Although it looks like an MTV show, “Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous” doesn’t feel like one — in good ways, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for its future. A savvy takedown of the reality-TV culture, this single-camera satire zeroes in on a burning, warped desire to be famous that MTV, as much as anyone, has stoked and exemplified. Will the audience weaned on “Jersey Shore” be receptive to a comedy about a clueless youth determined to gain his 15 minutes of fame? It would be pretty to think so, but unlike the title character, don’t bet your life savings on it.
Indeed, even MTV appears oddly oblivious to the ironies of this dichotomy. The show, a lampoon of tag-along TV, premieres behind the network’s latest spinoff involving a member of the “Jersey” gang, Vinny Guadagnino, and his sort-of talkshow “The Show With Vinny.”
Much to the chagrin of his family, high-school grad Zach (comic Bo Burnham, who also co-wrote with Dan Lagana) has decided to “spend my entire life savings on a reality show about myself,” hiring a crew to follow him everywhere he goes documenting his life. Even during a breakfast argument with his parents (Kari Coleman, Tom Wilson), he whisperingly urges mom to “cheat to the camera.”
Zach is so committed to building his image (“Classic Zach,” he says after doing something, as if we all know what that means) it’s hard to determine where the real guy ends and his imagined version begins; still, he’s not wrong when he refers to the camera as his “wing man,” inasmuch as having the crew tail him (and they keep inadvertently finding their way into shots) actually attracts attention from a beautiful former classmate (Shelley Hennig) who wouldn’t give him the time of day in school.
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In subsequent installments, Zach contemplates losing his virginity oncamera (he studies porn on his brother’s iPad in preparation for the moment) and tries passing himself off as an accomplished chef to impress Amy (Caitlin Gerard), the platonic female pal he obviously harbors feelings for, which is just one of the show’s youthful cliches.
Still, the program is funny in an uncomfortable way, since Zach is so tone-deaf and self-obsessed he sees everything — including a funeral — as simply a backdrop for staging his personal drama. It’s to Burnham’s credit, actually, that the character is still mildly sympathetic given how relentlessly obnoxious he is.
While the concept is hardly original (and probably hews closest to the movie “EdTV”), the series still feels fresh and timely. The main problem is that the brand of reality TV in question has become so farcical as to virtually thwart attempts at parody, leaving a narrow sweet-spot between those who buy into the carefully massaged melodrama and others who aren’t engaged enough to bother laughing at it.
As MTV has discovered, moreover, some of its more laudable scripted offerings (“I Just Want My Pants Back” comes to mind) haven’t connected with sizable audiences. “Zach Stone” isn’t an unqualified triumph, but it’s satisfying enough that one hopes MTV can justify keeping the cameras rolling, if only to see where our would-be hero’s quest leads him.
(Series; MTV, Thurs. May 2, 10:30 p.m.)
Cast: Bo Burnham, Kari Coleman, Tom Wilson, Cameron Palatas, Caitlin Gerard, Armen Weitzman, Shelley Hennig.
Filmed in Los Angeles by MTV. Executive producers, Dan Lagana, Bo Burnham, Dave Becky; producer, Robert West; director, Jeffrey Blitz; writers, Lagana, Burnham; camera, Matt Sohn; production designer, T. Stefan Gesek; editor, Grady Cooper; music, Bo Burnham; music Supervisor, Elizabeth Miller; casting, Wendy O’Brien, Jeffrey Gafner. 30 MIN.