There are not a lot of TV shows about well meaning people who do well intentioned things. I guess the theory is no one would watch them. Even Father Dowling Mysteries needed the mystery angle each week. This idea holds especially true in reality television. For instance, VH1 seems based solely on the theory that people only enjoy watching terrible people who are motivated out of terrible concerns – like a love of money (or Ray-J).
That brings us to The Buried Life, a 2006 documentary series originally on the web that got rebooted and made its network debut on MTV on Monday, January 18 at 10PM ET. The Buried Life challenges completely the nihilism promoted in VH1 styled reality. The concept is one part bucket list and the other My Name Is Earl. Four young men travel the country in a bus with a list of “100 things to do before they die.” For every item that gets accomplished they must also help a perfect stranger accomplish a goal of their own. As the press release asks, “what do YOU want to do before you die?”
That’s one hell of an existential posing, particularly in light of recent tragic events. “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in his book Existentialism and Human Emotions. In MTV lingo, that means “pimp your soul.”
So how do Duncan Penn, Ben Nemtin, Jonnie Penn and Dave Lingwood, the cast of Buried Life, pimp out theirs? What do they make of themselves in this cross-country adventure? Well, lets look back at their YouTube journals from the Aughts to find out. They open a lemonade stand. What else? One of them gets his wisdom teeth pulled for charity. Oh, and they go to the Playboy mansion. Maybe.
This is a bucket list?
For all of its well meaning, something about The Buried Life does not sit right. It’s certainly not the cast. The four guys we follow remind me of the edgy kids at a Christian youth camp. They may get into a bit of trouble, but not that much trouble. And how can you even dislike the stars of a show that’s based on people helping other people?
See, the problem with making a bucket list in your 20’s is that it can devolve into extreme sports challenges. “Going to a rock concert in all leather,” is less about “thine own self be true,” and more about “doing the Dew.” It’s the same level of joy those people in “I’m a PC” ads feel when they walk out of Best Buy with a new laptop.
The title The Buried Life takes its name from an old poem that suggests the small, forgettable minutia of our day-to-day lives can bury our real lives away. It’s an uplifting principle to rally behind, which I guess is why my own disappointment in The Buried Life remains ambiguous.
At what point does crossing off “anchor a news program” from a de facto grocery list just add to the minutia? To quote another great philosopher, “Conquer yourself rather than the world.” This is the one message missing from the otherwise positive appeal that surrounds The Buried Life: “I’ve decided to do all these things…now what’s the point again?”
While watching these clips, I keep coming back to a quote from an obituary I read last week about a rock star from Memphis. His name was Jay Reatard. From the age of 15 he recorded 22 albums and countless singles, having written and played on them all. Asked in an interview about his compulsion he remarked, “Everything I do is motivated by the fear of running out of time.” On Wednesday he died in his sleep. He was 29. He was never President of eBay for a day. He had no list. I don’t think he needed one.