Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous debuts tonight on MTV at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from watching years of reality programming, especially MTV’s particular brand, it’s this: You, too, can be famous. And what’s more, you can be famous for doing nothing except simply existing in front of a camera. It’s ridiculous and it’s damaging but, admittedly, it’s also very alluring. To be rich and famous for simply drinking in Jersey or arguing with a roommate in a rent-free, posh house—isn’t that the dream? Money for nothing! (Except a little loss of privacy and, in most cases, a little loss of dignity.) MTV’s unspoken slogan is basically “Anyone Can Be Famous” which is why it’s so perfect that MTV is home to Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, a scripted comedy that shows how awful that attitude can be.
Zach Stone, played by 22-year-old baby-faced comedian Bo Burnham, wants to be famous. No, he’s going to be famous. Fame is Zach’s only option if he doesn’t want to stay in the same town and work in a metaphorical coal mine for his entire life. He doesn’t yet know what he’s going to be famous for—his brother is quick to point out that Zach has no talents, not even hidden ones—but that’s the point. He doesn’t need to be talented. Zach Stone (and presumably Burnham, who also co-created the show with Dan Lagana) have watched the same reality shows that we’ve watched so he knows that all you need for fame is a camera crew. Naturally, instead of going to college, he uses his life savings to hire a crew to follow him around. With a different creator, or on a different network, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous could have easily been the boring albeit sweet tale of an idealistic boy trying to fulfill his dreams. Instead, thankfully, the show mostly exploits our collective, twisted desire for fame and churns out something darker—and funnier.
Zach is even deluded enough in the way that most reality stars are. The high school ragers he reminisces about were actually Bar Mitzvahs, the trophies he brags about are his brother’s, and the girls he dated (and slept with) are nonexistent. Even when Zach speaks of his parents’ full support of his endeavor, his father’s reaction shots always show the contrast. Also, like most reality stars, you aren’t supposed to love Zach; he’s desperate, obnoxious, and self-centered to the point of total obliviousness. He is often terrible to the sweet girl next door, Amy, because he knows that the hot and popular girl, Christy, would look better on the show.
Zach’s need for attention is so demanding that he treats his grandmother’s funeral like a show where he’s the headliner. Early in the pilot, Zach does a second take on his reaction to his grandmother’s death so he’ll look sympathetic on camera. Later, he turns the funeral into a mockery complete with a song, beat boxing, and a glittery exit. It’s absolutely terrible, but it’s also hilarious. Burnham has a talent for taking awkward humor that’s hard to watch and infusing it with quick jokes that will make you laugh while simultaneously covering your face in horror.
Still, there’s no joy in watching a completely abhorrent character do awful thing after awful thing. Fortunately, there are a few scattered moments, generally after Zach calls cut and thinks the cameras have stopped rolling, when he’s not all that bad. When Amy asks why she’s not allowed to be seen with him on camera, he answers (with reality show jargon, which is a nice touch), “You should be unedited, or whatever” and she smiles shyly to herself. In fact, most of Zach’s character redemption is done through the eyes of the straight men that populate the world around him. When his best friend offers sympathetic reassurance about Zach’s inexperience with girls or when his mother comes to his aid when Zach screws up yet again, it’s easy to see that these people do love him. Underneath all the icky fame obsession, there is a pleasant show lurking that’s anchored by Zach’s quiet reactions while watching the girl he likes kiss someone else or while listening to his peers talk about leaving town for college in September. This pleasant show pops up every now and then and stays long enough to show another side of Zach, but never overstays its welcome
It’s clear that the writers (and Zach) are so knowledgeable of this particular world that the end result is smarter than you’d expect the average reality show send-up to be. In later episodes, Zach tries other ways to get famous. At one point, he attempts to create and leak a sex tape (this episode has MTV written all over it and, while funny enough, doesn’t work as well as the other two I watched). In another, he decides to try to become a celebrity chef with a terrible Gordon Ramsey impression. It’s the basic set-up of the series: he tries to become famous but then he fails spectacularly. It can be seen a cautionary tale for its fame-obsessed demographic but, if we’re being honest, it’s also totally plausible that a character like Zach Stone could become famous through these antics. Either way, it’s still fun to watch.
- Oh yeah, Zach’s father is played by Thomas Wilson, aka Biff from Back to the Future! Hi Biff!
- The show does a great job with small details. When we learn that Christy attributes her favorite Facebook quote to herself, it’s all we really need to know about her character to form a full picture.
- Actually, Christy might be better at the reality show game than Zach is. She immediately warms up to him when she spots the cameras, hams it up at the funeral, and later grabs the camera guy’s hand instead of Zach’s.
- A later episode features one of the grossest make-out sessions I’ve ever seen on TV, complete with sound effects that would make even the Clone High gang disgusted.
- “I was really sad because I was thinking about 9/11 all day.”
- The theme song changes with each episode but it’s still going to be hell trying to get it out of my head.