Underemployed is the network's best scripted drama in years, but the channel's fixation on increasingly outlandish reality TV may have killed audience appetite for programs like it.
Ever since Lena Dunham's Girls premiered to the alternately rapturous and outraged reactions upon which zeitgeists are made, networks have been scrambling to find "a voice of a generation" of their own. Just last week, Comedy Central ordered a pilot of Broad City, a comedy web series about a pair of friends trying to make it in New York. A few days later, NBC announced plans to develop a sitcom based on the Tumblr blog "Fuck! I'm in My Twenties." But MTV must have worked fast: Its version, Underemployed, premieres Tuesday night.
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The comedic drama follows five college friends' post-collegiate lives in Chicago, playing up the incompatibility between these creative types' lofty ambitions and the bleak career prospects that now await most newly graduated humanities majors. A bookish and sexually innocent academic achiever takes a job in a doughnut shop, complete with a humiliating doughnut-shaped beret. An idealistic conservationist must beg his polluting businessman father for a corporate job after his ex-girlfriend surfaces, nine months pregnant with his baby. Glossier and more self-serious than Girls, Underemployed's warmhearted portrayal of these characters and their relationships (not to mention its appreciably more diverse cast) makes it more than just a crass attempt to cash in on TV's vogue for aimless young adults flailing in urban settings.
As promising as the show is, though, it may already be doomed. Drama series have long been a dicey proposition for MTV, and most of its recent attempts at scripted programming that aims to realistically portray young people lives' haven't fared well. Although Underemployed could turn out to be an anomaly like Awkward, a remarkably smart and punchy teen comedy that will air its third season in 2013, its earnestness may consign it to a fate more similar to last year's notorious flop, Skins. The heavily hyped American adaptation of a risqué British teen drama generated plenty of controversy but couldn't attract enough viewers to survive past its first season. I Just Want My Pants Back, which followed the personal and professional lives of 20-somethings in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, suffered from a similar lack of interest.
Conservative critics see no difference between these shows and Jersey Shore or The Real World, characterizing all of the above as morally bankrupt depictions of debauched youth. In fact, the Parents Television Council's campaigns against MTV reality shows look downright tame in comparison to its outrage at Skins, which it branded "the most dangerous television show for children that we have ever seen." But in their outrage at any depiction of sex or drugs, regardless of context, groups like the PTC miss the truly worrisome difference between the network's scripted and unscripted series. Skins took young people and their problems seriously, while Jersey Shore positions its cast members as empty-headed clowns. In yet another of so-called reality TV's many ironies, MTV's alarmingly unrealistic reality programming has so fully imposed its hard-partying, fist-pumping, ambition-free vision of youth that it's turned its entire audience away from more universal teen and young-adult narratives of self-discovery. After years of watching famous-for-being-famous alcoholics fight and hook up outside the context of any significant storylines or stakes, MTV's viewers seem to have become unreceptive to multilayered characters whose struggles bear more resemblance to their own.
This youth-culture identity crisis has, of course, been a long time coming. It's just taken MTV's renewed enthusiasm for scripted series to reveal the extent to which an endless supply of exploitative reality programming has shaped its audience's tastes.
Although it's impossible to pinpoint when exactly MTV's portrayal of teens and 20-somethings shifted from insightful and sympathetic to frivolous, the fall 2003 premiere of Rich Girls is an important moment. The year after the network set Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane free from high school, it introduced us to a new pair of teenagers: Tommy Hilfiger's daughter Ally and her best friend, Jaime Gleicher. Their real-life social schemes and privileged problems didn't provide much action, and Rich Girls only aired 10 episodes, but the combination of fascination and derision its characters inspired became a staple of MTV reality shows.
The very next year, the network returned with Laguna Beach, a sort of Rich Girls set in Orange County, with a larger cast and contrived storylines that yielded more drama. This time, the bratty characters, their petty infighting, and their hedonistic nights out went over big. Laguna Beach went on to spawn The Hills and The City, making tabloid superstars (and multimillion dollar brands) out of each show's stars. By the winter of 2005, it shared a network with My Super Sweet 16, perhaps the most horrifying accidental critique of one-percenter excess and the Millennial generation's entitlement to date.
It wasn't just the new shows that reflected MTV's shifting approach. The network's long-running reality series stayed relevant by changing the way they selected and depicted their cast members. The Real World was never conceived of as highbrow entertainment, but its truly experimental early years got viewers talking about race, sexuality, and the AIDS crisis. In an interview that appears in Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum's I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Season 1 housemate Kevin Powell recalled his on-screen confrontation with Julie Stoffer about racism. "People have told me that was the first time they'd ever seen race talked about in that way on national television," he said. "People have written dissertations on our argument." Now approaching its 28th season, the show has devolved into one long, intoxicated screaming match, and its cast members' preoccupations are rarely more serious than The Situation's. As former MTV VJ Dave Holmes put it in the same book, "Have you seen the first season of The Real World lately? It seems like a fucking Ken Burns documentary from today's perspective."
The documentary series True Life, meanwhile, has become a strange and uneven amalgam of the old and new MTV. In its first season, which aired in 1998, the episode about gay teen Matthew Shepard's murder won a GLAAD Award for Outstanding TV Journalism. To its credit, True Life hasn't entirely stopped exploring serious issues that affect MTV's audience. In the past year it's given us episodes called "I'm Occupying Wall Street" and "I'm Working My Way Out of Poverty." The difference is that now those reports have to share the True Life name with such daytime talk show-ready topics as "I Have a Hot Mom" and "I'm Giving My Boyfriend an Ultimatum."
But no other show illustrates the contrast between how MTV approaches its audience now and the way it spoke to the same demographic in the '90s than Beavis and Butt-Head. When the network resurrected it last year, critics lamented that, while the characters were as entertainingly dimwitted and perverse as ever, we had to watch them heckle MTV reality shows instead of music videos. They joked that the new Beavis and Butt-Head were smarter and more self-aware than the subjects of their mockery.
This complaint is a variation on the decade-old gripe that there's no music on "Music Television" anymore. But what it reveals is far more depressing than that refrain, which distracts from criticism of what is on MTV by fixating on what isn't. So many of us used to laugh at this pathetic twosome as they misunderstood the Sonic Youth videos we loved. In their current incarnation, they mirror that very mix of fascination and derision we feel towards the silly shows we can't stop watching. Take away the nasal chuckles, and their jabs at Jersey Shore and Teen Mom could come out of our own mouths. Now that watching MTV has made us all into Beavis and Butt-Head, it's no wonder we don't have the imagination or attention span for the network's attempts at realistic, character-driven drama.