MTV’s Promposal threads the needle, making a great viral video trend even better

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MTV’s newest half-hour reality program Promposal is about, obviously, “promposals” — over-the-top schemes orchestrated by high school students who want to invite their crushes to only the most important dance of their young adult lives.

Promposals are the sweetest irrational behavior you can find online — kids wearing their hearts on their sleeves and going really, really far out of their way to ask an easy question. The tradition of the promposal encourages creativity and sincerity, and it promises a fun brush with the whole internet’s attention. It’s where a bald-faced desire for 15 minutes of BuzzFeed fame meets the human urge to turn the world into a magical theme park for someone you have a crush on.

Or as the Promposal opening sequence explains: “It’s not who you ask, it’s how you ask. It has to be a viral sensation and you want everyone to talk about it.”

The premise of Promposal is equal parts artificial plot and charming craftsmanship, and episodes are barely held together by what appears to be a shoestring budget. The opening sequence, for example, features stock images that haven’t been cleaned of their Shutterstock watermarks.

Teenagers who want to bring a camera crew along for the glitziest cultural rituals of their lives simply email their big ideas to a casting inbox, along with proof that they are at least 15 years old. The plans deemed bold and ridiculous enough for TV are each shaped into a high-stakes, 30-minute dramatic arc.

Destini, the star of the series’s first episode, asks her boyfriend to prom by orchestrating a pep rally attended by all 400 members of her high school’s junior class. She enlists the dance team, the cheerleaders, her guidance counselor, her brother (he’s a 13-year-old rapper), and, obviously, a television network. The build-up is mostly faux drama about whether her dad approves of her super-athletic, super-popular boyfriend, as well as a laughably bratty scene in which Destini stares at her phone while a school administrator explains that she can’t pull ninth graders out of class to fill bleachers. Of course, there’s a cliff-hanger commercial break after she pops the question. But, no less obvious, viewers come back from a 30-second spiel about Charmin Ultra to an over-the-top happy ending.

Promposal is a brief trip back to a headspace most of us don’t get to live in anymore, where romance is the driving force behind all our actions, and the worst thing that can happen is just fodder for a funny story down the line.

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The shows allure is a lot like the draw of The Bachelor, a criminally tacky show that is still, when all is said and done, about love and how embarrassing it is to look for it. Fortunately you don’t get stuck with 30 hours of Nick Viall, just 30 minutes per week with a new set of teens having their big moment. And in contrast to MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen, a decadent vicarious-thrill half-hour about rich kids behaving badly, Promposal isn’t about things that cost money — just effort, time, and a willingness to potentially be humiliated on cable television.

The best moments in the premiere are the one-on-one interviews, when Destini breaks from her rehearsed answer and mutters, “He’s so cute. Have you looked at him?” or when her boyfriend Damon, edited throughout the episode to seem a little cold and unlikely to want to attend prom at all, gushes, “Nobody ever came close to doing anything like this for me. Of course I’m going to the prom.”

These aren’t psychopathic reality TV schemers, trying to relay the moment into profitable side gigs as lifestyle bloggers, club promoters, or HGTV hosts. They’re just kids, and they’re going to prom now.

Ripping a TV show about promposals out of the context of viral YouTube videos and Twitter threads, MTV takes the good stuff and leaves the rest behind. There are no mean YouTube comments, no swell and subsequent plummet of Twitter followers, no pressure to follow up one viral meme with another, no barrage of emails from internet culture reporters like me, angling for some insight into the ever-fascinating world of teens.

Promposal is part of a massive overhaul for MTV, spearheaded by its new president Chris McCarthy. He took over in October of last year and quickly announced plans to steer the teen-oriented network back to music, live events, and reality TV — including revivals of its biggest early-aughts hits My Super Sweet Sixteen and Parental Control, a new incarnation of NBC’s Fear Factor, and an updated take on Total Request Live. Promposal airs back-to-back with the new My Super Sweet Sixteen, a quick jump from tried-and-true to internet culture innovation, a clear line from MTV’s past and present.

McCarthy told Variety in February that he wants MTV to “run back into youth culture — where we really made our mark,” and framed it as an issue of national importance, adding “the world right now is… interesting. We can all use moments of levity and laughter. We want to bring that back to the air.”

I won’t say Promposal cures any political anxieties, but it airs at 7:30PM on Sundays, exactly when you’re looking for a treat to hold Monday morning off a little bit longer.

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