Last week, a person named Vivian started blowing up my phone with complaints. She tends to communicate by either ranting or falling to pieces. She does so over co-workers who cramp her style, over her ex being spotted in public with a new woman, over a morning boxing class, over the lack of beautiful people in the world (for her to sign to the modeling agency she works for). Her eyebrows are permanently knitted in concern, under a gelled blonde helmet with baby hair. I call her Viv to no one but myself. She can’t hear me, and I’m not sure that she would care about what I have to say if she could. She’s kind of got her hands full with her own life.
Vivian Benitez is the star of E!’s Snapchat series Vivian. On one hand, it is bold to the point of arrogant to coronate Vivian as mononymous on sight, like she’s Cher or some shit, because really, who is this person? I mean, who was she before I watched about 42 minutes of “content” about her “life” as a “successful” 21-year-old modeling scout for Wilhelmina in Los Angeles? She is clearly figuring out her own life, but doesn’t seem particularly sold on herself. She reports in the first episode that she is tired of making other people’s dreams come true as the youngest scout at a world-famous agency. “Like every other basic bitch in L.A., I want to be an actress,” she adds. A bit later, she monologues into the camera, “Can you believe they gave me a show? Me neither. Fuck it.” She sips from her wine glass with an ironic glint in her eye, but I’m not sure what it’s directed at. The disbelief? The fact that she’s claiming it on camera? Is it double irony suggesting, in fact, that she can very well believe that they gave her a show because, after all, she is Vivian?
As a statement, Vivan is somewhere between a boast and self-own. Its star, according to E!, Snapchat, and herself at least, is interesting enough to be filmed, but also a bit of a disaster. She lives a life of supposed glamour, but doesn’t seem particularly happy. Then again, she’s not miserable enough to make this some kind of woke meditation on depression and mental health; she just spends a lot of time irked. I can’t tell if you’re supposed to root for or against her, if this show is meant to stoke the fires of aspirational jealousy or straightforward schadenfreude.
I’m almost positive, though, that the ensuing portrait is not complicated by design. I think this show is just dumb and so a mess, despite having the same semi-scripted feel as something like The Hills. That each episode averages five minutes long and completes a discrete arc does not help cohere the storytelling. Not that this should surprise anyone—you accept all of this when you sign up to watch Vivian. It is, after all, a Snapchat show, and we do, after all, operate under the cultural assumption that the attention span is passé. Why bother acknowledging it? The format of this show, then, leaves very little time to examine much of anything beyond a handful of synoptic sentences, whether it’s Vivian’s mom’s chronic lymphatic leukemia or what the hell Vivian actually does at her job. We know she’s a model scout and we see her attending conventions (that she complains about invariably in her confessionals) to actually scout, but she speaks about her actual work with such vague terseness that you have to wonder if she’s made it this far (however far this actually is) on charisma alone. “What makes a model is 20 million things coming together to make this, like, perfect unicorn,” she says at one point. “A model is literally like a perfectly put together puzzle. Imagine how hard that is to find,” she says at another.
Vivian trades in a world of superficiality, so it’s somewhat fitting that the vehicle beaming her into people’s pockets is itself superficial. The show presents a mesmerizing mixture of its protagonist not taking herself too seriously while being utterly self-invested. She at least has the good sense to surround herself with people who almost invariably come off as more toxic and/or vapid than she does. These include a coworker who tells her about seeing Vivian’s ex-boyfriend with another girl, which only serves to upset Vivian more (she’s already going through enough as it is!); a superior in the New York office who’s incompetent and drags Vivian to a 6 a.m. boxing class; and Vivian’s friend named Millie, who is, of course, a DJ, and also, of course, a model, and also, of course, doles out advice like, “Whoever you’re with needs to understand your lifestyle and not be so controlling. That just doesn’t work, like, especially with our lifestyles and this industry, like…” This reminds me of a line in Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion, except it’s not played for laughs. I think.
Why did I watch this show? Well, I was lazing on my couch one evening last week and had reached my threshold of time spent on Instagram (usually no more than five minutes) and Twitter (revulsion often has me stopping after scrolling just a few screens down), but I wasn’t quite ready to put my phone down. Idle hands, ya know? So I turned to Snapchat for no other reason than to keep my brain in its two-minutes-to-sleep-mode state and there she was staring at me, looking like she needed some attention: Vivian.
Even though I recommend this show wholeheartedly for what it is, clearly no one needs it. You can watch it or not watch it and your life will remain unchanged. It’s potato-chip theater, all empty calories that it takes major restraint not to inhale in one sitting. It is reality TV taken to an absurd extreme of nothingness for a culture teeming with people to whom “nothing matters lol.” That’s good old Vivian for ya, so soothing in her self-investment, so mind-numbing in her endeavors. I love her a lot.
In her typical mode of assertive self-deprecation, Vivian opens her eighth and final (for now, I hope) episode by announcing, “It’s the last episode. Are you sick of me yet? Well, too bad.” Yes, it’s that, but also, strangely, too good.