Stevie TV

Stevie TV debuts tonight on VH1 at 9 p.m. Eastern.

We’ve hit a point in pop culture where certain popular elements have either a built-in awareness of their own ridiculousness or exist solely for the derision of the audience consuming it. There have always been such elements, but with great choice comes great self-parody. The overwhelming number of people who are famous for being famous is at an all-time high. Even if you’ve never watched an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, you probably know more about them than you do about some of your extended family. Taking down aspects of this culture should be easy for a show like VH1’s new program Stevie TV. But perhaps it’s a little too easy.

Stevie TV has the unenviable task of premiering after Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, a show with both a sharper wit and a broader world view. It’s perhaps unfair to compare the two, since they are aiming their comedic eyes at different topics. But Stevie TV is aiming its eye squarely, and essentially solely, at the world of larger-than-life reality television. As such, the targets are familiar, but in many ways already exist as comedic caricatures themselves.

Stevie Ryan, who got her start as a YouTube sensation with characters such as Little Loca, has the looks to pull off parodies of people like Kendra Wilkinson. But watching Kendra itself is like watching a parody of Kendra Wilkinson already. VH1 is aiming with some “bite the hand that feeds you” comedy, which has worked well for itself and MTV over the years. But rather than having someone like Ben Stiller puncture the pomposity of VJ Matt Pinfield, Ryan takes on Mob Wives’ Drita D'Avanzo. Ryan isn’t speaking truth to power, since it’s unclear in this day and age how much of what transpires on the new breed of docu-soap programs bears any resemblance to actual reality. Recent events on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills demonstrated just how manufactured these shows are. Which is fine…except that it leaves little room for actual satire. The genre is already a satire, leaving Ryan little room to do much besides write scenes that are only slightly more outrageous than what these would-be celebs are told to do on a weekly basis. 

Not everything is reality-centric in tonight’s premiere. But just about everything has a pop-culture vibe, whether is be a series of “A Moment with Ryan Gosling” segments (one of the few bits to not feature Ryan predominantly), a parody of a cheesy late-night commercial (for the cleaning product “Weave Mop”), or an extended parody of Justin Bieber on his 18th birthday. Yes, Ryan is Bieber, going out on his 18th birthday on the “Bieber Bang Bus” in order to score increasingly old women. Bieber’s the epitome of an easy target, and the segment isn’t nearly as Sarah Silverman-esque as it thinks it is. But it’s still a fairly solid segment all the same, since it has a new point of view on the object being ridiculed. Ryan’s impression isn’t terribly great, but that’s beside the point: she gets the mannerisms of the pop star and turns them into something semi-surprising. And in a show with so few surprises, any and all are welcome.

More successful are the segments in which she analyzes the culture that allows these figures to succeed, rather than simply mock the figures themselves. The show is bookended by Ryan playing Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry, respectively. In the former, she’s pimping out a board game based on her family’s life to a trio of pre-teen girls. In the latter, Ryan parodies Perry’s video “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” replacing the innocuous fun of that video with a roofie-filled horror show inflected upon the unwitting host. In both segments, the celebrities are oblivious to the damage they are causing those that look up to them. These sketches never explicitly make that point, but they are clever enough that they don’t have to do so. Sure, seeing Ryan show off her six-pack on a stripper pole is mighty fine television. But as a female comedian, she also has insight and perspective that could prove useful should she choose to employ it in more provocative fashion in further episodes.

After all, as the piece I linked to earlier highlighted, there are serious things goings on under the shiny surfaces that Ryan explores. Too often, she’s content to simply reflect the glare, rather than move past it to see what’s beneath. A series of darkly comic parables is too much to ask for, or expect, from a Sunday night sketch comedy show on VH1. But just like the objects of its derision, Stevie TV has more going on than perhaps even its aware of at this point. It could, and will, go for easier targets and safer humor as the show heads into series. But while the show currently cedes the social commentary to Key & Peele, there’s plenty within its pop-culture specific purview that says as much about us as a culture as anything being explored over on Comedy Central.

Stray observations:

  •  Each act is introduced by an incredibly awkward segment in which Ryan (who sounds a bit like Pee Wee Herman, if you close your eyes) utters dialogue on the level of that given to hosts of those “100 Greatest…” shows that VH1 runs in between episodes of Basketball Wives. I attended this winter’s Television Critics’ Association press tour, where Ryan onstage was approximately 40 times more calm and personable than she comes off in tonight’s talking head segments. Let’s chalk this up to first-time jitters and assume these will improve over time.
  • For every three obvious jokes, there’s one that’s just straight up bizarre. The voiceover man decries the inability of certain household items to clean up a spill ranges from dishtowels, mops, and then…oranges. “Which are just plain useless!” he helpfully points out.
  • I would like a high-resolution version of the “Lie Chart” on display briefly in the ABC Family parody show Beautiful Teenage Liars' Secret Game of Lies.
  • Despite the number of sketches I’ve described, there are at least a half-dozen more that I haven’t. Luckily, outside of the Bieber one, very few outstay their welcome. That’s good, since few justify even their short lengths.

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