TV: Underemployed – Is It Us, Or Did MTV Just Get Something Right?
There’s a bit in the pilot of MTV’s new show Underemployed where the five main cast members meet for the first time a year after their college graduation. When they last saw each other, the world was their oyster. They would leave Chicago and become writers and lawyers, while being fabulously financially independent. In reality, three of them were working minimum wage service jobs, one was pregnant and the fifth was stuck in the dreaded unpaid internship. Like countless others in their (and my) cohort group, these grads were ‘underemployed’ – a recent phenomenon which means your Bachelor’s degree might be enough to get you behind the counter of McDonald’s, but not a whole lot more.
In some ways Underemployed is a show for the post-MTV generation. The first group of kids born in 1990 are the most recent college graduates. We are the generation that grew up with the internet and the endless knowledge and networks it entails. We are the generation that have known economic prosperity for most of our lives. Throughout the pilot and the first few episodes, Underemployed gives a knowing wink to a number of social and pop cultural tropes.
Despite the title, the cast of Underemployed still manage to fall squarely in the middle-class bracket. Sure, they might have dead-end jobs but at least they can afford nice apartments and clothes. The show is a fantasy of what it’s like to be young and broke – all the romanticism of living on the breadline without any of the danger. The conceit is effective for dramatic purposes, but any link to the economic reality of many twentysomethings is tenuous. But the show does offer some interesting perspectives on gender roles and sex.
Without going too far down the rabbit hole, Underemployed has managed to both subvert and reinforce gender roles. Much like the real world, these roles are defined through money and power. In the pilot, Raviva, one of the five leads, becomes pregnant and has her baby, forcing her and her boyfriend to conform to traditional male breadwinner/female homemaker roles. The irony of the situation is not lost on either character as they both see themselves becoming their parents – for Lou, it is working in his father’s company and for Raviva, it is taking the advice of her mother. Following the birth of her child, Raviva, along with the rest of the main cast, affirm her commitment to raising Rosemary without the problems her parents and her friends’ parents endured. A family without the messy breakups, or the isolation, or all that silly gender normativity.
Underemployed similarly riffs on themes of sex and sexuality. For the Underemployed cast, sex is a commodity to be used to further your career when needed. Daphne has no qualms about blackmailing her boss, whom she had sex with, to get on the payroll. In the same episode, Miles goes home with a ‘cougar’ to gain access to Calvin Klein to further his modelling career. Refreshingly the show doesn’t judge their characters for using sex as a currency, choosing instead to allow the characters to revel in it.
Additionally, the show employs a surprisingly mature tone when approaching the sexual exploration of lead character Sophie. Her virginity is a point of amusement for both herself and the other characters at the beginning of the show and she quickly realises it isn’t her that’s the problem, but the heteronormative dichotomy of male/female. This self-realisation serves as a jumping off point for Sophie’s experimentation with both hetero- and same-sex sex. How this exploration unfolds is quite touching at times, and thankfully MTV has not shied away from displaying the particulars of same-sex intimacy (see: Glee and Modern Family for how not to do it). LGBT characters on television usually fall into either the stereotypical gay best friend/butch lesbian category or are included as a box-tick to diversity. Underemployed crosses the entire narrative arc of same-sex encounter, to questioning, to coming out, to acceptance within a few episodes, which to be honest is more than what most shows accomplish in their entire run.
Over the past twenty-five odd years MTV has alternated between capturing and creating the cultural zeitgeist. From the early days of The Real World to the phenomena of The Hills and Jersey Shore, MTV has always been more comfortable in the realms of reality TV. There have been a few misfires for the cable network recently, with critically and publicly-panned US versions of Skins and The Inbetweeners. MTV is only now beginning to invest properly in scripted television and has found modest successes in Awkward and Teen Wolf. Underemployed is not the ratings hit that MTV might have hoped for, but I suspect that much of the show’s viewership lies in non-traditional viewing through On Demand and online services.
Regardless of quality, Underemployed represents an important milestone in television – it is the first show that sheds the teen drama label of Gossip Girl and sees us ’90s kids emerge, doe-eyed, into adulthood. While the show may leave behind teen drama in terms of the age of the cast, it doesn’t quite escape all the stereotypes of the genre. The show leans towards the lightweight in terms of storytelling, content and execution – Mad Men this ain’t. But to be fair the show never makes any pretensions to the contrary. The writing is solid and the cast are very likeable, with Michelle Ang as Sophie putting in a great performance in particular.
It’s easy to pick on problems in Underemployed and it may be the case that it is more interesting in concept than reality, but it is the first of an exciting wave of shows based on a newly grown-up generation. Underemployed is surprisingly true to the experiences of young adults in personal terms, if not economic. Whether you’re stuck in an unpaid internship or spending too much time on the internet or trying to wrap your head around what it means to be twenty-two in 2013, give Underemployed a chance – it might surprise you.