The MTV Movie & TV Awards are 26 years old — or 1 year old, if you count last year’s addition of small-screen entertainment as an existential transformation.
No question, that change has produced a hypnotically bad name: “TV” repeated twice, that infernal “and” breaking the word flow. Can’t they just call it “The Content Awards”? We all hate the word “content,” though. Maybe the network could double down on acronyms and introduce “The MTVMTV Awards”? Less of a tongue-twister, and would anyone care? Accepting the Generation Award, Chris Pratt gave a shout-out to “my son Jack, who will watch this one day.” He might not, man. In this stream everything age, it’s hard to find old iterations of this show online.
I know, because in the spirit of historical study, I tried watching as much of the 1998 and 2008 Movie Awards as I could find. The results were inconclusive, ghosts of zeitgeists past. Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Lloyd being chased by the ’90s Godzilla. Will Smith and Jennifer Lopez onstage together, 20 years ago, looking precisely the way they looked yesterday. Lindsay Lohan and P. Diddy doing an Obama/Clinton riff, with Verne Troyer (RIP) looking on. The 2008 awards featured cutaways to then-dating Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, then-dating Rihanna and Chris Brown, and then-denying Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Sigh, memories, that lost continent called youth.
This stuff lives better in memory, anyway. Ages ago, the Movie Awards occupied a quiet-but-essential spot in the teen calendar, airing just before or after finals week. It was the kind of thing you watched at a friend’s house right when summer was starting. All awards shows are trying to sell you something — Best Summer Movie You Haven’t Seen Yet — but you could groove onto the hype, would consume the market-tested buzz in binge quantities, because no one is more hyped than a teenager when summer starts. (The show moved up to April, unwisely, in 2013; this year’s return to June is a wrong righted.)
It’s all subjective, but no question, the greatest single moment in the whole history of this awards show was 1999’s musical performance “Wild Wild West,” brought to life by Will Smith, an inconceivable amount of talented musicians, dancers, steampunk very chic, and a horse. That performance was a month before the film came out, and for a shining moment you could see the future so clearly, a century of brilliant Will Smith July Fourths.
The 2018 MTVMTV Awards had no moment that wonderful, that silly, that bombastic. But it was the best version of this show I’ve ever watched. Maybe that’s not saying much — there have been bad, bad, bad years. But Monday’s presentation was peppy and openhearted, funny and dopey, short and sweet. Airing two days post-event, it was edited down to a lean two hours. Tiffany Haddish was the best MTV host this decade. She had a joyful attitude, a knack for twisting her boisterous energy into unexpected comedy daggers. “We are here to celebrate the best of movies and TV that we watch on our phones!” she exclaimed in her opening monologue, right before noting that “When a black girl talks this much on MTV, she usually just got catfished.”
She introduced Michael B. Jordan as “my last pregnancy scare,” and she compared the Kardashians to the Star Wars franchise, which, Rob is clearly the Solo, right? (Kourtney’s the Rogue One. Khloé’s the Empire. Kris is The Hidden Fortress. Kendall’s the Attack of the Clones, she knows why.) Haddish starred in a running series of sketches that green-screened her into the most popular recent movies. In one, she said Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren looked like “a f—ed up Keanu Reeves,” and somehow it sounded like a flirty compliment. She also yelled obvious logic questions at A Quiet Place (“If you go that long without sneezefarting, you’re the alien!”), which made me laugh my face off.
The nominations, the winners: Well. The MTVMTV Awards have a somewhat funky side equaled only by their shameless populism, so somehow Michael B. Jordan from Black Panther was competing against Aubrey Plaza from Legion. And Taiki Waititi was nominated in the same category as the mullet douche from Stranger Things 2. And wait, holy hell, was that Cristin Milioti from Black Mirror‘s “USS Callister”? Awesome! And she lost to Will from Stranger Things 2? Bah, robbed!
This show (in)famously runs a rather loose meritocracy. Showing up really matters, though being year-definingly important makes “showing up” an option. Millie Bobby Brown and Gal Gadot accepted their prizes (Best Performance in a Show and Best Fight) with pre-recorded messages, just like Leonardo DiCaprio in 1998, when MTV would’ve given Leo his own Times Square just to briefly appear onscreen.
Brown ended her speech by declaring, “There should be no space in this world for bullying,” a kind thought which pretty well summed up the tone of the night’s speeches. The nominees are younger than they used to be, I think, and much more sincere. In 1998, you still felt the echoing idea that the coolest thing in Hollywood was independent cinema: Neve Campbell winning for Miramax’s horror sequel Scream 2, Heather Graham accepting a prize for New Line’s Boogie Nights. In 2008, the youngest winner was Zac Efron, then 20, older than the Stranger Things kids or the It kids now, roughly the age range of the 13 Reasons Why/Riverdale contingent.
So the speeches sought to inspire, were kind, could sound a bit messianic. “I hope I continue to inspire you every single day to not give up, and to follow your dreams!” said Stranger Things‘ Noah Schnapp. “You can live your dreams and kiss the ones you love, no matter who they are,” said Love, Simon‘s Keiynan Lonsdale. “We are firm believers that this generation, our generation, can truly make a difference and that our voices will be heard,” said Grown-ish star Francia Raisa. Hope so. My generation developed an exciting new way to sell advertising that also enables totalitarian dictatorships, so anything’s an improvement, frankly.
Black Panther‘s Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan both took a couple trips up to the podium, inviting you to imagine what it would be like to live in a country that welcomes refugees. It seems urgently possible that Boseman and Jordan will be making the rounds at some other awards shows come 2019. But surely none of those pageants will lead you to yell at the TV screen “Vanderpump Rules is a hundred times better than Keeping Up with the Kardashians!”
The mix doesn’t always work with the MTVMTV awards. Lena Waithe gave a stirring, not-quite-sequitur-but-still-awesome shout-out to the Harlem drag-ball documentary Paris Is Burning (on Netflix now!). “Give them the glory and the shine they deserve” Waithe said, right before the announcer intoned “Please welcome the cast of Jersey Shore Family Vacation.”
Pratt’s very heartfelt and very odd speech smash-cut from godly shout-outs to repetitions of the word “poop.” You had a hard time keeping track of what was serious and unserious, what was honest and what was advertising. Presenters Zazie Beetz and Olivia Munn were presenting Best Hero, and they gave a shout-out to real-life heroes — teachers, activists, firemen, servicemen and women, and people who heard “Laurel” and not “Yanni,” a reference to an internet thing from untold gigaseconds ago.
How to put this: Given the miserable news from our southern border of, ahem, child-caging, it was very pleasant to spend two hours with a room full of people who declared their support of generosity, for being yourself, for the box office power of people who happen to be African American, for the importance of stopping gun violence, and for whatever Roseanne doesn’t stand for. Haddish was great; lock her in for next year right now, MTV, before the Globes get their act together.
At the end of the night, Jordan found himself onstage again with his castmates accepting the night’s big prize. “It’s universal,” he said, “It’s for everybody.” He was talking about Black Panther, but the vibe was there at the MTV Movie & TV Awards. There was a spirit of playfulness, even if the whole thing feels even more advertorial than it used to. And we live in serious times, but you want to gently poke some of the sweet innocents in the ribs. Accepting a prize with his It castmates, Jaeden Lieberher effusively thanked the fans: “You recognized the fun that we had and our genuine love for each other.” That’s sweet, but also…the scary clown.