Alex, our buff Romeo, is pouring out a gigantic novelty glass of champagne on Juliette’s butt. This is a culminating scene in the premiere episode of Siesta Key, a soapy reality TV drama that’s anything but Shakespearean.
In Siesta Key, Florida, MTV has found a mecca of mindless, made-for-TV millennials. The ratio of blondes to brunettes is rivaled only by the ratio of bikinis to one pieces. And the traditional reality TV confessional has been replaced by camera work closely resembling an Instagram boomerang: butts sliding in and out of pools, drinks poured and slammed back in perpetuity. These lusty shots are interspersed with the kind of stilted conversations and recycled plots we’ve come to expect from slightly-scripted guilty pleasure TV shows.
Alex is caught between Juliette, his girlfriend from last summer, and Madisson, his high school sweetheart (in Alex’s defense, and as Siesta Key recappers will soon discover, it’s very hard to tell two blondes in face-obscuring sunglasses apart). Juliette and Alex have undeniable chemistry, as evidenced by a formal dinner date in which Juliette enthusiastically listens to Alex talk about his boat. But Madisson also likes to listen to Alex talk about his boat, and their complementary post-college plans (taking it easy and fishing, respectively), indicate a match made in trust fund baby heaven.
Meanwhile, our more industrious cast members, Chloe and Kelsey, work at a Tiki Bar where they only mix vodka Red Bulls. Much like the vodka Red Bull—a simple drink for idiots—Siesta Key gets the job done by sticking to a basic recipe. The show has been billed as the next Laguna Beach and, 13 years later, watching a girl with perfect highlights fake-cry on an abandoned beach in front of a budget Marissa Cooper mansion is just as satisfying as ever. Unfortunately, unlike Laguna Beach, the show that gave us Lauren Conrad and Kristin Cavallari, Siesta Key has yet to debut a cast member with real star power. Any Floridian worth her salt can stare, vacant-eyed, at a row of bikinis or start a cat fight at a pool party, but Siesta Key lacks a charismatic newcomer capable of carrying an entire franchise.
It’s too soon to say if channel surfers will take to Siesta Key or opt for another episode of Say Yes to the Dress. Still, it’s worth examining why, more than a decade later, MTV is giving the Laguna Beach formula another go. To parrot the Siesta Key casts’ faux-profundity, 2017 is not 2004. For one, the reality TV landscape is vastly different, and even the most long-running shows are challenging themselves to adapt and evolve.
Perhaps the best example of this is The Bachelor franchise, which features the sort of white people dating shenanigans and sudsy plot lines that once drew viewers to Laguna Beach. These days, the show also deals in issues like racism and gaslighting (with varying degrees of success). It’s also increasingly self-aware—the now-controversial Bachelor in Paradise pokes fun at contestants and dating show conventions, and the current season of The Bachelorette has offered meta-commentary in which Rachel contemplates how the world is reacting to her dating decisions in real-time.
Elsewhere, reality shows are either showcasing niche, under-represented communities (RuPaul’s Drag Race) or attempting to update an old formula (America’s Next Top Model). Unlike ANTM, which began featuring social media models after its recent Rita Ora-fication, Siesta Key’s producers seem deliberately opposed to switching things up. Aside from the smartphones, Siesta Key really seems like a Laguna Beach contemporary, frozen in time. There’s no mention of, say, Kendall Jenner or Donald Trump in the first episode. The cast members appear blissfully unaware of the cultural space they’re entering or the reality TV shows they’re emulating—musical cues aside, this show could take place in 2004 or on an entirely different planet.
This combination of escapism and nostalgia is in line with MTV’s current trajectory, as the once-revolutionary channel continues to execute its 180-degree turn away from forward thinking.
In the past few months, MTV seems to have embraced a dystopian future in which 20-somethings exclusively crave the TV they watched when they were in middle school—shows they can mindlessly tune out while scrolling through journalism-lite videos on their social media feeds. MTV, one of Viacom’s six “flagship” brands, made their intentions clear earlier this summer in the decision to reimagine MTV News, “shifting resources into short-form video content more in line with young people’s media consumption habits.” After roughly a year and a half, a short-lived era of exceptional long-form music journalism and criticism at MTV News came to a close.
MTV News isn’t the only outlet that’s “shifting to video”; somewhere between a euphemism and a genuine strategy, this dreaded pivot has put dozens of journalists out of work in just the past few months. But for MTV, it marks the spiritual death of a network that was once vital, political, and original. For almost four decades, MTV was a platform dedicated to reaching out to young people, whether that meant exposing suburbanites to hip-hop or giving teenagers their first taste of politics and social justice. The Video Music Awards showed that awards shows could actually be fun (not to mention scandalous), and The Real World essentially invented reality TV. After so many years on the frontline of the zeitgeist, MTV seems to be heading into early retirement.
These days, MTV is prioritizing their reality, music, and live shows—which means more programming like Siesta Key. Additionally, they’re reviving TRL and My Super Sweet 16, and other reboots are probably in the works; in a February interview, MTV president Chris McCarthy expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of bringing back vintage MTV series, boasting, “We have 35 years of amazing IP.”
There’s nothing wrong with riding the nostalgia train, provided the rest of MTV’s new old-school programming isn’t as straight and white as Siesta Key. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that MTV should stick to their strengths. Now that there’s a reality TV show for almost every talent, interest, and subculture, MTV is reverting to the universal appeal of the simple life: blondes, beaches, and basic-ass plot lines. Laguna Beach, TRL, and My Super Sweet 16 were all great shows with big cult followings.
But at the same time, when these shows premiered, viewers actually found new artists through TRL, and My Super Sweet 16 was a primary resource for aspirational tales of the rich and famous. Now there’s Pitchfork and the Real Housewives, not to mention music Twitter and Rich Kids of Instagram. Perhaps realizing that they couldn’t drive the conversation even if they wanted to (prioritizing friendly relationships with artists often came at the expense of MTV News’ journalism), MTV has left the “revolutionary” work to other networks and news outlets.
In the same way that MTV News’ video pivot felt like an underestimation of consumers, programming like Siesta Key and TRL 2.0 appears to operate under the assumption that viewers need to be coddled, not challenged. By ceasing to push at the boundaries of what music television, journalism, and criticism can be, MTV is becoming the opposite of must-see TV—the comfort food of content.