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Monday, July 1st, 2013

'Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous' Is Gonna Be Missed

Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous was almost an ideal summer show. The light-hearted MTV sitcom followed Bo Burnham as the titular Zach Stone, a teenager making his own reality show in a bid to become a celebrity by any means necessary. The season began a week after his high school graduation, and the final episode, which was burned off this past Saturday night, saw the summer draw to a close.

If only it were returning to MTV's schedule next summer so that we could check in Zach's fame-seeking progress. Alas, the show never found its audience, and MTV announced last week that it won't be renewing the series. It was a disappointing, though not surprising, move from the network. Zach Stone wasn't a perfect show, but it had an enormous amount of potential and had laid the groundwork to develop into a strong, inventive series.

At its best, the show managed to mix Zach’s quixotic quests for fame with real life concerns. One of the show’s strongest episodes saw Zach trying to both frighten his too-perfect younger brother and create a scary video that would become a YouTube sensation. Mixing in the sibling rivalry made it easier to root for Zach than in other episodes, where his attention-grabbing dreams were are all that seemed to drive him. As the season went on, the show learned to better mix Zach's often cartoonish antics with the more sensible world around him.

Despite its network and premise, Zach Stone felt like an old-fashioned sitcom in many ways. Each episode was more or less a reset, with a new, plot-specific opening title sequence (all variations on this incredibly catchy song from the pilot). The main relationships were TV staples: a will-they-or-won't-they subplot with this best friend Amy, the growing pains of friendship with his other best friend Greg, and household fights with his parents, who didn't quite understand his ambitions. The physical comedy was I Love Lucy-esque, each episode had a singular plot, and there weren't too many twists.

That traditionalism could have been a negative; maybe it was for some viewers. But more important than the show's plot was its nuanced, sometimes heart-breaking look at this delusional 18-year-old desperate for attention. His sweet relationship with Amy was endearing enough to win over his hired camera crew, who stuck around filming them even when they weren't asked to (or explicitly asked not to). At the show's finest, it captured Burnham's natural charisma and hinted at both why the people in Zach's life begrudgingly supported his wild endeavor, and how he just might manage to pull it off.

And even from the beginning, it was more clever than it may have appeared from the outside. "Hors d'oeuvres?" Zach reads from a funeral to-do list in the pilot episode. "Okay, that's French. I recognize that. But I don't speak French, so I went with the surefire bet of glitter." In a later episode, he helpfully packs a friend's bag – alphabetically: "In this bag, you've got your toothbrush, your toilet paper, your towels, your Terminator 2 DVD."

As I said in my initial review, airing Zach Stone on MTV was always a risk – it seemed aimed at older, more savvy viewers. But in a sweet letter to fans on his Facebook wall, Burnham made it a point to not blame the MTV audience for the show’s ratings. “I don’t think MTV’s audience is dumb," he wrote. I don’t think young people in general are dumb or stupid or shallow[…]What many older people dismiss as my generation’s short attention spans, I see as young people hunger for density, demanding that every second of material that you give them is worthy of their time. This challenge, though daunting, is a good thing. It pushes art forward.”

What happens next for Zach Stone is uncertain. It could fairly easily find a home on any network that's dabbled in reality television (basically all of them), and Burnham's sort-of-a-joke tweet about Netflix suggests that he might serious about keeping the show alive in a non-traditional way. For now, all 12 episodes live on MTV’s website, and an eventual DVD release may broaden the show's fanbase. Hopefully, Zach Stone is gonna be back.

Elise Czajkowski is a Contributing Editor at Splitsider. She's really likes Bo Burnham even though he makes her feel old.

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