Savage U

Savage U debuts tonight on MTV at 11 p.m. Eastern.

It’ll be interesting to see whether MTV’s audience warms to Dan Savage. It’s certainly entertaining to watch fraternity brothers and straightlaced college students let their guards down on-camera with the provocative sex-advice columnist. Savage U’s titular star is so completely at ease with his sexual experience and perspective that anyone who’s uncomfortable being honest around him—even if they’ve never encountered anyone like him before—just looks like a pussy. And if there’s one man who knows what that looks like, it’s Savage.

In just over 22 minutes, the première of Savage U tours the University of Maryland’s campus, dorms, bars, and auditoriums, and lets the cameras roll on its host as he answers questions about clitoral stimulation and mentors shy undergrads about finding their sexual identity. There’s also a strong emphasis on STD/STI awareness, whether Savage lovingly scolds one student’s girlfriend for having sex without birth control (he reminds her that, chances are, an unplanned child would primarily become her responsibility) or acknowledging that bathroom graffiti cautioning to never “raw-dog a random” is actually great advice.

There’s a no-nonsense approach to Savage U’s production—compassionate, instructive conversations with individual UMers cut with snippets of group Q&A sessions—a luxury afforded because of Savage himself. There’s really no one else—and certainly no one being marketed to younger viewers—with his particular credibility and charm. When he explains to overly sex-driven Madelyn that, “Women reading Cosmo and then having certain expectations are like guys watching porn and then having certain expectations,” it’s clearly a revelatory insight. And if it’s an epiphany for Madelyn, then it will be for millions of American girls just like her. Later, when he answers an inquiry about the facial-moisturizing benefits of sperm by musing, “Let’s err on the side of yes,” it establishes Savage as an authority figure who can be trusted, one for whom sex-education isn’t just scare tactics and graphic images of venereal disease. Savage actually has sex, and knows it can be messy and funny and personal and dirty and embarrassing. He also knows that kids rarely, if ever, get that impression from someone over 25. 

Adults, and especially parents, can also learn plenty from Savage U. When an overweight 22-year-old named Marty who’s struggling with emerging gay tendencies opens up about being a virgin, in addition to years of traumatic rejection, Savage is tender and non-judgmental. Moreover, he’s patient. Rather than simply reassuring Marty that he’s merely young and in the process of self-discovery, Savage offers tools that he can use now to mature and enjoy a happier sex life. Specifically, embracing his “Eastern-European Jewish” je ne sais quoi, looking for love from people willing to provide it, and deriving confidence from his goodness.

At the conclusion of “University Of Maryland,” we learn through pop-up freeze-frames that Marty has in fact been getting more action, that Madelyn reads more incisive literature, and that Mike and his girlfriend are better protected. Presumably, the producers kept in touch with their Maryland participants between shooting and airdate, and threw together the last-minute footage to authenticate Savage’s methods and give a bit of closure. To be honest though, Savage U doesn’t need to confirm the students’ happy endings or smart choices. What they—and by extension, the show’s audience—do with his advice is up to them. They’ll make mistakes and more poor decisions along the way, just like we all do. There’s also bound to be potential benefactors who would simply never watch an openly gay man advocate birth control and healthy approaches to a pre-marital sex life, especially with those very subjects currently the source of such intense debate. But MTV deserves credit for backing Savage U as a counterpoint to the utterly debased exploits of Jersey Shore and its kind. But what’s truly hopeful exciting is the way Savage U and its host project such broad appeal.

Stray observations:

  • Dan also spends a night with a couple of nerds who, along with their female friend, use a points-based system for hooking up. The girl is winning. Naturally, there are echoes of “The Contest.” Shitty, distorted echoes. 
  • Savage’s humility is his secret weapon. The opening disclaimer reads: “Dan and Lauren are not licensed therapists. Dan isn’t even a licensed driver.” 
  • Speaking of Lauren: That’s Savage’s producer, Lauren Hutchinson. She drives the van, coordinates the interviews and generally acts as foil and friend to Savage.
  • Favorite subtle quip: Savage asking a couple of flummoxed dudes, “Do the basketball players ever have sex with the football players?”
  • Savage’s blunt answer to whether bisexual men are probably gay: “Not a lot of mostly straight guys go, ‘I think I’ll put a penis in my mouth.’”
  • I love Savage’s anecdote about meeting his husband on a one-night stand, and the underlying, honest message that hookups and love connections aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
  • It’s probably a line Savage has used before, but referring to vaginal intercourse on one’s period as “sex during Shark Week” is priceless.
  • Savage tells Hutchinon she’s the Bella to his Edward. Lauren suggests Bella to his Jacob. Dan pauses and decides, “No, I like Edward to my Jacob.”
  • Savage’s parting words to the UM students say it all: “It was a real blast chatting with you, and good luck with sex.”

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