Washington Heights

Washington Heights debuts tonight on MTV at 10 p.m. Eastern.

MTV is in the business of following around young adults with cameras, hoping beyond hope that some of them will decide to make out with each other or get into a fistfight. Dysfunctional groups of young adults with too much free time are ideal. Some shows are competitive, or themed, like Pranked; others exist primarily to manufacture and then film unscripted drama, like The Real World. Lately, though, MTV has shifted gears a little. In the great annals of Millennial history, though, whenever they are written, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County will stand out as a milestone in teenage reality programming. Laguna Beach took MTV programming off the beaten track, shifting from conceit-based programming to soap-operatic programming, with the real people on the show functioning essentially as characters in a long, potentially never-ending narrative. 

There are some obvious limitations to the reality-TV soap opera, such as maintaining audience interest (given that there is very little story). The plot meanders and can feel a bit pointless, especially if the characters aren’t being particularly interesting that day. But the show drew viewers, and the producers figured out how to keep it interesting as it went along. Laguna Beach managed by switching narrators and creating a few different spinoffs (The Hills was even more successful). MTV has proven adept at building plausible story and casting their characters.

Now MTV is rejiggering the model. Whereas its previous generation of real-life-soap TV drew from the stories of the very wealthy (and the mostly white), Washington Heights takes essentially the same lens and turns it on what narrator JP calls “the last real neighborhood in New York.” This is a neighborhood where people grow up and live out their whole lives, where the main characters live with or near their parents and grandparents. Crucially, this is not a historically affluent neighborhood. Washington Heights is at the very top of Manhattan, so far uptown as to seem a different world entirely, a traditionally Dominican-American neighborhood on the verge of gentrification. And so MTV trucked a camera crew to Washington Heights this summer to see if kids who are not wealthy and not white have equally compelling drama as rich girls in Beverly Hills.

As it turns out: Basically, kids are the same everywhere.

In the past, MTV has focused on the lower-to-middle class with a cynic’s eye. Jersey Shore existed primarily to mock its characters, highlighting their superficiality, their undereducated values, their irrational behavior. Jersey Shore was always great fodder for talk-show monologues, but the show itself was grating, at turns idiotic or patronizing. It would be easy to dismiss Washington Heights as more of the same. Certainly its characters are working-class or lower-middle-class; they get manicures and tattoos and their major drama are their romantic relationships, often taking the guise of gossip between friends over texts or brunch mimosas.

But this is a cast that offers a side to New York rarely seen on-screen—the New York City that most of its residents experience. The group of friends is a cosmopolitan cluster that would not exist anywhere else except an American city: Most of their races are either unidentified or unimportant. Most speak Spanish. There is one white girl. (If you’ve seen some other show with a token white person, I would really like to hear about it.)

Of course, juvenile personal drama is a major part, if not the main part, of the show. The characters are all childhood friends who are still close, but it’s the type of group dynamic that’s ripe for old friends looking to hook up or ex-girlfriends to get angry at new girlfriends. The pilot concludes with a knock-down, drag-out, hair-pulling catfight, complete with screaming, somebody’s mom, and angry Spanish swearing. It’s MTV. This is what we have to work with. There are limitations to the reality-TV soap-opera format, no matter who you cast.

However, if you accept the format—and you very well might—Washington Heights is a satisfying, refreshing take on the genre. This show is not mocking its participants. The script, or at least the footage, however it’s edited, is generous and sympathetic to its characters for the most part, to both their varied histories and their individual dreams. I’m reminded of the ill-fated How To Make It In America, which purported to explore the lives of native New Yorkers hustling their way to the top. Despite the scattered, unscripted nature of Washington Heights, MTV’s show is a better exploration of the same themes. It is perhaps a narrow definition of progress, to define it as MTV choosing to focus the camera in a slightly different direction, a few miles uptown of its previous show The City. But Washington Heights is progress, if only to offer a demystification of these people and their world, in their own voices, for a change. 

It could, however, do with a little more structure. It seems the show is deliberately open-ended, but even a nod to narrative structure episode-to-episode would make the show much more watchable. Both screeners sent out to critics loosely centered around an event—two different performances by narrator JP, an aspiring musician. Given that its two other most compelling characters are also pursuing their dreams—Frankie is a spoken-word poet and Jimmy is trying to get back into pro baseball—the remainder of the season might rely on these characters’ passions to churn the narrative forward. The ambitions of these characters provide anchoring points for the other characters, who are there primarily for relationship drama. Almost every scene features one of the three of them, and though their dialogue is typically neighborhood gossip, the characters are articulate about their dreams and identities. JP lives with his mother; Frankie is crushing on a good friend; Jimmy’s father has 15 more months in a prison upstate. The characters worry about rent and getting older and get drunk on the roof while watching the sun set.

Reality television, ironically, has trouble feeling natural. The creative editing and souped-up conflict make the people on screen feel distant and contrived. Washington Heights struggles with that just as any fledgling show might, but so far, their choices have led to organic moments of true affection and conflict. It does get slow at times, and the characters appear to be trying to get used to being themselves in front of the cameras. It’s still an awkward soap opera. But as the characters are getting comfortable, they reveal fascinating inner lives, complicated by their identities, but still universally relatable. In the second episode of the season, JP starts discussing why Jimmy went to prison, and how his current estrangement from the community is affecting him. It doesn’t feel scripted or forced. That gets to the heart of the appeal of these Millennial soap operas, and Washington Heights in particular—it feels real, and that’s enough.

Stray observations:

  • “Would you rather get attacked by a train rat or a garbage rat?” Serious questions for any New Yorker.
  • The scene where Jimmy and Eliza visit his dad in prison is really affecting. (Everyone cries!!)
  • I’m hoping for more backstory on Taylor at some point. Given that she is openly identified as “not really like everyone else,” I’m curious how she got to the neighborhood and became part of the group.
  • I believe the assumption here is that the kids are all on summer vacation, and that’s why they don’t film them doing any work, but it’s hard to tell. Maybe this comes up later. Or maybe they’re all unemployed, and this is a plot point? I'm not sure.