What the Hell Happened to the MTV Movie Awards?

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Jeff Kravitz/Getty
Jeff Kravitz/Getty

Tonight, anyone still tuning in to MTV will finally get a break from watching Rob Dyrdek laugh at concussions when the network broadcasts its annual MTV Movie & TV Awards.

Like last year, the ceremony will be split into two sections: Scripted and Unscripted (presumably, so the movie stars in attendance don’t have to take selfies with the cast of The Challenge). The first two hours will commemorate 2021’s biggest blockbusters and most-streamed shows. Vanessa Hudgens, who seems to be coming for Ryan Seacrest’s TV-presenting crown as of late, will serve as host. Jennifer Lopez will stop by to accept this year’s Generation Award and give viewers a sneak peek of her upcoming Netflix documentary Halftime. And Jack Black will take home the Comedic Genius Award.

The latter part of the ceremony, hosted by former Bachelorette Tayshia Adams, will recognize achievements in reality television, talk shows, social media, and music documentaries. Former Real Housewives of New York star and SkinnyGirl founder Bethenny Frankel will be honored for her contributions to the reality genre, despite her diatribe against trans children last year. Like the previous Unscripted ceremony, the night will mostly give internet-famous people, like the realtors of the Oppenheim Group, some Real Housewives and the cast of Vanderpump Rules, the opportunity to pose on a red carpet and feel like their contributions to society are significant outside of Twitter memes. And honestly, good for them!

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In the age of awards shows and our biggest movie stars being frustratingly dull, you’d be forgiven for not knowing this broadcast was even happening or that the MTV Movie Awards had recently started recognizing television shows and TikTok videos. Much like the network itself, the once-iconic telecast has lost much of its identity and cultural relevance in the social media and streaming eras. Instead of spawning headlines we talk about for days and jaw-dropping moments we rewatch on YouTube, the show feels like it’s constantly playing catchup with the internet and pop culture.

Even just a decade ago, the MTV Movie Awards felt like they served an important function to the average moviegoer, film obsessives, and celebrities that attended the show. My first time watching was in 2010 when host Aziz Ansari had yet to be outed as a creep and vampires were all the rage in lieu of Marvel superheroes. The overall vibe of the broadcast was crass, horny, and delightfully cringe. There were a lot of bleeped-out jokes that made me jealous I wasn’t in the audience to hear and funny pre-recorded bits. Tom Cruise showed up as his Tropic Thunder character Les Grossman to perform a dance number with Jennifer Lopez. And Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart confirmed that they were the most awkward couple in Hollywood when they accepted the award for Best Kiss by staging a non-kiss.

Arguably, the most memorable moment of the night was when Sandra Bullock accepted the Generation Award after being publicly humiliated by her cheating ex-husband with a Nazi fetish. She wore a stunning, backless minidress, assured the audience and viewers at home that she was doing just fine, and made out with Scarlett Johansson onstage. I specifically remember this PR moment being discussed in the news for about a week.

Overall, the show’s eccentricity, compared to the Oscars or the Grammys, had a strong impact on me and made me curious about the televised chaos I had missed in the years prior—though my favorite moments to revisit are a bit more tame. (Many elements of the show, like the time Jim Carrey forcibly kissed Alicia Silverstone onstage and a few of the Best Kiss nominees, don’t age well).

I more so enjoy watching snapshots of our culture’s most beloved icons when they were experiencing peak popularity but still had something to prove—like when Lisa Kudrow hosted the 1999 ceremony and delivered an effortlessly funny monologue to an enamored crowd. Oppositely, Sarah Jessica Parker hosting the next year felt like the shy girl at school being forced to do a raunchy stand-up act, yet still managed to win over the audience. And in 2004, Lindsay Lohan’s turn as host marked her arrival as a Hollywood “It” girl and soon-to-be woman.

Twitter also reminded us recently of when the famously press-averse Beyonce rather amusingly put on her journalist hat and interviewed celebrities—most famously, Johnny Knoxville—on the red carpet for the 2003 pre-show.

The thing I find myself paying the most attention to in this footage of previous ceremonies is the cutaways to the audience—not just the celebrities occupying the seats, but the fact that they were in them at all and seemed eager to take in an entertaining show.

In recent years, major stars attending the MTV Movie & TV Awards have been known to accept whatever special award they’re guaranteed to receive that night or promote whatever Marvel project they’re in and go home. The same goes for the MTV VMAs, where you can play Where’s Waldo with the A-list musicians in attendance who aren’t just there to perform. Even outside of MTV, awards shows have increasingly seemed like a chore.

This isn’t specifically an MTV problem, as social media has significantly altered celebrity culture and how famous people appear in public. The decline in ratings and the quality of awards shows is industry-wide. However, it’s hard to ignore how much the music channel has lost sight of its brand over the past decade, and why it was such a cultural force to begin with. This was evident during the network’s hardly-acknowledged 40th anniversary last year and certainly is reflected in their current slate of programming.

MTV’s awards shows had their own identity, too. Like a dressed-down version of the Golden Globes, viewers watched the MTV Movie Awards to witness celebrities let their hair down, lampoon their own work, and maybe even make out onstage. Now, the show is noticeably devoid of outrageous or bizarre moments. As funny as the singer of “Sneakernight” may be online—albeit unintentionally—we can more or less expect Hudgens to keep it cute as host of this year’s show.

On the bright side, MTV might be onto something by giving reality stars—some of the most fascinating, shameless, consistently entertaining public figures—a moment to shine, one that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else aside from the pretty much obsolete People’s Choice Awards on E! If only the network could encourage the stars to behave as obnoxiously as they do online and on their respective programs at the ceremony, they might be able to produce some viral moments. For now, unless some miraculous producer steps in, the MTV Movie & TV Awards will remain the broadcast you slowly realize occurred several days ago on Instagram and have no interest in finding out who the winners are.

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