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MTV’s Downtown Is a Hyperspecific Time Capsule

Photo: YouTube

I found Downtown — an animated, cinéma-vérité-style series about New York in 1999 that aired on MTV — when I chanced upon a Spotify playlist of hazy, hypnotic, electronic sounds. Massive Attack, DJ Shadow, FKA Twigs. The cover image was of long-limbed kids in big pants/tiny shirts hanging on a couch on the street, the colors all olive and purple, and a sign behind them for the Gowanus Canal. The playlist caption was “this is my favorite show … if u know u know.” I desperately wanted to know.

Downtown is an ensemble show that follows a diverse cast on odysseys through the city, like painting graffiti in abandoned subway tunnels, and through mundane moments like bantering with the cute comic-store cashier. The animation is sketchy and the colors are saturated, playing up the puke green of a neon sign and violet of an alleyway. The narrative revolves around 24-year-old Alex, a copy shop employee living somewhere east of Avenue B, but he’s like Charlie Brown in Peanuts, an anchor that lets the screenwriters feature the lives surrounding him: There’s Fruity the chick-chaser, Chaka the partier, and Matt the sensitive artist. There’s Jen as the self-deprecating gal pal, and Goat the beloved neighborhood freak.

It’s a feat of naturalistic dialogue, based on real conversations that creator Chris Prynoski and his collaborators recorded in lower Manhattan. A team of three, all in their early 20s, they geared up at Washington Square Park then traveled south and east until they hit Ludlow Street, approaching kids on stoops with a bulky video camera, a mic and some release forms. They cast people they met on those downtown treks as voice actors, like 15-year-old friends Leora and Aurora as the joined-at-hip Chaka and Mecca, whose gab is entertaining eavesdropping: “Ugh, Lizzie is not our friend, she’s always weirdly preaching, like, raver pride, except she never dances at any parties.” The show’s own music is a mix of original, slinky beats by Kimson Albert and contemporary alt hits, as the crew could use anything that had aired on MTV in the last five years without paying a licensing fee.

Downtown’s 13 episodes are on YouTube and should be watched in the blurry hours between late night and early morning, collapsed in bed after drinking and smoking and a greasy midnight snack. A state of slight inebriation allows for rewatches, because there will never be more than what we’ve got: MTV canceled the series after one Emmy-nominated season.

“Being out at night is when you find the good people, the people who are willing to talk to you about whatever thing they’re doing, whether it’s drunk people or people on ecstasy outside a club or kids just hanging,” Prynoski tells me on a recent phone call. Originally from Trenton, New Jersey, he was a New York resident for “basically the entire ’90s,” working on other MTV shows like Daria and Beavis and Butt-Head. He now lives between Austin and L.A., and heads his own animation production company. Downtown was for Prynoski what Slacker was for Richard Linklater.

“When I was in the mid-’90s watching Ralph Bakshi films from the early ’70s, they felt so much like a time capsule. I was like, ‘I want to make [Downtown] so that when people watch it 20 years from now, it feels exactly like 1999 in New York,’” Prynoski says. “It was made before cell phones were really in the mix, it was just businessmen [who had them]. That was kind of a line of demarcation where society changed completely. I wanted to be able to have nostalgia for what doesn’t exist now.”

I’m grateful for his prescience. I live in Brooklyn, like Prynoski did in his New York years, though he was dating a girl who lived on Orchard Street. My understanding of the Lower East Side today is as much from internet discourse as it is from occasional voyages to pick up from the herbs shop or to feel fancy drinking a martini. I am intimately familiar with the micro-neighborhood Dimes Square, whose mythology has been sewn by the many alt-media professionals who live there, even though I don’t really hang out there. I just follow the scene, literally.

