MTV’s ‘Underemployed’ And The Impact Of The Recession

I’m charmed by MTV’s Underemployed, a quirky little drama that debuted last night with an extremely smart premise. It follows a group of soon-to-be college graduates with high ambitions: as Glover (Sarah Habel) says the night before school ends, “We have to get together and celebrate our complete world domination!” But because of the vagaries of the economy, the rise of unpaid internships, and some of their own realistically bad decisions, find themselves adrift after they leave school. It’s a charming, even sexy show at times, but it’s also an example of a slightly strange trend: a show that’s absolutely about the recession, but that has a hard time naming social conditions for what they are.

A logical reason that Sofia (a very strong Michelle Ang), a gifted writer, would be working in a donut shop where customers yell things at her like “What do you mean you’re out of maple bacon bars, you little bitch? Having maple bacon bars is your job!” rather than interning at a magazine is the economy and the contraction of the publishing industry. But Underemployed sets up Sofia in a beautifully twee apartment (the characters all seem possessed of great real estate) and treats her unemployment as a symptom of a larger confusion about what she actually wants to be doing with her life, her writing an extension of inner confusion. It does better with a plot about Sofia’s sexuality: her friends tease her about having survived college a virgin, but when she’s asked out on a date by an attractive African-American lawyer who is the boss of one of her college friends, the show doesn’t have to state out loud why she didn’t have sex with a man somewhere along the way. The expression of joyful surprise on Sofia’s face when she has her first orgasm feels wonderfully sweet and revelatory, especially in a television environment that seems to believe that there’s a direct relationship between raunch and insight.

Then, there’s Glover, whose sex life and job struggles are also intimately related. After she asks her boss if, after a year of unpaid internships, she can finally be paid, Glover’s handsome boss asks her to lunch, and they end up sleeping together. But when it turns out that the boss has a girlfriend and no intention of doing right by Glover, who ends up blackmailing him into a reasonable salary and a parking space. It might have been nice for her to mention, as interns are arguing in courtrooms over the country, that even if he hadn’t slept with her, unpaid internships that involve substantial work rather than educational experiences may well be illegal. And it would have been even better if Underemployed hadn’t set him up to be a potential love interest in the future, doing the right thing personally and dumping his girlfriend after he was forced to do the right thing professionally and pay Glover.The character who talks most directly about the economy, and who — no coincidences — faces the truest, most difficult choices, is Lou (the appealing Jared Kusnitz). An aspiring activist, Lou finds himself canvassing on streetcorners rather than working for a campaign or a non-profit. His situation worsens when his college girlfriend Raviva (Inbar Lavi) turns up pregnant — they broke up at graduation, convincing themselves that “This is adults do,” but Raviva came out pregnant, explaining to Lou “I kept think I wasn’t going to have it, and then I kept keeping it.” Lou wants to do the right thing, but the prospect of it seems impossibly far away. “There’s nothing online that pays better than what I was doing,” he tells his roommate Miles (Diego Boneta, fractionally more interesting than he was in Rock of Ages). “It’s just more jobs that stuff. You know, I can’t call up Raviva and say ‘You want to live with me?’ I found this great place right below the poverty line.’” When he compromises, it’s to ask his dismissive, nasty father for a job, putting up with the man’s mockery of Lou’s environmental convictions and accepting a job in the mailroom that comes with health care and a chance to poke corporate drones about recycling. It’s a painful and realistic bit of settling, and even that doesn’t solve all their problems. “I don’t know how we’re ever going to pay for her college,” Lou tells Raviva, who reminds him, “I don’t know how we’re ever going to finish paying for ours.”

It’s nice to see a show recognize that the debt students are graduating with now will impact the rest of their lives. Hopefully, Underemployed will be smart enough to find that same drama in delayed starts to paid work, jobs without health insurance, and the stagnation of the career ladder. It has characters sweet, and smart, and intriguing enough to carry it off.