It Gets Better debuts tonight on MTV at 11 p.m. Eastern.
For a special that opens each act with clips from some It Gets Better videos on YouTube and ends with a bunch of people saying, “It gets better” at us, the MTV/Logo special It Gets Better sure doesn’t have much to do with it getting better in the originality sense. Instead, the It Gets Better program is your garden-variety MTV coming-out documentary, True Life by another name, so the first thing to do is to manage expectations accordingly. There are laughs to be loosed and tears to be cried if that’s your thing, but the special doesn’t come close to the resonance of its namesake. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In lieu of exploring the ways life improves for GLBT people, especially as they break out of provincial ages and places, It Gets Better follows a college-aged lesbian, an engaged transgender male (born biologically female), and a gay high school senior. They’re each at different places on the path to acceptance, but they all are trying to come out to someone. Vanessa is already out but still in that murky territory of ambiguous-to-nonexistent support from her mom, so she’s trying to reopen that relationship. Aydian is getting married to Jenilee and worried about telling their wedding officiant, lest she no longer be cool with officiating, and there’s also some concern about the marriage license since Aydian’s birth certificate says he’s female. And Greg has a very conservative family but very supportive friends, and he wants to come out to all of them and stop living a lie.
Evaluating MTV aesthetically is like perusing Playgirl for the articles, but the house style knows exactly how to support the subjects without stealing any focus whatsoever. The candid scenes are covered, and the confessionals are played like webcam diaries, despite the high-quality footage—one girl is even made to reach around the lens as if she’s activating her webcam. Even with prying inserts of a mom at her most unguarded, the only time you feel the production is when we’re watching a wide shot of a boy instructed to walk around his neighborhood or when a friend asks a question that’s curiously on-point. But this isn’t The Hills. Only twice did I feel a producer advising someone to bring something up, and in both cases the subject would have come up anyway, just not, perhaps, in so many words.
In other words, It Gets Better is only as interesting or provocative as its subjects, like a rock magazine reduced to human interest pieces. There’s an editor (or seven) shaping the narrative into clear, defined chapters and slapping on a split-screen montage of Youtube clips at the beginning, and as each story ramps up, their nervous energies fuel one another until there’s a genuinely suspenseful act-break, but this special rides almost entirely on its characters and their ideas.
None of the stories are particularly novel, but they each contain some honesty, which you can tell by the multiple sequences of uncomfortable human interaction. Truism alert: Coming out is tough. It’s not easy to watch someone torture himself over it. And it’s not easy to watch a mother struggle with not being the person her daughter needs. It’s invasive, almost exploitative, but it’s honest. Showing how these particular people deal with these common scenarios can, at the very least, promote understanding. Simply for how it honestly confronts pain, It Gets Better has value. And it’s not all painful truth, either. There’s a surprisingly comic note—not that you’ll be laughing—while Greg’s having an emotional conversation over the phone where he suddenly interjects, “Yes, Mom, I know there’s still AIDS.” However serious it was in the moment, it plays like a non sequitur, and it lets us exhale.
The GLBT stories are as compelling as always, but personally, I’m most drawn to the people around the GLBT characters, like Vanessa’s mom and Aydian’s fiancée. In fact, Vanessa’s mom is the standout for me, though I’m a lot more forgiving of imperfect parents than I used to be. After warmly welcoming Vanessa’s girlfriend Rashaida and having the beginnings of a heart-to-heart about what Vanessa needs from her, she gives this very candid confessional about how Vanessa’s coming out hurt and disappointed her. She’s totally unjustified, but she’s basically saying that she has to relinquish her vision of her future with Vanessa without knowing how to put it in words. “I’m still hoping that it’s gonna change,” she says, and you just feel sorry for her. It’s ugly and selfish, and I don’t forgive the weakness, but I understand it. As the story progresses, Vanessa’s mom realizes that this isn’t about her, that Vanessa isn’t doing this to isolate herself from her mother, and they all—Mom, Vanessa, and Rashaida—earn a laughing montage around the dinner table.
Greg’s story is similarly hard-fought, but he has a lot of support, and being an extracurricular busybody, he unwittingly guides us through various support systems like his school’s gay-straight alliance and a youth advisor who helps Greg emotionally prepare to come out. And Aydian’s story, being the furthest along, is practically sunshine and rainbows, though we do get some intertitles about the high rates of violence toward transgender people.
The overriding theme is how happiness follows honest appraisal. It’s not until Vanessa can confront how painful her mother’s attitude is that her mother sees it for herself. Greg goes from a bundle of stress to the world’s most humongous smile within minutes of coming out. As for Aydian, I won’t say if the state recognizes it or not, but we do get to see some wedding photos. Everyone confronts some scary moments, and everyone finds some measure of support. So I guess it does get better, just not in the way the title implies.