The centerfold spread of indie magazine Civilization’s latest issue was a semi-parody diagram called “2021 Godhead Silo, NYC”: a “cosmic imagining” of what being downtown feels like right now, that name-drops a bunch of people and things between the realms of the metaphysical (Dasha Nekrasova), physical (Gigi Hadid’s place), temporal (colonics), astral (“missing my mom”), and subconscious (Mister Softee). The popular kids have literally been identified on a map à la the Mean Girls cafeteria scene.

Comparing this to the downtown I’ve constructed through Prynoski’s animations, old Chloë Sevigny photos and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I think what’s missing is the grunge. Tiny sunglasses are back in style and the city still smells of hot trash, but I mean the vibe. The original appeal of grunge was the way artists tapped into young people’s unhappiness and sincere desire for a way out of the capitalist churn. So it does come down to money. The underemployed, aimless kids of Downtown wouldn’t be hanging out on Ludlow Street now because they couldn’t afford it. From 1990 to 2014, rent in Chinatown and the Lower East Side increased by 50 percent, compared to 22 percent citywide. Grunge decamped and dispersed and grew up.

Gentrification is a stale topic of conversation when we’re using white bohemians’ leisure spaces as the point of reference. Again and again we cry wolf that the city is dead. (“If you want to hear a super jaded point of view,” Prynoski says, “there’s too many rich people with too much at stake to let that happen.”) Cynthia Carr writes in her August 1999 Village Voice review of the show, “The East Village stopped mattering years ago. It stopped feeling like an artists’ community. It stopped being an adjective attached to a sometimes dubious aesthetic. And even longer ago, it stopped being a life on the cheap … Downtown illustrates the truism that by the time something’s deemed fit for mass consumption, its moment has passed.” It’s always getting worse, isn’t it? According to Carr, the East Village died during the Tompkins Square riot of ’88.

I don’t really care if Prynoski’s cartoon dispatch is inaccurate. I’m nostalgic for the aesthetics of the signified. I’m nostalgic for last Saturday. I am basically Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris. I would be friends with Downtown character Jen, who works at a kitschy used-clothing store. The fact that Prynoski was thinking about what his work would look like to a future audience means he too is romantic about people he passes in the street. And that’s what makes it a show that lasts, that inspired a Dutch college student to make a playlist on Spotify and an anonymous 17-year-old girl to upload clips for 17,000 followers on TikTok.

A time capsule is useful for seeing not only what’s changed, but what never really does. Like micro-influencers tweeting about making it onto the Civilization map, Downtown is obsessed with coolness. Every character is somewhere on a weirdo spectrum, and Alex is the most concerned with where he sits. His conceit is a crush on intimidating goth babe Serena, who Prynoski said was “probably the most well-adjusted character.” An interview with the real-life inspiration for Serena lives on YouTube, and it’s a peek into the process of creating a story out of little details. She says she’s sick of people associating goths with Marilyn Manson fans (they wear black and white striped tights; goths would never) and vampires. She has 97 pairs of shoes and her new iguana likes to crawl in and out of them. The animators perfectly rendered a shapeshifting closet of platform Mary Janes.

The conversation about Downtown online inevitably ends up a lament that it wasn’t renewed — “an atrocity to the animation community,” says one fan. Prynoski wasn’t surprised. There was a change in executives, and even from the initial pilot MTV was angling for more comedy and more throughline as opposed to ambient slice-of-life. “It was going to be a niche show no matter what. I would have liked to make more but we kind of knew [it was over]. We were wrapping up the 13th episode and made it intentionally a super sad, weird ending where the hero doesn’t get the girl and that’s it. We thought that if the series ends like this, that’ll be fitting.”

The finale is a Halloween episode featuring the stuff of New York legend: drug-poisoned candy, the Greenwich Village parade. “There are certain nights in New York where it’s like everybody’s friendly. It’s all a big party on the street, anybody will talk to you about anything.” That’s every night in Downtown, a hyperspecific place in a hyperspecific time that we’re never getting back, if it was ever there at all, in the way we imagined it’d be.

MTV’s Downtown Is a Hyperspecific Time Capsule