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'My Life as Liz' and the evolution of the MTV nerd

By Henry Hanks, CNN
  • MTV's "My Life as Liz," about a self-described nerd, has taken off on Twitter
  • Unique to this MTV show is controversy on Liz Lee's "nerd cred"
  • MTV's popular series "Daria," which started in 1997, is an inspiration for Lee
  • MTV's embrace of nerd culture reflects culture as a whole

(CNN) -- Liz Lee is not your typical MTV reality show star. As friend Jake Fogelnest puts it, "While (the "Jersey Shore" cast) is out fist-pumping, Liz is in her dorm room watching Netflix."

Lee's show, "My Life as Liz," chronicled the self-described nerd's senior year of high school in Texas during its first season last year.

Its second season, centering around Lee's time in college in New York, premiered February 8 at 11 p.m. ET, with an 89% increase in viewership from the series premiere, according to MTV.

"The executives at MTV are really smart. The fact that a show like that is on now is amazing and great," said Fogelnest, who hosted his own show on MTV as a teenager (from his bedroom, no less), "Squirt TV," in the mid-1990s. "My Life as Liz" is "the one thing where someone's not pregnant or drunk; it's what real people are like."

The show has quickly amassed a big following on Twitter -- not just the hundreds of thousands who follow Lee and her co-stars, but in Twitter feeds like "@thelizalliance." More than 1.8 million people have viewed a clip of the most memorable moment from the show on Youtube, in which a nervous Lee stepped in front of a microphone at a talent show and blew everyone away with her singing.

Like many MTV reality shows, it's not without its share of controversy. Its detractors have criticized its level of "reality." For the record, Lee told CNN, "The people, the places, they're all real. All the people on the show, I actually know them, and we actually have relationships." MTV also told the Los Angeles Times last year that neither the terms "reality show" nor "sitcom" fully captured the show.

But "My Life as Liz" is unique for another criticism that has been leveled against the show's star: "My nerd cred is attacked all the time. People think that that was fabricated by MTV. That's the hardest rumor for me to deal with."

During its first season, one anonymous message board posting, especially, claimed that Lee fell in with her school's geeky crowd as a way to remain "cool" after losing favor with the popular students, and even alleged that she didn't know who Luke Skywalker was.

"When people (online) say, 'You're not a real nerd,' " said Lee, "I'm sitting in my room with shelves overflowing with stacks of comic books."

Benjamin Nugent, author of "American Nerd," noted, "When you have people choosing to be nerds, questions of authenticity can come up. Before, you had no choice to be a nerd. Now that it's an acceptable option, you can accuse someone of being that way just to be cool. When it was uncool, you never had to worry about authenticity."

As a reflection of the rest of pop culture, something it has captured for nearly 30 years, MTV has embraced geeks in a big way (the sitcom "The Hard Times of RJ Berger" will start its second season soon, and there's even a site called "MTV Geek" now). In fact, even though MTV means "Jersey Shore," "Teen Mom" or "The Real World" to most, it has had its moments over the years of standing up for nerds ("Squirt TV" among them).

"Liz" something of a sister show to "The Paper." The show evolved from what would have been a second season of that show, which had focused on journalism geek Amanda Lorber. It's also a cousin to "Made," MTV's long-running series where someone, usually someone who is socially awkward, gets coached into improving something in their life, whether it be working up the nerve to ask out their crush or becoming an athlete or a hip hop dancer.

The network's best known example of a nerd -- a fellow nerd girl, no less -- is "Daria," the animated spinoff of "Beavis and Butt-Head," which started in 1997 and lasted for five seasons. Lee herself sees Daria as an inspiration.

"Daria made it cool to be a smart chick," said writer Jennifer Vineyard, who worked at MTV for eight years. "Just the presence of people or characters like Daria help make it cool to be yourself. There's a tendency for young girls to play dumb. Characters like Daria show you that you don't have to."

MTV's dabbling in nerd culture goes back even further, however. Adam Curry was a VJ for the network for seven years as it made its transition away from only playing music videos.

Around the time he started in the late 1980s, Toby Radloff was a special correspondent for the network. Those who have seen the movie "American Splendor," or read the comic book it was based on, might remember Radloff having adopted the title "genuine nerd."

"He was completely real," said Curry. "It was just something completely weird and different, that in a way it made so much sense to use him."

Curry, who considers himself a geek -- he registered the domain before most people knew what such a thing even meant, then went on to become an early adopter to podcasts -- sees "My Life as Liz" as similar to other reality shows.

"The objective gives the viewer the illusion that they can be famous. 'Hey, it's OK to be a nerd, you can be famous. You're a pregnant teenager? Hey, you can be famous.' Nerd culture has exploded because nerds can be successful."

Then there's the show that introduced "Beavis and Butt-Head" to the world, "Liquid Television," an anthology of experimental animation that aired in the 1990s that appealed to animation buffs.

"MTV has always experimented with alternative forms of programming," said Curry. "I believe they were running 'Monty Python' in ('Liquid Television's') slot. Here's something different and irreverent, and the rights were cheap. When Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-Head' creator) came on the scene, it was pure genius at the time." MTV recently announced that "Beavis and Butt-Head" are returning to the network in some form: Can "Daria" be far behind?

Two other memorable shows that were launched off the success of "Beavis and Butt-Head" in the 1990s were "Aeon Flux" and "The Maxx," both series with tremendous appeal among hardcore comic book and animation fans.

"'The Maxx' was one of the best comic book adaptations ever made. All of that kind of stuff has been a great part of MTV's history," said Rick Marshall, editor of MTV's Splash Page, a blog devoted to comic books and comic book adaptations.

Marshall has been in charge of the blog nearly from its inception almost 2½ years ago. "What's been amazing has been the ability to give comic books and creators the same level of promotion and attention that you do the actors and directors," he said.

In just these last couple of years, Marshall has seen a change in the way comic books have been accepted. "I can actually have conversations with significantly more people about 'Green Lantern' and people will actually know what I'm talking about," he said. "I love that I can go on the subway, and people are reading 'The Walking Dead.'"

Marshall said that the success of Splash Page shows that "this audience is actually important," and he sees MTV having recognized that as well with "My Life as Liz."

"(MTV was) able to take fan culture and market a show specifically to it," said Nugent. "If you tap into the market of people at fan conventions, they're really loyal to an entertainment product when you market it to them."

Nugent also pointed out, "Because it's now being put on MTV, teenagers are seeing it as more acceptable. I'm surprised how many kids come up to me and introduce themselves as geeks."