MTV doesn’t always aim very high, so it’s nice when the channel capitalizes on its youth audience to pursue nobler objectives than, say, further enriching the “Jersey Shore” gang. By that measure, it’s hard to think of a better union of network and special than “It Gets Better,” a one-hour version of Dan Savage’s viral campaign — inspired by alarming suicide rates among gay teens — to reassure them there is life, and acceptance, beyond high school. Spec is being simulcast on sister network Logo, and if it helps one kid, MTV has done penance for a multitude of sins.
Savage and partner Terry Miller launched the It Gets Better Project as a YouTube video in 2010, and it has produced more than 30,000 user-created testimonials, along with a slew of celebrity submissions. Some of those are dropped into the special, which primarily focuses on three youths, two dealing with the process of coming out, and a transgender man preparing to get married.
The three stories incorporate some of the language, trappings and suspense of reality TV, but in this context it’s a forgivable concession, essentially creating a familiar environment to help the audience process the material. And the kids’ concerns and apprehensions feel poignant and real.
Perhaps the most relatable story involves a 19-year-old woman whose mother clearly hasn’t embraced her daughter being a lesbian. To see the mom experience a gradual epiphany — and finally say something as sensible as, “It’s not like she chose this life to isolate herself from her family,” — is precisely the sort of message youths fretting about rejection need to hear.
As a journalist and activist, Savage has earned a reputation as a provocateur (just ask GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum), but “It Gets Better” represents a public-service campaign in the best sense, as well as a calling card for his own MTV series, “Savage U,” premiering this spring.
When it comes to reaching vulnerable teens, MTV has a unique opportunity, and with that, a distinct responsibility. In terms of fulfilling the latter, the channel seldom gets much better than this.