True Life: I’m Occupying Wall Street

MTV’s deflating visit to Zuccotti park.

MTV's True Life: Occupy Wall Street
Bryan from MTV’s True Life: I’m Occupying Wall Street

© MTV Networks.

True Life is the documentary series that MTV sometimes uses to clear its conscience and disinfect its epidermis. Think of it as a penitential chamber the network visits in between pickled trips to the Real World confessional and greasy lulls in the Jersey Shore smush room. The more serious installments (“I’m on Crystal Meth,” “I Have a Husband in Iraq”) qualify as journalism, and even the softer ones (“I’m Going to Fashion Week,” “I’m a Heisman Trophy Candidate”) have an anthropological integrity. The worst that can be said of the most salacious is to scoff at their obviousness: “I’m Horny in Miami”? Who isn’t?

The series gets current-eventful this weekend with True Life: I’m Occupying Wall Street (Saturday at 6 p.m. ET). If you flipped on the episode knowing nothing of the concrete goals of the OWS protestors—and it generally seems that they themselves are fuzzy on those—True Life is not going to be of great service. Rushing to find a story and resisting the temptation to force a narrative onto it, MTV gives us quick slices of two lives, sidewalk sketches of youthful idealism.

The primary subject is Bryan, a 23-year-old sporting a punkish patch of industrial green in his thatch of brown hair. Bryan describes himself as “a middle-class white kid from Northampton, Mass.,” and he loosely paraphrases the line about the conditions necessary for the triumph of evil admirably and earnestly. I wanted to like Bryan. Then I watched him watch Michael Bloomberg (whom I also want to like) take a tour of Zuccotti Park. The presence of Mayor Moneybags aroused something half-witted within the youth. “How’s that $14 billion and private media company that you own treating you?” Bryan heckled, stupidly, despite being well out of Bloomberg’s earshot. Then Bryan addressed his muttering to the home viewer: “Someone with $14 billion that owns his own private media company should not be in the park.”

That such behavior is twerpy should be obvious. It is unneighborly. It does not recognize the nature of public space. It traffics in the language of a turf war. It tells off the very plutocracy that OWS demands the respect of. It is a tantrum unworthy of people whose concerns are gravely serious. It is insulting, also, in that it underestimates Bloomberg’s wealth by about $5 billion.

By leading with this scene, MTV reveals a particular sort of media bias. Since at least the late ‘80s of Madonna and N.W.A., the network has been telling the youth of America to express themselves, a call now taken up by Lady Gaga and other dance-pop populists. The idea is to celebrate yourself and sing yourself, and that’s lovely, but the implication is that singing is an end in itself and that every song is worth a listen regardless of its clarity or content. What does Bryan want? “To effect serious social change.” Fantastic. We could use quite a bit of that. It would be amazing if he managed to achieve his aims by occupying Wall Street, and I would be especially grateful if he arrived at a solution that didn’t interfere with my ability to occupy the guest bedrooms of 1-percenters’ vacation homes on occasional three-day weekends. But how is he going to achieve it? There’s no telling. All is nebulous.

Focusing on Bryan, MTV seems to be saying that changing the world is slow work, generally unglamorous and often Sisyphean. He’s a member of OWS’ sanitation crew, and we see him hauling Hefty bags, scrubbing the pavement, and moving a broom around the listless limbs of his less energetic colleagues. We seem him gleaming with triumph on the morning of Oct. 14, after the park’s owners postponed a “cleaning” that protesters took to be a prelude to their permanent removal: “It was really incredible to think that we can fight battles against these people, and we can actually win.” Don’t let it go to your head.

The other person profiled in this half hour is a 20-year-old college student named Kait, very spunky, often accompanied by a sidekick named Caitlin. (“This is like my Red Bull right here,” Caitlin says of the buzz of participating in history.) Where Bryan is bedding down in Zuccotti Park, Kait is spending her days there and bouncing back to her dorm room in the evenings. Kait says “it’s empowering” to shout at banking executives—at their office buildings, that is. At one point, the protesters march up to the crossroads of the world. “I never even imagined myself going to Times Square for New Years’ Eve, let alone going to Times Square to protest,” she says with terrible giddiness. Outside of the Good Morning America studios, the crowd sees the news of its presence there stream across ABC’s news ticker, and Kait squeals like a bobbysoxer. Something serious is going on out there, but the sense is that Kait doesn’t want your revolution if she can’t dance.