MTV’s latest hope for a reboot is the equivalent, more or less, of rummaging through the nearish past to see if old styles still fit. Siesta Key, which debuted July 31, is an hour-long reality-based drama set among young twenty-somethings on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The series combines the aggressively “cinematic” shooting style and ennui-filled lead performances of past MTV hit The Hills with the edgily loucheness that characterized the network’s other recent reality hit, Jersey Shore.
The show itself is a mess, proving that the formula that made The Hills work was the particular and odd charisma of its leads, who managed to turn vapidity into something soulful. The Hills, one of the most influential shows of the century so far, brought to bear upon its characters a shrewd and at times lacerating analytic eye. Its stars were sometimes in on the joke, sometimes not. Its treatment of interpersonal bickering as the stuff of great melodrama was cleverly deflating, and set a playbook that’s been adopted widely across reality TV. With far less sophistication but at least a spark of wit, Jersey Shore got that its characters were embarrassing themselves.
Siesta Key seems to signal that the network’s identity crisis—trying to figure out what to put on television to capture an audience of young people who are growing away from TV—is far from over. The show follows various characters in post-collegiate miasma—none have quite found real jobs yet, all the better to spend a lot of time with their parents and even more time lying around in swimsuits as pop hits blare in the background. (In a moment characteristic of this startlingly lascivious show, one male specimen emerges from the surf like Venus on the half shell. His girlfriend, herself shot in prurient close-up, ogles him from the beach in a manner so salacious I blushed. We’re a long way from the hills.) A lengthy voice-over introduction acquaints us with the players on this particular sun-baked chessboard. The show could have gotten away with either “The island is small, and our crew is tight” or “There’s a lot of money, and even more drama,” but not both.
Siesta Key is deadly serious about how glamorous and fun its characters’ lives are, even as the situations it depicts—all taking place among a group of adults hung up on social bonds forged in high school—are actually kind of a bummer. No surprise perhaps that the whole project was funded by a Gulf Coast entrepreneur who wanted to spotlight the lifestyle of his son and their friends. But this is the sort of show, lacking nuance or wit, reliant on the single-entendre, that comes from a network that doesn’t quite trust its audience. (A reboot of TRL, the video-request show whose basic take was that all celebrities are great, is forthcoming.) That the show comes out against the backdrop of MTV having recently shuttered its ambitious online-news division, one whose commitment to the written word was recently dismissed by the network’s president Chris McCarthy, who said in an interview “We put young people on the screen, and we let the world hear their voices. We shouldn’t be writing 6,000-word articles on telling people how to feel.”
The irony is that Siesta Key tells its viewers what to think, and does so aggressively. There’s no nuance to its agreement with its characters’ self-belief in themselves as sexy heroes and heroines. In an era in which savvy teens express odd whimsy and wordplay on social media, it’s hard to understand what about a show that works in big, dull archetypes will capture the imagination. After all, there’s already a place where people play out their personal dramas against sunny backdrops with no semblance of self-awareness. It’s called Instagram.