"It was the best the times, it was the best times," says aspiring writer Sophia (Michelle Ang) as she taps away on her keyboard. Is she living the glamorous city-trotting fantasy of Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw or a bleaker cash-strapped existence of Girls's Hannah Horvath? It doesn't take more than a moment for MTV's Underemployed to answer (though the title gives it away).
The scripted hour-long series operates in the Girls tradition, depicting a group of recent college grads hustling for fulfilling careers with salaries that pay the bills, all while balancing the familiar difficulties of love and friendship. Set in Chicago and restrained to the limits of cable television, Underemployed doesn't have all the edge, wit, and charm of Lena Dunham's Brooklyn adventure. Nevertheless the show deserves accolades for at least trying to join Girls's by tackling the plight of the Millennial generation.
Sophia and the gang don't work the dream jobs they thought their degrees promised. Sophia peddles pastries at a donut shop, model-wannabe Miles (Diego Boneta) works catering gigs, musician Raviva (Inbar Lavi) tends bar, activist Lou (Jared Kusnitz) begs for petition signatures on the sidewalk, and Daphne (Sarah Habel) interns unpaid at an advertising firm. And they don't live in ritzy apartment lofts a la Friends, but in dark, dingy walk-ups—that is, if they've moved out of their parents' place (some have not).
Speaking at the Television Critics Association conference, creator and executive producer Craig Wright explained he was inspired by his 23 year old son.
"I don't pretend to be the one who can speak for this generation," he said, addressing a joke cracked by the pilot of Girls. "But I'm very, very deeply interested in letting the show be a platform so that the voices of people this age can be heard."
Aside from characters modeled off of Wright's son's friends— "his friend Miles is a model. His friend Sophia was a writer," Wright explained— Underemployed reflects a study conducted by MTV which found that seven out of 10 Millennials in the labor force felt "underemployed," and yet six out of 10 say they still believe there is such a thing as a perfect job for them.
Underemployed projects this dynamic of frustration and hope on its ensemble cast. Even as they're exploited by higher-ups and written off by parents, they hold on to their dreams—or at least the take comfort in their friendships. The first episode is a bit bogged down by twists that have become quite typical of the young adult "dramedy" genre: an unplanned pregnancy here, an out-of-the closet lesbian revelation there. But these turns straighten out in later episodes, and the long-term exploration of these predicaments—along with silly subplots aplenty—hold up Underemployed from sinking entirely into melodrama. The pilot's Greys Anatomy-esque opening and closing monologue is also, thankfully, ditched later in the season.
The show finds its magic in the details that will ring all too true for young MTV viewers who face similar economic realities. "Itemize or even split?" the friends negotiate when a restaurant bill arrives. "My parents have a key to my place because ... whatever, they pay the rent," Sophia frets when they unexpectedly drop in.
"I don't know how we are ever going to pay for her college," wonders Lou about girlfriend Raviva's newborn baby. "I don't know how we are going to finish paying for ours," Raviva quips back.
As much as you want to watch Underemployed's characters succeed in "complete world domination" (the show's cheesy slogan, not mine), it is far more refreshing to see them struggle together.
Underemployed premieres Tuesday, October 16 at 10 p.m. on MTV
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Tierney Sneed is associate editor of U.S. News Opinion. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.