Guilty Pleasures: MTV

It’s fashionable for Generation Xers (weaned on Martha Quinn and reruns of “The Young Ones”) to complain about MTV these days and its reluctance to play music videos outside of a few snippets on TRL. Last the Cheese Fry checked, the M in their name still meant “music.” But the network now is more of a “lifestyle” channel that programs its schedule with an eye to exploiting the trendy, sex-obsessed, in-your-face sensibility of its target demographic.

Even so, if you choose wisely, MTV can still deliver the goods, even if it’s often a guilty pleasure that comes with a whole lot of Clearasil spots. The best of the bunch are these three:

1. Made. This show – a rather traditional one-hour documentary, though not something you’d ever confuse with “60 Minutes” – offers the kinder, gentler side of MTV, a channel that each year shamelessly broadcasts from the half-naked, drunken beaches of Spring Break. Each episode of “Made” follows one high schooler as he/she works to attain some dream or goal (which usually seems fairly arbitrary) with the help of a professional guide. See the school geek try to become a rocker, see the outcast try to join the basketball team, see the wallflower try to become a tough skateboarder. On its face of it the whole thing is rather silly, but these kids are far more real – full of doubt, worry, and a desperate need to fit in – than the plastic specimens you’ll see squealing on the Spring Break shows. Plus, the brutally clique-ish high school social scene on display in each episode in verite detail is sure to induce cringes in any viewer who managed to barely escape the 12th grade in one piece. It’s a John Hughes film come to life.

2. Next. The Dating Game for the ADD set. One contestant gets to meet five people to date (yes, there are same-sex episodes) and at any minute can say “Next!” to dump that person and meet the next one in the queue. When the contestant finally meets the date he/she likes, he gives them a chance to go on another date (without the camera crew) or take home one dollar for every minute they’ve been together. Whatever. The fun comes just from watching the cross-section calvacade of contestants and dates who come from all walks of life and all manners of style and dress, from surfer dudes to goth chicks, stripper chic to preppy nerd. Most of them are the kind of people you’d never in a million years want to date. Which is why it’s so much for see their egos deflated, either by being dismissed with a rude “Next” or by being the one cruelly saying “Next” for such shallow and pointless reasons. The flip side of this, of course, is that you end up rooting hard for the handful of genuinely decent-seeming people.

3. Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Gauntlet 2. All the punctuation (and that cheeky “2”) in the wordy title can be intimidating, yes, but this is the guiltiest of MTV guilty pleasures, an ingenious and addictive cross-pollination between “Survivor”-style elimination challenges and bratty 20-something psychodrama of “The Real World.” By now MTV has cultivated a fairly extensive stable of reality TV stars thanks to so many years of “Real World” and “Road Rules” seasons and the network treats the cast members like its own personal company of actors, each with his or her own role to play – some are villains, some are heroes, some can be counted on, some are hopeless flakes. Because no one cuts tape together better than MTV’s editors, you can’t help but get sucked into the petty jealousies, beer-soaked bravado, and snarky to-the-camera testimonials. Watch it once if only for the extremely over-the-top opening credits packed full of an inordinate amount of sexy pouts and sullen glares that’s apparently intended to be taken completely seriously. We kid because we love.