Hank Stuever on MTV's 'Buried Life' & CW's 'Life Unexpected'

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010

It's supposed to be a good thing to dream big, savor life and try to help others -- and nobody does these things better than the puppy-eyed, whip-smart millennial children of the baby boomers. (If you don't believe it, they'll prove it for you in their college essays.) With their hammers-and-nails and charity-car-wash optimism, the kids today are so good, so fresh and so well-meaning that you don't know whether to kiss 'em or throw up on 'em.

"The Buried Life" inspires both reactions. It's a cute idea shot down by its own nauseating sense of self-satisfaction.

A quasi-documentary debuting Monday night on MTV, "The Buried Life" follows four young men in their early 20s (Ben Nemtin and his indistinguishable friends Duncan, Jonnie and Dave) across the continent in a ramshackle bus, a journey designed to accomplish 100 zany items on their be-all, end-all to-do list. It's like "Bucket List Babies."

Apparently, Nemtin read some lines in English class from the 1852 poem "The Buried Life" by Matthew Arnold ("But often, in the din of strife/There rises an unspeakable desire/After the knowledge of our buried life . . .") and resolved to stave off education, career and other boring commitments to, say, paraglide, sing the national anthem in a packed stadium, crash a wedding, sleep in a haunted house, kiss the Stanley Cup.

Oh, and host "Saturday Night Live" and play basketball with President Obama (which, in a coming episode, brings the show to Washington, where, hallelujah, they do not gain POTUS access).

Nemtin and his friends began the project on their own in 2006, videotaping and blogging their exploits while soliciting donations for . . . ? For four entitled kids to goof off, basically. After a lot of kudos and a jeans commercial, the young men were offered the ultimate upgrade: an MTV reality show.

The hook, if you want to call it that, is that the boys of "The Buried Life" also have vowed to help others accomplish their own "someday before I die" dreams. Like fraternity members doing penance for a raging rush kegger, the boys approach strangers and sheepishly ask them what would be on their own list, and then help grant the wishes that seem the most altruistic and world-bettering. This involves blood drives, visiting inner-city classrooms, running marathons, etc.

But first, off to the Playboy Mansion! The guys have always dreamed of crashing a party there. But, dude, how? "The Buried Life" relies on wits and gumption. After staking out the Beverly Hills mansion, they form a scheme. Two of them will dress as Oompa-Loompas (the party has a "Willy Wonka" theme) and hide in a giant cake, while another will submit to a spray-tan and try to sneak in disguised as soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Part of the their plan works, part of it doesn't -- and there's a staginess to the whole enterprise that merits suspicion. For the price of whooping it up with Snoop Dogg and motorboating in the excess cleavage of Hef's infamous swimming pool grotto, the boys must "do good" now: They've decided to help a charter school educator fulfill his lifelong dream of . . . getting computers for the classroom.

Their brilliant idea here is to busk on the streets of Los Angeles for cash. (One of them is an expert breakdancer.) Inexplicably, they somehow raise enough cash to buy the school one iMac computer. They drop by the classroom and make awkward, monotone, follow-your-dreams speeches to the kids: "We kinda saw your situation, and, uh, we'd like to make our donation to these kids' -- these wonderful kids' -- education and their advancement in technology."

Thank you, Gandhi. From the cheering, you'd think Nemtin and his buddies had cured cancer, and nobody pats the young men's backs more heartily than they do themselves. They are bursting with pride -- and so is MTV, which on some level (perhaps subconscious) is hoping that this show makes up for the debauchery of "Jersey Shore." For the underlying message in "The Buried Life" is that you can be a complete ass, so long as you perform the occasional charitable work. It also promotes a distasteful tendency in our Oprah era: No good can really be done unless television cameras and Facebook status updates make note of it.

CW's 'Life Unexpected'

Although she's imaginary, little Lux (Brittany Robertston) offers at least some hope for Gen Y in the CW's new, not-a-family family drama "Life Unexpected," which also premieres Monday night. Lux's quest is more determined: Bounced around foster homes all her life, she's decided to petition the court for emancipation on her 16th birthday.

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