Underemployed debuts tonight on MTV at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Farihah Zaman: Over the past year MTV has been trying to throw its hat in the ring when it comes to post-graduate entertainment, which any fan (or detractor) of Lena Dunham’s divisive HBO series Girls can tell you is all the rage. The post-grad or quarter-life crisis plot line is hardly new: Just think of The Graduate in the 1960s, St. Elmo’s Fire in the ’80s, Reality Bites in the ’90s, and Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha in the early 2000s. It’s experienced renewed interest, however, since the recession widened the already terrifying gap between what one expects after receiving a college degree and what the world outside the four walls of a higher-learning institution actually has to offer. MTV was a pioneer in this field in the sense that it brought gritty documentary style to 20-something storytelling with the seminal reality TV show The Real World (though that series has since devolved into a parody of itself). But as the network’s primary audience has shifted to a younger demographic, it seems to be enjoying success with high-school programming—both in the field of reality (The recently concluded Teen Mom) and fiction (Awkward., The Inbetweeners)—over shows like I Just Want My Pants Back, which was canceled earlier this year.
Yet MTV is getting back on that horse with Underemployed, a show that follows five recent grads as they try to navigate work and romance in Chicago. The pilot begins with the heady, drunken musings of our heroes and heroines on the eve of their graduation. They share their hopes for the future, one by one, in a systematic fashion that just reeks of clunky exposition. Right after virginal valedictorian Sofia (Michelle Ang; Asians are quickly replacing black characters as TV’s preferred token minorities) wraps up her vague but hopeful ceremony speech, the show flashes forward one year. Each of the friends is living in an employment purgatory unique to their particular ambition: For instance, Aspiring model Miles (Diego Boneta, late of 90210, Pretty Little Liars, and a starring role in the big-screen adaptation of Rock Of Ages) is catering and stripping at office parties, while Daphne (Sarah Habel)—who wants to work in advertising—is stuck in an undervalued, unpaid internship. Even more alarming than work qualms, Lou (Jared Kusnitz) discovers his college sweetheart, Reviva (Inbar Lavi), is several months pregnant.
The promotional photos on MTV’s website immediately telegraph what’s wrong with this show; it is trying too hard yet not really getting beneath the surface of things. In the photos, as in their scenes together, each character is a Barbie-style archetype, complete with props like guitars or coffee cups and goofy, harried, fuck-my-life expressions. The show may as well have dispensed with actual names in favor of dubbing each of the not-so-fierce five according to their type: “The Pretty Boy,” “The Ambitious One,” etc. The scenarios and the dialogue contained within them feel as canned as the hipster-lite characters themselves. When Sophia sits at her computer at the top of the show, staring at a haunting blank screen with punny voiceover going like she’s some kind of baby Carrie Bradshaw, or when Daphne’s handsome boss makes her eat dog food in a meeting to prove it is safe for human consumption, it’s too over-the-top to feel real but too cliché to be funny. When Lou and Reviva break up just before graduation, the characters are still so unfamiliar, and the dialogue is so generic it is impossible to feel their pain despite the fact that a college break up is a fairly universal milestone. These moments are devoid of the poignance they should have for those of us who remember such foibles and follies and those of us who are still living them, because they have not yet been earned.
Even in this shaky pilot, however, there are promising elements. It is exciting that these characters are being introduced not in college, not just after college, but a full year afterwards, right during that true moment of crisis when panic really begins to set in. We can immediately see that for some of these kids things are going to get worse before they get better; no one is poised for glorious success in the next couple of episodes. Also, the presence of an infant in these not-quite-adult characters’ lives is a twist that, if handled correctly, should heighten the real-world stakes for all involved. (The ABC Family sitcom Baby Daddy also deals with 20-somethings suddenly saddled with a child, but the Three Men And A Baby retread differs from Underemployed in the fact it barely strays beyond that diaper-swaddled premise.) Finally, even within the first episode Underemployed seems willing to go into morally gray territory where I Just Want My Pants Back feared to tread. On IJWMPB, Tina balked at asking her mother for money despite a supposedly desperate financial situation, and Jason was disgusted with himself when he realized the woman whose house he was cleaning was tipping him extra for sleeping with her. On Underemployed, parlaying a sexual transgression into better working conditions, or bagging on principles and running to daddy for a job, is not out of the realm of possibility, and those weaknesses feel more true to life.
Although it is worth staying tuned—despite its many flaws, IJWMPB had its moments, and Underemployed may similarly require time to develop—I had a particular aversion to this episode. Perhaps the show will end up being better than its pilot, as so many shows do. If it eventually gets at something raw and real about this awful but strangely exhilarating moment in its characters’ lives—the way Freaks And Geeks delivered the exquisite anguish of high school—than it will become clear that it is my own proximity to this time period that made the setup so off-putting. However, I suspect that it is not the reminder of my early 20s, but its reduction to a series of flat jokes and douchey hats that makes Underemployed so problematic. It is as if they have shrunk legitimately emotional experiences like professional humiliation and personal heartbreak to a kind of shorthand, the way Ben Stiller’s TV exec in Reality Bites edits Ryder’s Gen X video diary down to a corporate shadow of its former self, leaving what was real—and really funny—on the cutting room floor.
Erik Adams: Here’s my main gripe about Underemployed’s première—and the two additional, non-sequential episodes MTV provided to critics: There’s not enough material to justify its hour-long timeslot, yet it’d feel too crowded if the series was airing in half-hour chunks. As a result, these hours crawl by, despite the drama inherent in the lives of the characters—whose names and basic character traits would be a lot easier to keep track of if they bore the descriptive titles Farihah suggests above. The length also give these episodes over to whiplash-inducing tonal shifts, belying the soapier corners of creator Craig Wright’s résumé.
But, like the five pretty things it profiles (And who’s the Schmitty now, Kusnitz?), Underemployed is groping blindly toward finding itself—and it occasionally makes some progress. Despite the godawful writerspeak the scripts dump on her, Ang is a winning presence, her grounded performance making her character the one principal who both earns and lands the emotional beats in the pilot and subsequent episodes. The series also deserves kudos for truly utilizing its Chicago shooting locations, even if that leads to a few too many scenes set on CTA train platforms. (Including The A.V. Club’s own Chicago/Franklin stop on the Brown and Purple Lines!) Give ’em a little more definition and some degree of consistency and these crazy kids just might make it after all.