By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun
6:06 PM EDT, March 30, 2012
At the start of his new MTV series, "Savage U," Dan Savage introduces himself to a group of University of Maryland students as a "big jerk" and a sex advice columnist.
While there's not much "big jerk" behavior, there is lots of sound advice from the star of this winning production that launches with an episode filmed in College Park.
"Savage U," which brings the columnist and his producer, Lauren Hutchinson, to a different college campus each week for frank discussions with students about sex, will also likely stir some culture-war controversy when it debuts at 11 p.m. Tuesday.
Savage brings some of it with him, in part for such actions as creating a sexualized meaning on the Internet for "Santorum" after Rick Santorum, Republican presidential candidate, compared homosexuality to bestiality.
But there is plenty of culture-war potential in the premiere episode itself, with such moments as Savage visiting the University of Maryland Health Center and telling a young woman, "You can get birth control that's going to knock out your eggs for a year."
"I guess I could," the young woman says.
"You should. You must. Oh, my God," he says.
And that's one of the exchanges that can be written about and discussed without edits in these pages.
As Hutchinson says in voice-over during an instantly engaging opening, "Believe me, there's no Q that he won't A."
The half-hour at College Park begins with Savage and Hutchinson driving onto the campus in a van. Hutchinson is behind the wheel.
Viewers have just seen a screen full of type carrying the disclaimer: "Dan and Lauren are not licensed therapists. Dan isn't even a licensed driver. The views and advice they share are their own. If you have any of the issues in this program, you should seek the advice of a medical professional. This show features candid sexual discussion. Viewer discretion is advised."
The last sentence blinks on and off a couple of times for emphasis. It's warranted.
The van radio is tuned to WMUC-FM, the student-run campus station, where a talk-show host tells viewers he has Savage live on the line. Viewers see the sex advice guru answering questions from the front seat of the van.
It's hard to write about his answers without possibly spoiling the show for some viewers. But it is also impossible to capture the flavor of his wit without a few quotes. Part of Savage's appeal is the cleverness, humor and sometimes wisdom of his answers to student questions.
Let me share just one.
A female student says during a forum taped in College Park, "My boyfriend is into something really weird. How can he get over it?"
"He can't. He won't. He never will," Savage responds without a moment's hesitation. "And you should, as I always say in my column, be willing to be good, be giving, be game. There are no normal guys. And if you dump the honest foot fetishist, you will marry the dishonest necrophiliac."
Some of the questions voiced in assembly-hall or classroom group settings are of such a nature that even MTV uses bleeps. But these are questions that college students have about their bodies, their sexuality, their most intimate relationships, and it is refreshing to see them addressed on mainstream TV in such an intelligent and responsible manner.
That's important to say, because MTV has been irresponsible, in my opinion, in its handling of teen sex in the series "16 and Pregnant."
For all the network's PR talk about how the reality TV series is a cautionary tale for teen girls about the potential consequences of sexual intercourse, I believe it essentially celebrates teenagers who get pregnant by making them the stars of the series. It allows some girls to see getting pregnant as a way to get attention — like the girls featured in the show. And that is an especially seductive message for girls who feel lonely, unloved or out of it.
There are no multiple, ambiguous readings to Savage's answers. Agree or disagree with him, you have to concede that he's direct and plain-spoken.
Beyond the Q&A forums, Savage and Hutchinson also delve into the bar scene in College Park, as well as going one-on-one with a couple of students who seem to be in genuine pain about the lack of rewarding relationships in their lives.
The bar scene finds Savage and Hutchinson talking to a group of people who say they get drunk in their apartments and then head to the College Park bars to drink some more and find "hookups." They have even devised a game with points based on how many sexual encounters they can initiate in the bars.
There are funny moments, such as when one young woman asks Savage who he considers a slut. He promptly answers, "Anybody who has more sex than me."
But he constantly stresses condoms, birth control and acting responsibly.
When told about the points game, he asks, "Do you get any points knocked off if somebody gets unintentionally pregnant? You should think about safety."
Acting responsibly is one of the biggest themes sounded in "Savage U."
Another is to accept and embrace who you are. Don't be ashamed and don't let others try to make you into something you're not — no matter how much you want to be with them.
Both messages seem like excellent advice for college students who have ample opportunity and freedom to do harmful things to themselves and others as they struggle to find adult identities.
"Savage U" premieres at 11 p.m. Tuesday on MTV.
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