What was Spike TV? “The First Network for Men,” they said, in 2003. But, like: What was “men”?
When we talk about masculinity today, it’s often modified as “toxic.” This is a side effect of current events; you see, a significant minority of voting Americans decided that the golden testicles joke from Austin Power 3 should be President of the United States. So here in 2018, that five-word motto sounds funny or bleak: Emptyheaded, or halfway to a dumb Men’s Rights convention. The first network for men? As opposed to…?
Spike ends on Wednesday and will become the Paramount Network on Thursday. When you consider its (lack of) legacy, you have to remember that “manhood” – as an identity self-aware enough for capitalism to sell – was in a strange place circa 2003. In the crosscurrents of the National Network becoming TNN and then Spike TV, Comedy Central had The Man Show, Maxim was popular enough to justify an ancillary publication so generic it was literally just Stuff, and a macho celebrity was fending off sexual harassment allegations while running for political office. There was an unsteady quality to all of this, like to be in on the joke you had to take it seriously.
This is a cultural divot we’ve never properly repaired. And the original programming lineup for Spike TV shows a hazy mission already drifting. There was a cartoon show from Pamela Anderson and Stan Lee. Both, in their own way, are fading remnants of bygone eras: she a sex icon of ’90s television and inadvertent innovator toward the impending revolution in amateur sex tapery, and he a living mascot for a generation of comic book heroes and co-creator of last century’s intellectual property that this century would reclaim (if you’re an optimist) or strip-mine (if you think reboots are the bait for history’s trap).
Two primes past, and thus, Stripperella: A cartoon about a stripper with no proper nudity, the actual mature content in the title held away from view, like how they never stop waiting for Godot. Was this supposed to be funny? There were other “adult” cartoons lost quick to history, including Gary the Rat and the misbegotten Ren & Stimpy “Adult Party Cartoon.” That latter is a weird marvel of lysergic nostalgia, barely animated, anti-entertaining. In the first episode, they move out of a hobo’s mouth and into a dive bar spittoon, a helpful metaphor for every rebranding Spike TV would ever attempt.
Was this, then, what your precious men wanted? Not by a long shot. None of those initial shows lasted, and maybe we’re looking in the wrong direction when we pretend Spike’s original programming mattered. In its lifetime, the network had rerun rights for the Star Trek shows, the James Bond movies, the first two Star Wars trilogies, and a couple of the CSI shows. Those franchises altogether don’t suggest any identity, unless that identity is “stuff that has been popular.” Most of us aren’t popular, but so many of us want to be popular. I wonder if that sincere striving toward shallowness was the most national thing about this strange network.
The wrestling shows took off on Spike TV, and there’s a history of this century that treats the phenomenon of wrestling as a defining national phenomenon. The 45th President of the United States is the first President to bodyslam someone in WrestleMania. (His appearance didn’t air on Spike, but you imagine there was a sizable crossover audience.) He might not be the last if “The Rock for President” meme is more than just a meme. You see how Spike TV caught some vibe, even if it never really figured out how to explore it: We’re a network for men, ho ho ho, but we’re funny, but we’re serious, but we’re badass, but it’s all a gag.
I remember Spike’s stranger moments, the blind alleys that could have been offramps. The Joe Schmo Show was a faux-reality show, a sainted shortlived subgenre from before reality itself got too faux for satire. In a better world, maybe that could have been Spike’s whole brand: A network of Joe Schmoes and Big Fat Obnoxious parodies, so many phony competition shows that even contestants on American Idol and Survivor would wonder if they were playing out con jobs. There was a move toward video game programming, and with hindsight, you wonder if there was a moment when Spike could’ve become Twitch, the way us journalists look back to the glory days of yore wondering why newspapers didn’t become Google.
More rebrandings: “Get More Action,” “Get Real,” “The Ones to Watch,” real back-of-the-napkin stuff here, gang. Reruns of Cops, something called Tut, a Blade show that should’ve lasted long enough for people to take a Blade show seriously, a development deal with (hey!) Dwayne Johnson. At the end, a new beginning: Lip Sync Battle, based on this hilarious idea Jimmy Fallon had of getting famous people to pretend to sing famous songs. From Stripperella to LL Cool J is an improvement, no doubt, and the Paramount Network launches Thursday with a live edition of Lip Sync Battle. Live, viral, celebrity, nostalgia: It can only be a phenomenon. Onwards to Waco and Yellowstone and Heathers.
But first, thank Twitter! On its penultimate day, on a social media feed, the network came to life. “No one around here knew how to read,” admitted @Spike. And: “The ‘get more action’ tagline was actually my personal mantra. I was in a 3 month dry spell.” I have to assume the Jerry Maguiring of Spike’s Twitter account was barely approved, a viking funeral pyre set by self-loathing. “I gave my entire staff empty gift cards as parting gifts because f— them and their joy”: That joke scans as real office-drone anger, only just barely passive-aggressive.
In terms of corporate messaging, this is like watching Shazam turn into Billy Batson. See all the mock bro swagger fading into lonelyboy self-deprecation, the ruefulness of someone admitting they never liked this job anyway, jokes about bad logos, gallows humor about 7th floor toilets. Rewind to the beginning, and appreciate the big lie: The First Network for Men was the Schmo-est of Joes, all along.