February 20, 2010

MTV Gets Real: Cabler Sees Future in 'The Buried Life'

Twenty years after launching The Real World, MTV hopes to reinvent Reality TV all over again with The Buried Life, a new nonfiction series that captures four young men traveling the country performing community service.

"The Buried Life feels more like a documentary than anything we've ever done," Brent Haynes, MTV's senior vice president for series development, declared at the "Future of Reality TV" panel the WestDoc Conference in Santa Monica, California, this past September. And that's no accident. According to Haynes, MTV's core demographic (12 to 24-year-olds) is, like, totally over self-indulgent meltdowns and manipulated story arcs. If MTV is right, the future is bright for the documentarian who dreams of a reality gig with heart.

The Buried Life features four athletic, gorgeous boys who are totally stoked about their awesome young lives, but instead of sharing an apartment in an upscale zip code, they're sharing an old bus, driving around in search of the meaning of life. And instead of relying on reality TV show-runners to shape Buried Life into a hit, MTV is banking on doc vets to capture this new millennial meme as it unfolds in real life. According to Haynes, MTV has heard the cry of the new generation and has vowed to stay "hands off."

 "Well, there's a little pinching!" counters Donnie Eichar, who spent six months in the field as MTV's story producer for Buried Life. But overall, says Eichar, the MTV execs stayed impressively true to their word to make a show that's "smart," but still "cool and hip"-starting with hiring someone like Eichar, who had never worked a day in Reality TV. The credits that wowed MTV were his feature-length doc about blind athletes (Victory Over Darkness) and Seeing With Sound, the Silver Telly winner he made for Current TV.

Then again, sending a reality crew after the boys of The Buried Life probably would have ended in disaster. The Buried Life was a cultural phenomenon with a mind of its own long before MTV heard about it. Back in 2006 four Canadians--brothers Jonnie and Duncan Penn and their friends Ben Nemtin and Dave Lingwood--set out on a road trip to cross off a list of "things to do before you die." They became an Internet sensation by adding one simple idea: help strangers along the way to fulfill their own dreams.

The team started filming their trip themselves, with small, unobtrusive cameras. Three years and half-a-million YouTube fans later, the four are still helping strangers and still tackling their bucket list with charming zest. The young men have yet to cross off #87--"Pay off our parents' mortgage."-but they can now cross off #53--"Start a television show."

But the Buried Lifers weren't about to compromise mission just for an airdate. Said Haynes, "Their intention still is not, ‘We're a TV show.'...When you meet these guys, they are very earnest and true about their mission." MTV's new hands-off philosophy resulted in a deal that gave the Canadians an unusual amount of control, including deciding how close the MTV film crew could get, as well as a lot of input in the edit bay.

 "I'm sure the powers that be would like them not to be as involved," says Eichar. "But they're fighting for a show that's fresh and intelligent. They're very smart guys. And they're heartfelt guys, deep down."

As the story producer, Eichar had the unenviable task of letting the Buried Life team do their thing, yet still capturing the footage MTV needed to turn in a story arc every episode. Each day, Eichar started with a shot list, but after that first cup of coffee, what went down on the day was entirely in the hands of the Buried Life stars. Eichar says it was his documentary experience that got him through it, as well as having faith to "trust the process." Eichar even refused to feed anyone the lines--"Which I'm sure drives the editors crazy! We could easily just say, ‘Hey, can you say this right now?' and we'd have our story points."

Eichar and the team also never resorted to using MTV money or fame to cross an item off the guys' list or that of the stranger they chose to help. "Trust me, it could have been a lot easier. Every episode we've ever done, I've been so worried and so stressed," admits Eichar, who watched the Buried Life team figure out how to cross off #59: "Deliver a baby."

But Eichar hopes the series will turn out to be the "future of reality TV." And his hope may be realized: The Buried Life was slated to take over the timeslot  for The Hills when it premieres November 30. 

 

Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance writer and director of the documentary Rebel Beat: The Story of LA Rockabilly. She can be reached at betty@betty-vision.com.

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