MTV's 'Underemployed': Underwhelmingly vague

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'Underemployed'

The cast of the new MTV show "Underemployed." (October 16, 2012)

“Underemployed” is a show in search of an identity. So much so that even creator Craig Wright doesn't know how to peg the new MTV series, describing it in the press notes as simply a “one-hour ensemble.” Ensemble what you ask? Well, exactly.

Coming on the heels of “Awkward” and “The Inbetweeners,” scripted MTV shows that winningly navigate that line between ridiculous and eminently watchable, Wright's project, debuting Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern, is the latest in the cable network's ventures into the world of nonreality television, focusing on five Chicago friends struggling to sort out their lives the year after college. It's about time MTV got into the scripted game about this age group; the network is playing catch-up with the stoner lunacy of Comedy Central's “Workaholics” and the divisive but much talked about cultural phenomenon of “Girls” on HBO.

To compete on that level, “Underemployed” will have to offer considerably more than what it serves up in the first few tepid episodes. (Don't for minute, by the way, think that MTV plans to abandon its reality television roots altogether.) Wright doesn't call the show a dramedy, but that's the genre he's working in, even if the comedy never quite lands, due, in part, to a cast that doesn't have much of an instinct for either side of that coin.

Tonally, the show is a hesitant blend of exaggerated gags (really nasty customers at a doughnut shop where one of the women works) with more earnest realism. A group outing to a Medieval Times-type restaurant called Days of Yore seems ripe for a joke-laden set piece, but the writers abandon it almost as fast as they set it up. (A show like "Awkward" would have spent the entire episode in a place like that and milked it to within an inch of its life.)

Wright cut his teeth on "Six Feet Under," and one of that show's key features was the way it never dwelled on certain characters to the exclusion of the others. It truly was a "one-hour ensemble," to use Wright's words.

But you need fully realized characters to pull off that sort of thing, and the individuals of "St. Elmo's Fire: The Next Generation" — sorry, "Underemployed" — are so vaguely rendered (one calls herself a "stay-at-home mommy musician," as if that means something) they might as well be walking around with signs on their foreheads that read "personality TBA."

It's fine by me if these characters are idiots. Many a quality show has been built on less. Who cares if they aren't smart? Who cares if they spend a weird amount of time talking about how close they are as friends? Who cares if they live in apartments with far more attention to interior design than a recent college graduate would bother with? Who cares if the 20-something parents of a newborn look remarkably well-rested?

It would be easy to suspend one's disbelief if only the characters resembled more than squishy idea-delivery devices. It's not so much that the show feels implausible, but that it feels implausible within the world of its own devising.

nmetz@tribune.com
Twitter @NinaMetzNews

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