If you haven’t watched any scripted MTV programming since Daria wrapped, you probably aren’t planning to tune in tonight for the series premiere of Underemployed. But we suggest you switch your schedule around (or at least set your DVR), because this show isn’t just good by MTV standards — it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, largely realistic take on contemporary post-collegiate life seen through the eyes of five recent graduates living in Chicago.
The pilot opens with a shot reminiscent of both Girls’ Hannah Horvath and Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw. Sophia (Michelle Ang) sits at a computer, typing self-consciously referential purple prose: “It was the best of times, it was the best of times.” But while the show’s mere existence probably has something to do with Lena Dunham, and there’s at least one SATC reference in its first few episodes, Underemployed is no zeitgeist-y knockoff.
What makes the show worth watching is the way it balances a young, funny, self-aware sensibility that acknowledges the hardships facing new college grads in 2012 with a genuine affection for its characters. In Underemployed’s first few minutes, we meet the crew just as they’re about to graduate and go off into the real world. Smart, virginal Sophia hopes to become a writer. Miles (Diego Boneta), who is basically a younger version of Party Down’s Kyle, is sure he’ll become a successful model/actor. Singer Raviva (Inbar Lavi) predicts, “I’ll be touring with Sleigh Bells or Wavves or the new Sleigh Bells,” and her boyfriend Lou (Jared Kusnitz) is confident he’ll get off the waitlist and in to grad school. The most practical of the group, Daphne (Sarah Habel) has her sights set on a powerful advertising career.
Fast forward a year, and the idealistic friends haven’t exactly conquered the world. Miles is cobbling together catering and stripping jobs, and Lou is doing one of those awful street-canvassing-for-a-cause gigs. Sophia is wearing an ironic doughnut-shaped hat as the cashier at an ironic doughnut shop, and plays Angry Birds in her off hours instead of making progress on her novel. While Daphne has managed to break into advertising, she can’t move past an endless unpaid internship where she has to do humiliating things like eat dog food during presentations. And Raviva, who left town, parted ways with Lou, and spent the year bartending, shows up at his doorstep, seemingly moments away from giving birth to his baby.
Aside from forcing the couple into new-parent mode immediately, the year that passes between the characters’ graduation and Underemployed’s true beginning means we don’t have to watch them absorb that initial blow to their dreams. We’ve seen that before, and it’s far more interesting to watch as they try to dig themselves out of the hole so many young adults get stuck in. Whether they’re sacrificing a steady paycheck to pursue the career they actually want or letting the need for regular employment prevent them from doing what they care about, each is starting to realize that he or she needs to make real changes to move forward.
The show does hit some false notes. Only a few episodes in, Daphne’s story line includes one too many sex-in-the-workplace dilemmas. And perhaps because its creator Craig Wright is a generation older than his subjects (he describes Underemployed as the story of his son and his friends), there are a few moments of cringe-worthy dialogue hidden in scripts that generally come across as authentic. “Look who turned out to be pro-life!” Raviva exclaims upon revealing her pregnancy to Lou, a line that gave me Juno flashbacks. In a phone conversation, Daphne tells her boss, “I think you’re my Mr. Big” (there’s that SATC reference), something we should never hear from a character we’re supposed to take seriously.
But that lack of Millennial concern for coolness pays off in Underemployed’s deep — yet never overly earnest — respect for its characters and their relationships and ambitions. These are neither the tart frenemies of The CW nor the debauched layabouts of MTV’s reality fare. They are real friends who care deeply about each other, even though the other four may sometimes stumble drunk into Sophia’s doughnut shop after a victorious night of pub trivia, forcing her to clear them out by shouting, “You have to go because this is my job!” Just an episode earlier, they’re rallying around Sophia after a crushing encounter with her parents. While their newly rekindled romance is far from perfect, there is genuine tenderness in many moments between Lou, Raviva, and their baby. “Life is real!” Lou barks at Miles in a moment of frustration. So, for the most part, is Underemployed.