Coming off the heels of controversy - and high ratings - for the over-the-top antics of Snooki, DJ Pauly D and The Situation on "Jersey Shore," the last thing anyone would have predicted to find on MTV next was a series that would not only inspire as well as draw a tear or two. "The Buried Life," in one respect, follows four twentysomething friends as they travel around the country fulfilling a bucket list of things they want to do before they die. The second half of each episode has the guys help a stranger fulfill something they haven't done in their own life out of pure good will. While the items on Ben, Jonnie, Duncan and Dave's list are often fun-filled - crashing a Playboy mansion party, for example - they just as passionately help others find lost family members or face fears such as the heights seen from the top a rollercoaster.
To find out how "The Buried Life" got its start and what happens once the guys accomplish everything on the ambitious list, Jim Halterman talked with two of the guys, Ben Nemtin and Jonnie Penn, and executive producer Adam Paul.
Regardless of initial presumptions that this project was purely for the cameras, the TV show actually came along years after the guys started fulfilling tasks on the list and for others. "We didn't start this for television," said Jonnie, "but it was three years before it really became something that we wanted to do [for TV]. Originally it was going to be a documentary but, long story short, we started it because we wanted more out of our lives and we thought why don't we go and ask people what they want out of life, help people along the way and try to complete this list."
"It started as sort of a two-week road trip," Ben added, "and when we got back we had hundreds of emails from people around the world saying 'We can help you' and also asking for our help so it slowly became involved in all aspects of our life. We'd go back to school during the year but we'd take the time off to travel to different places and help people and cross things off the list so it slowly became a part of our life. And now we're so engrossed in it that we live 'the buried life.' It's become what we do, which is great."
The decision to bring the show to MTV was a no-brainer from, among other things, a producing standpoint. Paul explained, "First, the guys are so likable and so genuine. The fact that along with everything they do on their own list, they do something to help a stranger that they meet along the way sounded like a great hook to me and probably the executives at MTV and everybody at Reveille. Nothing is forced. It's all the boys. It's their vision and it's their thing."
In fact, the guys said that MTV brought something to the table that earlier television offers didn't - control. "We got offered to do a show in 2007," said Jonnie, "but we actually turned it down because they were going to take away creative control. For us, we've seen from the start that what people liked about this project is that it's four regular guys so when MTV came to us last year they said 'Look, if we do this, we'd want you guys to do what you have the last few years.' We're executive producers on the show and we work to edit the show, we help film the show, choose the music on the show and it was actually one of the things on the list was to make a TV show."
Regardless of the intentions behind the list, the guys were truly surprised with the rush of good feeling that came with helping strangers. Ben recalled, "The first time we really helped someone was a guy named Brett. Through the help of the community we were able to get him a truck that he needed for a small business that he was starting. That moment we gave him the keys and the look on his face and the impact that it had on us... we realized this was bigger than the four of us. It was definitely something that has changed us in a huge way."
With national television exposure, what would the guys do if the same kind of media attention that has been showered on the cast of "Jersey Shore" comes their way? Ben, for one, only sees the good that can come out of any exposure their project gets. "We'd be able to just funnel that energy into the community and online and start conversations, which is why we started this to get people to think and talk. We would be able to sort of do that and ask this question to as many people as possible, which is the goal."
While the list includes things such as crashing a Playboy mansion party and making a toast at a stranger's wedding, there are also tasks on it that scare the hell out of the guys. "The more I think about it the more I'm terrified to try to go to space," said Ben. Jonnie recounted a time with Ben that surprised him. "I have never seen Ben more scared or more off his game than asking out [movie star] Megan Fox. It's funny because Ben isn't the kind of guy to get scared by stuff but that threw him way off." Future items on the list that the guys hope to accomplish during the first season include playing basketball with President Obama, tell a joke on late night television and, the list item they attempt on tonight's episode, deliver a baby.
What happens when they've crossed off everything on the list? The guys said that the list is ever evolving over time so there may be no end. "Our list now is different than it will be in 5-10 years," Ben explained. "Maybe it will be start a family, buy a house... it's not so much this tangible, concrete thing that the mission is to complete it and then you're fulfilled. For us, we see something cool, we're like, let's put it on the list. Richard Branson is going to space? We've got to go to space. Whatever we see. Obama became President and that was inspiring to us so we want to play basketball with him. We add stuff and take things off as we grow."
Paul explained that response to the show (and the guys) has been overwhelming since its premiere a few weeks ago. "They have sort of tapped into the special networking of that generation. People are twittering about it, people are on Facebook about it, the boys' website, www.TheBuriedLife.com, crashed the night of the premiere due to too much traffic. You know, I've done a few shows but one of the things I've learned from these guys is re-watchability."
And where does the title "The Buried Life" come from? According to Jonnie, "I was in an English class and it was assigned to me, this poem called 'The Buried Life' by Matthew Arnold and in it were these lines that articulated what we were going through really, really beautifully about the feeling of being out of touch with yourself and craving more, feeling restless, there's something out there calling you and that's where the name came from. The poem was written a hundred and fifty years ago so it was a surprise to us to see someone in their 50s, that's how old Matthew Arnold was when he wrote it, was feeling what we were feeling almost 200 years later. We thought that this is not just a young-guy thing but it's something everybody feels in their lives."
"The Buried Life" airs Mondays at 10:00/9:00c on MTV.