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The story of wide-eyed college kids hoping to catch lightning only to get their fists around a mop is not a new one, it’s just particularly resonant at this moment. The recession has been a bumpy ride for millennials, as we all know by now, since they’re the generation raised to believe they were special. (Actually, all generations believe they’re special; millennials just have the most trend stories on the subject.)
One of the places that told them they were special was MTV (VIA). The channel may have seemed novel when it premiered in the Pleistocene era of 1981—an entire network targeted to teenagers!—but today’s kids take it for granted that everything will be marketed to them, and they probably don’t even associate MTV with music videos.
The complexion of MTV was forever changed when The Real World first aired in 1992, right around the time today’s college graduates were born. By now its trajectory is common knowledge: What started as a fascinating documentary experiment about young Americans devolved into a freak show of consumerism and binge drinking. For most of its 27 (!) seasons, The Real World has been lifestyle porn, touting shiny fantasies about a future where liquor is free, your mansion is decorated by design fairies, and a camera crew is forever following you.
So it’s wildly appropriate that the twentysomething recession comedy Underemployed is airing on MTV, because, despite being scripted, Underemployed has much in common with The Real World: It boasts a casually multiethnic cast of beautiful young folk fresh from college. (One of these people is gay. Of course.) It’s set against the backdrop of an exciting urban landscape—in this case, Chicago, which is photographed so lushly that it seems glittering and full of possibility rather than, you know, frigid. A place where even broke college kids live in giant loft spaces with exposed brick walls.
We meet our crew, full of wish and entitlement, right after college and then fast-forward a year into the future as they struggle to swallow the bitter pills of post-graduate reality. Wannabe novelist Sophia (Michelle Ang) must slog through her days at a doughnut shop while she writes the Great American something-or-the-other. Beautiful Daphne (Sarah Habel) dreams of being a powerful ad exec but finds herself stuck in an unpaid internship and living with Dad. Miles (Diego Boneta) longs for the high-rolling life of an underwear model, but instead gets his ass pinched while serving champagne at art gallery openings. Raviva (Inbar Lavi) sets out for rock ’n’ roll greatness only to discover she’s pregnant. The baby is her ex-boyfriend Lou’s (Jared Kusnitz), which means he has to leave his low-paying environmental gig and sell his soul for a corporate job with Dad.
Underemployed is the creation of Dirty Sexy Money showrunner Craig Wright (who also wrote for Six Feet Under), who says the material was inspired by his 23-year-old son. The show is engagingly soapy and lightly amusing, with a few laugh-out-loud moments. (A scene in which the young college grads must teach older employees at work how to use their computers was hilarious, perhaps because it was so embarrassingly familiar.)
Unlike HBO’s Girls, which has the crackle of a show written by the people it’s about, there are times when Underemployed has the feel of generational dictation: Jokes about Angry Birds, Facebook (FB), and hookup culture feel less lived than observed. And the script has the irritating sitcom tendency to go too broad. In one gimmicky setup, Miles pretends to be Sofia’s boyfriend; seeing the protagonist placed in some crazy circumstance and forced to lie his way out is as fresh as Jack Tripper’s bangs.
Still, kids struggling to piece together a persona and a paycheck will see their lives reflected here, and it’s nice to see MTV double down on scripted territory. Having twice revolutionized the reality genre—first with The Real World and later with The Hills, a glossy view of L.A. living that changed the way reality shows could look and feel—the channel has been casting about for a new identity. (16 and Pregnant was a good shot. The show about working-class teen moms was a bracing change from the channel’s legacy of rich-and-famous voyeurism.) But at its heart, MTV is an aspirational network. It’s a channel that young people watch to find out who they’ll be one day, and what their problems and their furniture will look like.
While Underemployed can’t help but be a little unrealistic, it has genuine warmth for its characters. The actors are appealing, particularly Lavi, playing the wide-eyed Latina who dreams of artistic expression but instead gets a baby and a boyfriend who reports to a cubicle every day. It’s moving to watch her negotiate romantic longing with real life. Hers isn’t a millennial story; it’s a human one.
One of the great pains of being 23 is the delusion that your misery is special. In truth, it’s a cliché. Disappointment and anguish existed long before your résumé hit a trash can, before your boyfriend dumped you over a candlelit dinner. It’s not surprising to anyone that you failed to become rich and famous by leveraging a liberal arts degree. For the 23-year-olds of the world, this can be rough: Not only will their lives fall short of expectations, but they will do so in an average way.
And yet it is this ordinariness that makes them relatable, roped in to generations before and after. Their coming of age, ultimately, is no different than anyone’s. We all burst into the world brandishing the torch of our own uniqueness only to discover we’re just like everyone else, which is horrible and humbling. But it’s that connection that keeps the flame going as we find our way.