MTV's Ghosted pushes exploitative reality TV boundaries — but is boring while doing it
Over the years, MTV — formerly the television home of all things music — has become a major hub for reality television, especially as it pertains to shows focusing on relationships.
The network's history with the genre dates (pun intended?) back to the debut of The Real World in 1992. The series was groundbreaking partially because no other TV channel had come up with something quite like it, but mainly because the show went out of its way to discuss things that were still taboo not only on television and in pop culture, but for America at-large. The show famously tackled heavier subjects including homophobia; the AIDS/HIV crisis through the eyes of cast member Pedro Zamora, who died hours after the finale of The Real World: San Francisco aired in November 1994; and drunk driving. It was a show committed to exploring "real-life" realities with regular people. It was also perhaps one of the first of its kind to really focus on functional and dysfunctional interpersonal relationships between people and how that can make for really good television. And let's get, well, real: Real World paved the way for things like The Bachelor/Bachelorette, 90 Day Fiancé, and other relationship-centric shows.
MTV has ventured into different sub-genres of reality TV since then, like competitive reality TV (WWE Tough Enough, Are You the One, The Challenge), celebrity reality TV (Cribs, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, The Osbournes), and WASPy reality TV (Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, The Hills), and comedic reality television (Pimp My Ride, Punk'd). But MTV quickly carved out its own space in reality TV with seemingly regular yet out-of-the-box shows like Real World and more recently Road Rules, True Life, 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom, and Catfish: The TV Show that sought to discuss or explore the taboo and the stigmatized. There are still discussions about why the network's programming was so novel at the time (a colleague of mine hypothesized that it was MTV's affinity for docu-series/reality TV hybrids and creator Mary-Ellis Bunim's involvement prior to her death in 2004).
Presently, it appears that MTV is trying to recapture similarly trailblazing television, or in the very least rebooting it to recapture that nostalgia — look no further than the Daria reboot and the Making The Band revival. But shows like the recently premiered Ghosted indicate MTV is making an effort to recreate cutting-edge television in the late 20-teens…except there's nothing particularly radical or entertaining about it.
If you go to homepage for MTV's Ghosted, this is the summary that you will find:
"Ghosted: Love Gone Missing helps distraught people track down former friends or lovers who suddenly cut off all contact with them. Hosts Rachel Lindsay and Travis Mills meet the haunted and come up with theories about the cause behind the ghosting. Then the hosts look for leads in order to track down the ghost. Finally, the truth is revealed during a confrontation between the two parties."
The show's premise rests on reconnecting one person to another, who seems to have vanished without a "legitimate" reason — legitimate being extremely subjective. The show, prior to its premiere, rightfully drew criticism for being exploitative and encouraging stalking (on a national level with vast resources). Of course, we know that all that bad press can still be good press for a show that is this potentially irresponsible and chaotically neutral, but the truly hilarious part is that it is not even entertaining enough to be this controversial.
If anything, Ghosted is merely just…sad. And not even the juicy kind of sad. It borders on pathetic, with the show's participants coming off as desperate with boring results. Four episodes have aired since its Sept. 10 premiere date (back-to-back episodes each week), but its first two episodes highlight the lackluster premise of the show. The first episode dealt with Julia and Delmond, who ghosted Julia after feeling guilty for hooking up with Devin, her ex. The second episode dealt with a hopeful and aspiring (I use such words loosely) New York comedian named Ross who is clearly a jerk and who used the familial trauma of Jordan, the woman who ghosted him, in a stand-up routine and then had the audacity to use MTV to track her down. At the end of episode 1, Julia and Del opt to reconnect; in episode 2, Ross and Jordan opt to stay as ghostee and ghoster, respectively.
If the episodes sound dramatic, thrilling, exciting even — they're not. And it all stems from a failure in execution. Ghosted takes much of its formatting from its predecessor Catfish but doesn't have half the charisma and the know-how to follow through. Part of Catfish's appeal is Nev Schulman's ability to empathize with the catfishee as a result of his own experience. This empathy is accompanied by both Nev and former cohost Max Joseph being wisely protective of the catfishee and making certain they are not carelessly or accidentally putting this person in physically or emotionally dangerous situations, regardless of how entertaining that would be to the audience. Of course, the occasional bonkers and hilarious catfisher still does make an appearance (re: "A Fat Kelly Price") and Nev and Max always make the "research" process of tracking them down (i.e. finding out that the person who did the catfishing actually lives in the same exact city as the person who was catfished) equally interesting.
In contrast, after sharing their experiences with ghosting (I don't recall them ever talking about if they have ever ghosted anyone, which I think is a missed opportunity), hosts Travis Mills (Apple Music's Beat 1 radio host) and Rachel Lindsay (the only black Bachelorette in the reality franchise's history) attempt to take this seriously and present these situations to the audience in a serious manner. They set out to help "The Haunted" (those who have been ghosted) track down their "Ghosts" (those who deserted them) — opening the search with questions like "Are you ready for us to track down your ghost?" or "Can you tell us about the date of the ghosting?" After this, they launch a surprisingly dreary social media search for "The Ghost" that is short-lived…and also cringey and invasive when you remember that the ghost has already blocked "The Haunted" on all social media. While the ghost is eventually found and the confrontation is teased, Ghosted's version of this doesn't quite measure up. The confrontation, which is a staple on shows like Catfish, is incredibly banal. Instead of having the two parties meet in some mutually, not-as-stressful environment, they place them in a weirdly spacious but plain studio while they sit across from each other on stools that look vastly uncomfortable — separated from the hosts, who are watching all the action on monitors behind a black curtain. Mind you, this entire process is done in complete earnest, but ends up coming off as highly melodramatic at best and kitschy at worst — with no real payoff.
Or rather, a payoff that is sad and fairly corny. With the added non-bonus of being harmful.
This is very much highlighted in episode 2 with Ross and Jordan. Whether you agree with ghosting, most can on the moral grounds that it is incredibly foul to not only talk but joke about someone's trauma without their consent — which is what happened here. Ross roasted Jordan (without her being present) in his stand-up routine about her absentee father and "daddy issues," initiated their reconnection after she ghosted him via MTV, and didn't understand the gravity of what he did nor did he get the emotional catharsis that he seemingly was after. If anything, while Jordan clearly was re-traumatized, it was she who got confirmation that Ross was indeed an a—hole and that she was right to ghost him. And even though it's clear there's nothing healthy — or lasting — about this relationship, host Rachel Lindsay still encourages some sort of reconciliation in the name of "love," which is not a safe stance to have as a host toward the ghostee or the ghoster.
In an unsurprising twist, that episode exposes the show's poor premise: even though Ross was the initiator of this reconnection and clearly in the wrong, he as "The Haunted" is denied the emotional resolution that the show seems to promise and in the process, subjects himself to additional harm by being told, to his face, that he's a horrible person. When in reality, he could have just gone to a therapist and accepted that in life, some things just end, with no explanation. And ironically, this episode highlights what is so conflicting yet enduring about the concept of ghosting. It is often the decision to disconnect and divest from someone you no longer deem healthy for yourself and it is rarely a mutual decision between two parties. But there is often nothing mutual or entertaining about setting hard boundaries.
And therein lies the problem with the potentially bombastic Ghosted. It promises to be flashy and dramatic, but bases itself on a structurally unsound premise. It is a show that seemingly tries to build on, if not recapture, MTV's former daredevil programming, but is only a shell of that.