By Jesse Marx
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If you're over, say, 25, VH1 has different associations for you than it does for greener viewers. You probably remember when the channel was MTV's uncool, graying-at-the-temples cousin, the Michael McDonald to MTV's Adam Ant. If this imaginary Viacom family had congregated for Thanksgiving '87, MTV would have loudly protested the mass slaughter of turkeys while VH1 meekly buttered its Brussels sprouts. (Nickelodeon would have been sequestered at the kids' table, the better to avoid slime-related interruptions and/or outbursts from the Salute Your Shorts contingent.)
Throughout the '80s and a considerable swath of the '90s, VH1 was aimed at folks who thought "Walking in Memphis" was a crunk summer jam, nursed furtive crushes on John Oates, and refused to embrace the subtle pleasures of "Rumpshaker." Nowadays, the rheumatoid-arthritis demo gets a channel called VH1 Classic, which plays lots of videos by Yes and Styx and captivates my husband for hours. But back then, VH1 was a rare haven for rap-phobic Dennis DeYoung enthusiasts in last year's denim. My friend's mom, a beautician who wore Keds and culottes, used to watch VH1 while she permed my hair. "I just think this channel is so cool!" she'd remark, unwittingly proving that it was, in fact, not.
Well, Matt Pinfield may still be bald and Rikki Rachtman has kept on rawkin', but everything else about the MTV/VH1 dynamic has changed drastically. The two entities no longer seem related. While MTV continues to spiral toward total incoherence (The Hills? What is this?), VH1 has brilliantly reinvented itself as a one-stop showcase for pop-culture snarkitude. Want to hear a pair of hungry comedians riff on Tara Reid's nip-slip? VH1 will scratch that itch. Do you think any opinion—hell, any utterance—is hilarious when delivered in Mo Rocca's deadpan drawl? You're in luck. Do you love the '70s so much that you require nearly 20 hours of nostalgia-steeped programming to reinforce that bond? Welcome home.
You can pinpoint the exact moment when VH1's crew of green-screen pundits rose up from the minor leagues and seized control of the joint: the premiere of Best Week Ever. Think about it: This is a show that encourages us to be nostalgic for last week. It relies on the same format as the I Love the (Decade) series, but instead of rhapsodizing about Care Bears and Pet Rocks, the commentators are deconstructing Brandon Routh and Shiloh Jolie-Pitt.
Sometimes it's genuinely witty: Rachael Harris is so consistently sharp that even my father (who could probably guest-star on I Love the 1870s) openly admires "the blonde with the glasses." Plus, it's always worth tuning in to see who's having, in VH1's estimation, the best week ever.
Oddly enough, VH1 stalwart Michael Ian Black isn't a cast member on BWE. Dude must finally be weary of popcult after painstakingly rehashing every toy, trend, and celebrity breakdown in recent memory. Black has probably logged hundreds of hours in front of that green backdrop—I wouldn't be surprised if he had a psychotic break, denounced mass media, and retreated to a Walden-like cabin. There's only so much Kevin Federline one person can take before he becomes a barefoot, unwashed recluse. Just ask Britney.
Last week, VH1 introduced a new game show, The World Series of Pop Culture, co-sponsored by Entertainment Weekly. (To think they aired all those decade-specific miniseries and never informed us there'd be a quiz!) The show is reminiscent of the late, lamented Rock & Roll Jeopardy, but the categories have been expanded to include everything from movie sequels to TV theme songs. Teams with appropriately retro-geeky names ("Cheetara," "Lazer Wolves," etc.) face off against each other, fielding increasingly difficult questions.
This game is not for trivia dilettantes. Questions like "What hotel did Kevin stay at in Home Alone 2?" could probably stump John Hughes himself after a beer or two. But the ease with which these IMDB-boys (and girls) spit their replies is truly inspiring. They're the attentive Padewan to Michael Ian Black's Jedi master. If we can learn anything from this show, it's that people actually watch VH1. Knowing a Starburst jingle from 1990 is no longer a badge of shame. Drop that science on The World Series and you could leave an instant thousandaire.
Of course, we can't forget VH1's secondary specialty: humiliating D-listers. The logo for this programming block says it all: a diamond-encrusted "Celebreality" that's tragically missing a few stones. Isn't it ironic that Flavor Flav, once an edgy MTV regular who was arguably the antithesis of easy-listening, is now appearing on his third VH1 show? That lengthy and meaningful relationship with Brigitte Nielsen didn't work out, so "Foofy-Foofy" is now attempting to select a bride from a group of grim-faced hoochies. Who will receive the giant clock pendant that symbolizes Flav's devotion? Is it wrong to care? Deeply?
Perhaps VH1's program directors are performing an important function in society. Think of them as real-time archivists, cataloguing our most minute obsessions, validating our fleeting celebrity crushes, and ensuring that no botched boob job goes undocumented. If researchers can plumb the wreck of the Titanic for, oh, I don't know, some waterlogged junk, then there's no reason why Loni Love can't reenact a scene from Titanic with the Sklar twins.