By all the old measures, MTV’s Sweet/Vicious deserves cancellation. It never drew much more than a quarter million viewers to any of its episodes. Season one averaged about 180,000 viewers. Even in the network’s tween-centric target demographic, it made barely a ripple. MTV should be looking to cut its losses and move on, but the new guy in charge doesn’t see it that way. Network President Chris McCarthy says Sweet/Vicious is worth saving and he is 1000% right.
There are mild spoilers from the first season of Sweet/Vicious ahead. If you’ve not watched it, stop reading and go watch now over on MTV.com or the MTV app.
Sweet/Vicious Is a Delicious Show
Sweet/Vicious is a show about a college campus with a rape problem. Two women, Jules (Eliza Bennett) and Ophelia (Taylor Dearden), proceed to teach rapists a lesson. They’re kind of both like Batgirl in that they deliver lessons by way of feet, fists, and, in one memorable scene, a Taser to the crotch. That’s the basic premise, but this show also manages to be insightful, funny, and even romantic at times. It’s a combination that makes Sweet/Vicious the most enjoyable scripted effort from MTV since Teen Wolf.
The heavy topics and fearlessness with which the characters tackle them turned the series into a media buzz machine. Words like “important” and “feminist” are tossed around in almost all reviews. Vanity Fair actually called saving the show “politically urgent.” They tied it to the Women’s March on Washington, President Trump, and US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. It’s that kind of buzz that might ultimately give us a second season. As MTV boss McCarthy told Deadline this week, “We love the characters and how the show relates to modern feminism.”
The problem with all that kind of highbrow praise is that most folks don’t watch TV shows because they’re “important.” TV is not spinach or spirulina, something we stomach because it’s good for us. TV is Cheetos and packaged pudding. We watch because we want to laugh or cry or just to see some bad guys get their asses kicked. Sweet/Vicious delivers all that PLUS all the “important” vitamins and minerals of social consciousness.
MTV Flailing in the Ratings
“Sweet/Vicious is a story we think is incredibly important and very timely, and we’re trying to figure out what the right way to relaunch that and figure out what the next iteration of that is,” McCarthy told The Hollywood Reporter. “No decision has been made yet, but we love the show and are trying to figure that out.”
What the MTV Prez is trying to figure out is how to get a demographic that’s widely abandoned traditional TV to watch his channel. It’s a seemingly impossible task. Seriously, the Nielsen ratings folks say people aged 18-24 watched 40% less traditional TV last year than they did in 2011. That means in just the last five years, 40% of our traditional TV viewing time moved to other activities or streaming entertainment.
For me, it’s actually a 95% drop in traditional viewing. The only stuff I watch live is Teen Wolf (because it’s kind of my job) and some sports programming. Most shows I just DVR and watch a couple of hours (or days) after it airs. I also have entire seasons of shows I’m saving to binge. It’s anecdotal, and I am a self-diagnosed TV addict, but the wider trends suggest there are now more viewers like me than my mom. She’s constantly phoning up to ask what time “her stories” are on while TV comes to me on my schedule. That’s bad news for new scripted shows on networks like MTV. So few people are checking out Sweet/Vicious on TV that it’s not generating the viewing numbers needed for advertisers to pay to make more of it. It’s also not generating the kind of fun celebrity buzz that draws eyeballs to screens. The fact is, if I didn’t have to watch the show to write about it, I might never have seen it at all. If I don’t hear stuff is cool via Instagram or Snapchat or here on Fandom, I’m probably not going to watch.
MTV is Shifting Away from Scripted
McCarthy seems dedicated to producing scripted programming at MTV but admits there will be less of that. He plans to lean into more live programming and reality shows to generate more social buzz for MTV. That’s the kind of programming that established the network’s international brand in the first place and it’s what McCarthy calls its “lifeblood.” The network’s parent company, VIACOM, is pushing more money at them to reestablish that brand and produce more buzzworthy “event” programming. McCarthy told THR that scripted programming like Sweet/Vicious will benefit from an improvement in MTV’s non-scripted efforts. “This past year was a great example where you can have strong scripted, but without having good live and great reality, it doesn’t make enough noise.”
In the immediate future, MTV has just four scripted efforts left on its slate. There’s a short, six-episode season three of SCREAM coming at some point. The Shannara Chronicles season two is now in production in New Zealand. Teen Wolf returns this summer and is currently filming the final three episodes of its final season in Los Angeles. They also have a pilot for a series adaptation of War of the Worlds in their development pipeline.
Sweet/Vicious, meanwhile, rests squarely atop what they call in the business “the bubble.” All conventional logic suggests it is dead, but President McCarthy seems dedicated to at least trying to make a second season work.