"It was the best of times, it was the best of times," riffs aspiring writer Sophia in the opening of MTV's new dramedy, Underemployed, as she taps away on her laptop, narrating the lives of her recent-grad friends a la Carrie Bradshaw. It's the first cliché in a series full of them. It's also a sign of the ongoing fascination with the lives of twentysomethings trying and failing to do big things in big cities during a big recession. (Take it from me — it's not that great.)
Underemployed premiered Tuesday night, smack in the middle of the second presidential debate (with MTV perhaps betting, and perhaps safely, that the target audiences for the two wouldn't overlap). Emmy-nominated TV writer and playwright Craig Wright is the creator of this latest attempt by the network to establish itself in scripted television — or, at least, television that admits to being scripted. Wright has previously written for Six Feet Under, Lost and Brothers & Sisters, and he was the creator of the short-lived yet entertaining Dirty Sexy Money. Underemployed, he says, was inspired by his 23-year-old son.
So it's a shame that what could be a compelling portrayal of underpaid, struggling young adults instead relies heavily on soapy clichés and predictable formulas. These characters are likeably earnest, if overacted, but they're little more than walking stereotypes. There's Sophia, the virginal writer; Miles, the wannabe model; Lou, the egghead activist; Raviva, the knocked-up musician; and Daphne, the leggy unpaid intern. Within the first episode, we have an unplanned pregnancy, multiple sexual trysts, workplace blackmail and virginity loss. That's a lot to cram into one pilot, and the over-the-top comedic gags are too predictable to be entertaining.
Underemployed clearly hopes to follow in the footsteps of HBO's Girls, but the the characters here are far less smart and self-aware than Hannah Horvath or Jessa Johansson. There's no self-sabotage for the sake of art, no edginess to the sexual transgressions. The Underemployed gang just seem ... well, kind of dumb. And every time they talk about their plan for "world domination," it's hard not to cringe.
And yet, there are details that ring true to me — the frustration of unpaid internships, the difficulty of long-distance relationships, the perhaps unreasonable belief that the perfect job waits just around the corner. These characters' apartments are nicer and better decorated than any I could afford, but something seems less glamorous about their lives than the romping metropolitan existence of Girls. This may be the millennial version of St. Elmo's Fire in its soapy portrayal of early-twenties "types," but that film resonated with a generation for a reason. I might continue watching, if only to commiserate.
[Emma Miller is an intern with NPR's Digital Arts desk.] [But not unpaid.]