You can only take Love & Hip Hop Atlanta so seriously. Though ostensibly part of the candid reality television genre, it is at its alternately withered and overflowing heart a soap opera filled with a cast of fair-to-decent improv performers. "It's fake till it's real," is how my friend Derrence put it to me this weekend. Between spikes of seemingly uncontrollable emotional intensity, the show's vicious tentpoles, Love & Hip Hop Atlanta generally feels artificial and staged, as though the conversations we see have already been rehearsed at least a few times.
If you want an example of the show's air of artificiality, look no further than the way last night's third-season premiere handled the sex tape featuring principal cast member Mimi Faust and her jump off Nikko Smith. They introduced the subject in bed via a discussion about why they film themselves having sex. In another, Mimi told her girlfriends about her newfound satisfaction ("There's a difference between being dickmatized and having the best sex of your life") and her interest in documenting it. And then, finally, Nikko told Mimi that he lost the camera holding the footage and that they'd been "exposed." Might as well capitalize he figured, sounding blasé to the point of almost nodding off.
Their sex tape, by the way, looks more like a stylized porn shoot and less like raw, amateur footage—it feels about as staged as the show it helped publicize, however inadvertently.
Love & Hip Hop Atlanta's creator and former music manager Mona Scott Young was at times candid beyond her product in a recent Vibe profile. In it, she admitted that the show is supposed to feel like a soap opera, and that LHHA stages recreations of past events—after Joseline Hernandez took a pregnancy test early on in the filming of the first season, for example, Young asked her to retake it on camera (she says Hernandez didn't know the result of the one she took off camera, thus her filmed reaction was "real"). "Real life is rife with mistakes and ugly settings and backdrops and that wasn't the intention here," said Young.
In terms of social responsibility, soap operas rarely receive the kind of scrutiny that documentaries do. Love & Hip Hop Atlanta blurs the line between those two formats a la professional wrestling. That's to say that you can watch from a remove, enjoying the intention of spectacle—the lengths to which humans will go for the sake of entertaining other humans—as much as the actual spectacle.
Still, Love & Hip Hop Atlanta has generated a lot of controversy in the two years since its debut. It is a show that generally portrays black people behaving badly. I understand the sensitivity around issues of racial representation, and I respect those arguments. I get why people say "I can't" at this show and mean it. I'm not interested in convincing those who are offended to relax, but I will say that one can watch this show and shows like this in a way that differs from what Sil Lai Abrams surmised was its appeal in an essay that ran on the Grio in during the "blatantly racist and misogynistic" show's first season (as cited in the aforementioned Vice article):
Based on what I've seen online, it seems that the main draw of the show is the opportunity to lampoon other women for their dubious relationship and lifestyle choices. The German's have a word for this – schadenfreude, which means taking pleasure in someone else's suffering. L&HH is an opportunity for us to be entertained and feel morally/intellectually superior all in one shot.
In my experience, you don't watch these things for the stereotypes, but the deviations from them. You watch to get what you can't get elsewhere—the specific eccentricities of these specific humans. The people who presumably play versions of themselves on this show have a flair for language, routinely saying things that I can barely imagine anyone saying before in the history of expression. Even after you watched the scene being referred to, it compounds the absurdity to hear someone start a sentence with, "After Rasheeda told me that K. Michelle threw a burning candle at her..."
Here is a very brief list of other things that I have loved hearing people say on this show:
- Joseline Hernandez: Bitch, you will die, be born again, die again, and be born again before I do a song with you, bitch. You crazy as hell. Yeah laugh because it's funny.
- K. Michelle: The only people that are scared of you, Kirk, are the Cabbage Patch Kids.
- Lil' Scrappy: I wanna put them paws on him.
- Mimi: No dick ever made me do cartwheels.
- Che Mack: I didn't smell ya neck let alone suck ya dick.
- Rasheeda: I'm so hot a fire comin' out my asshole. (This was a line in one of her songs. Oh yeah, some of these people are in the music industry.)
- Benzino: It wasn't turned up; you broke the knob.
- Momma Dee: And yes she is a bitch. B-I-C-T-H. And in that order. Hmm!
Look at how that last quote subverts itself; how it sounds like this woman is just an idiot who can't spell "bitch," until she signals her knowingness at you by telling you "and in that order." Fuck your life, these are her terms. The show is charitable enough to let you think you're smarter than it, but there are regular signals of awareness. Momma Dee, by the way, is extreme by any standard—if everyone else on LHHA is doing imitations of TV acting, she's alone in her emulation of stage acting. A self-described former pimp, she sticks out in the best way possible. She is unmistakable comic relief that makes explicit the implicit camp of reality TV melodrama. One time, she yelled at her son Scrappy's then-girfriend Erica (a goddess) and Erica's mom (whose name is Mignon), "Die, bitches! Die!!!"
Instead of schadenfreude, what this show makes me feel the strongest is a sense of catharsis. It is somewhat therapeutic to watch people say whatever the fuck is on their minds at all times to each other. It's a nice alternative to all the passive aggression I see in my life. At times, this show is even relatable. After K. Michelle (a genius communicator who unfortunately is no longer on this show) hit Mimi with a bouquet of flowers in a samurai-sword-like swoop, Ariane told Mimi to just walk away. Mimi demurred, shrieking, "I ain't no walk-away ass bitch." Yeah, that's right, Mimi. Me neither.
The men on this show inevitably cheat on their women – every single couple that we see has infidelity issues, and it's always the man doing the women wrong. Sometimes the women put up with it, sometimes they don't. I guess if you're a racist asshole, who's watching this for hate fodder, that tells you what you want to know about how black people treat each other. I don't know, the thing I extract from that, and it's maybe the only thing that I can extract from this show on a sociological level, is that Love & Hip Hop Atlanta routinely shows us the folly of this societal investment in absolute monogamy. This practice fails over and over and has throughout history. I'm not offering a solution or excuses for the men whose deception and inconsistent stories make them the ultimate villains of this thing (note: only women appear in the show's opening credits, despite the men's almost equal screen time), I'm just saying that this show exposes flaws in a system that most of the country operates under, regardless of color.
I can't really recommend this show, even—I love it, but I feel almost mesmerized or indoctrinated or something after watching over 30 episodes of it. If your life is somehow devoid of trash and you need material for your pop culture landfill, you could do far worse. But do you really need more trash in your life? I won't endorse this show, per se, but I will say that investing in it could give you almost ineffable joy. It has to me.
This comes at a cost, though. I'm not sure how high, and I'm not sure who's ultimately paying what, but the other really amazing thing about the aforementioned Vibe article is how explicitly Mona Scott Young sees her cast members as commodities before they are humans. Selling the already publicized events that we'll watch unfurl this season as truth, Young came off as almost pathological. She described her reaction to the Mimi/Nikko sex tape as, "Oh god, this is gonna be insane in the worst and the best way?" Discussing the recent shooting of Benzino by his nephew, Young gushed about timing and said, "It's like the reality gods have once again chosen this show to smile upon." Someone was shot (never mind that many have speculated it was staged, of course) and this woman's gods are smiling. That is taking "so bad it's good" to the nth degree, something Love & Hip Hop Atlanta does with frightening virtuosity.