MTV has spent the last two years making grown-ups clutch their pearls: Fans of scripted shows wince at the phenomenal ratings for "Jersey Shore." Parents groups were horrified by the sexualized "Skins." And "Teen Mom" has been accused of glamorizing young pregnancy.
MTV unveils its latest shocker tonight — but it's not shocking in the way you might expect: The new comedy "I Just Want My Pants Back" is a sensitive, scripted show about young, vulnerable New Yorkers trying to find meaningful relationships. Sometimes — brace yourself — it's kind of sweet.
Also read: MTV Cancels 'Skins'
Relatable characters — more than sex — are key to MTV's recent success, says head of programming David Janollari. It's one of the lessons MTV learned from last year's incendiary and quickly extinguished "Skins." And Janollari says it's even true of "Jersey Shore," which has been roundly criticized for its many bar brawls and sloppy, drunken hook-ups.
"That rootability, and that emotional vulnerability, is a key to success with our audience," he told TheWrap. "Even with 'Jersey Shore,' it's hilarious and outrageous and they're big, larger-than-life characters, but you come back to the end of the day and you're like, 'They care about each other.'"
"Pants" is just MTV's latest foray into scripted television after building its brand on three-minute videos, and later, boundary-pushing reality shows. (MTV's "The Real World" reinvented the genre nearly two decades after "An American Family" created it in 1971.) After years of breaking the TV mold, the network is embracing one of its most traditional formats.
Watch an exclusive preview of "I Just Want My Pants Back":
While controversies over "Skins" and its reality shows have drawn headlines, the network has quietly and successfully launched two other scripted series that, like "Pants," emphasize feelings over flash: "Awkward" focuses on a high school school who struggles to define herself after an accident is interpreted as a suicide attempt. "Teen Wolf," is a darker re-imagining of the goofy '80s comedy.
The network's first scripted show, "The Hard Times of RJ Berger," about a well-endowed high school outcast, was canceled last year after two seasons. But "Awkward" and "Teen Wolf," which have both received fairly positive reviews, will return for their second seasons in the summer. MTV also plans the scripted series "Inbetweeners," "Underemployed," and "Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous" for later this year.
As its title suggests, "Pants" still has plenty of sex. And weird sex, at that. It gets its name from a sequence in the pilot episode in which the lead character, Jason (Peter Vack) loses his pants to a young woman he brings home for a one-night stand in his refrigerator.
But the show's sex is mixed with self-deprecating humor, genuine friendships and a pursuit of true romance. Jason wants to reconnect with the pants thief as much as he wants his pants.
The idea is to reach out to the 12-34-year-old demo at a level that relates to them, says Janollari, whose reputation in the scripted world is secure: He and Bob Greenblatt, now NBC's head of entertainment, executive produced HBO's acclaimed "Six Feet Under," among other shows.
"I think you'll see in 'Pants,' while the subject matter is a little more mature, it's not about the shock or being edgy for edgy's sake," he said. "It's about telling the stories in the most honest way, and making them friendly to our audience and not off-putting — not gratuitous or off-putting but honest. The underlying feeling is of hope and romanticism."
(Pictured: Janollari, on left, with Rosen. Photos courtesy of MTV.)
Based on the 2007 novel of the same name by David J. Rosen, who serves as an executive producer, the show is also executive produced by "Swingers" and "Bourne Identity" director Doug Liman. He directed the pilot and another episode of the first season.
Rounding out the cast are Kim Shaw as Jason's friend as potential love interest, Tina; Jordan Carlos and Elisabeth Hower as their friends, a couple trying to sustain their college relationship; and "Saturday Night Live" vet Chris Parnell as Jason's boss.)
Janollari said MTV hasn't been scared off of sexual content by the fuss over "Skins." The British adaptation was almost immediately targeted by the Parents Television Council and shed advertisers and viewers alike before its cancelation. He said the network had no regrets about airing it.
"It put a stake for us in the scripted world in a really big way," he said. "Two years ago, test audiences were saying, 'MTV and scripted? I don't get it. What does that mean?' Coming out of 'The Hard Times of RJ Berger,' which was our first thing, and then 'Skins,' now it's like, 'Oh yeah, we get it.'"
But he said the show taught the network how important it is for controversy not to overshadow characters and story. While he considered "Skins" a "really beautifully done show," he said, it may have needed to connect better with viewers.
"I think it might've lacked a little bit of the vulnerability and a little bit of the charm," he said. "Our audience is charmed by characters, from 'Jersey Shore' characters to the 'Awkward' characters. I think they'll be charmed by the 'Pants' characters."
He added: "They're not afraid to make mistakes. They're not afraid to be real people. And I think that our audience wants to believe, 'Oh yeah, there's a lot of other people just like me out there dealing with the same thing and making the same mistakes. And hopefully getting through the day and winning at some point.' "
"I Just Want My Pants Back" premieres at 11/10c.