual aesthetic derived from economic necessity, but provided a familiar atmosphere.

In 2002, another program entered the MTV stable: The Osbournes. A cultural and ratings phenomenon, The Osbournes married the worlds of celebrity and reality and perfected a potent new entity altogether: the scripted reality series. Rather than taking chances with its real-life subjects, The Osbournes took the lessons learned from later seasons of The Real World (in which the cast was given specific tasks in order to promote entertaining conflicts), then applied them to the family of a rock star. While TRL helped provide the temporary illusion than celebrities and fans existed in overlapping spheres, The Osbournes helped demonstrate that peeking into the lives of the rich and famous still provided a thrill that screaming over the latest ’N Sync video simply couldn’t. By this point, Undressed was in its final season, one produced in Canada rather than Los Angeles. And the writing was on the wall: Unvarnished visuals and straightforward depictions of young sexuality were out. Ozzy Osbourne yelling at bubbles was in.

And yet MTV’s desire to depict both sides of the screen—those watching it and those inhabiting it—never truly went away. Sure, The Osbournes begat shows like Newlyweds: Nick And Jessica, Meet The Barkers, and other programs that edited celebrity lives into sitcom structures. But the lingering effects of Undressed and TRL also helped shape another subset of the new reality landscape, the logical next step for MTV: programming that provided relatable romantic quandaries for its audience while simultaneously offering up a world of glamour. This new genre needed participants that were pop-culture savvy, skilled in the art of self-promotion, and understood their function as “characters” rather than “people.” Two years after the end of Undressed, MTV unveiled Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, and My Super Sweet 16 followed less than a year later. Viewers still saw themselves onscreen, but through a funhouse prism of money, wealth, and self-importance. It was no longer about recognizing oneself onscreen; it was more important to feel superior to those depicted on it.

In contrast to Undressed, which encouraged identification with its players, post-Laguna Beach programs encouraged division and derision. And perhaps in the end, that’s the most disappointing thing about the post-Undressed world of MTV’s reality programming. Even if its viewers didn’t necessarily brag about watching Undressed, it was still a show that honestly (if rarely artfully) talked about things that were relevant to its core audience. Comparatively, Kristin Cavallari was less of an arch-villain and more of an archetype, representing the idea of an antagonist rather than an individual one. Ironically, by disguising its scripted nature, Laguna Beach and its offspring ended up coming across as less authentic than the overtly crafted Undressed. Yet audiences didn’t care, as “reality” programming turned into its own form of escapism. It’s easy to understand why mocking a half-million-dollar quinceañera would be more fun than watching two teenagers awkwardly try to articulate their feelings about virginity. But that doesn’t mean the former was actually more valuable than the latter.

While the MTV of the ’00s was dominated by reality series that ran away from Undressed’s legacy, recent years have seen something of a revival of that program’s attitudes. Reality fare such as 16 And Pregnant and Catfish: The TV Show, along with the high-school comedy Awkward., are all concerned with stripping away the veneer of Laguna Beach and The Hills and depicting life as it truly is. All three shows are messy, often upsetting, and demonstrate how the illusions sold within certain “reality” shows don’t line up with the everyday. In that sense, Undressed remains important. It still holds up a decade later, dealing with topics most shows still won’t touch. It doesn’t have all the answers, but it raises questions and sparks discussions that are still important more than a decade later. Where many shows that followed had surface-level glam—and very little depth—Undressed looked cheap but offered MTV viewers more substance than any other show in the network’s history.

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