Young, inexperienced, and financially desperate; old enough to be on your own, helpless enough that you probably shouldn’t be. Educated, frightened, and raised on a steady diet of pop culture that convinced you a tight-knit group of friends was its own kind of family. Oh, to be 22 again.
Though if memory serves, thank God I never have to be 22 again. (How many nights did I spend sitting on my stoop, crying into boxes of wine with my roommate? A lot of nights.) And yet, as jammed with drama and ambition and heartache and romance and serendipity as that time is, we haven’t had a well-told story set in that weird postcollege transition phase since 1995’s Kicking and Screaming. MTV tried with last season’s I Just Want My Pants Back, but it was 80 percent arcane vernacular, 10 percent harem pants, and only 10 percent actual recognizable human emotions. The CW’s Canadian import The L.A. Complex and HBO’s Girls cover adjacent territory, but both are set later in their characters’ lives, and everyone seems to have more at stake. We have high-school shows and sometimes college shows and a whole slew of grown-up shows. But there aren’t shows that hit that impossible neither-here-nor-there phase.
Underemployed, MTV’s new dramedy about a group of postcollege pals in Chicago, is a possible contender, but like many a 23-year-old before it, it’s both full of potential and low on follow-through. It captures a lot of the anxiety and persistent sense of failure that seems to follow a lot of people in the year and change after college. But after two episodes, it looks like Underemployed stumbles on these honest moments by accident, in between its on-purpose corny moments and utterly not-credible ones.
In the pilot, the three girls of the show sit on the El together: Sophia, the aspiring writer working at a doughnut shop; Daphne, the unpaid intern still living with her dad; and Raviva, the back-from-L.A. wannabe musician. They giggle and play with each other’s hair and bad-mouth the boys’ behavior like a pile of eighth-graders at a sleepover, except Raviva’s pregnant and all this breathless giggling is a cover for how terrifying that is. Sophia spends most of the episode getting teased for still being a virgin, and there she is sitting next to her bestie, who looks like she’s about to give birth any second. That sensation, the “Am I doing this wrong? Or is she doing it wrong?” feeling, the pervasive sense that you’re either too old or too young to be doing what you’re doing — that should be Underemployed’s bread and butter. (Which they bought at the bodega, with change.)
Instead, last night’s second episode dropped that and swapped in sitcom chicanery, with everyone banding together to surprise Raviva and her on-again-off-again boyfriend Lou with a crib. Everyone spilled one another’s secrets, even though they all vowed not to; Lou screwed up at work; Daphne shopped at a Baby Gap. It’s not that any of those stories are phony per se, but there’s authenticity in specificity — and those are not activities specific to or even all that germane to a recent-graduate life.
Under exists in a more believable Chicago than Happy Endings. It has a more progressive and racially diverse virginity story line than Girls (lesbians! who aren’t white!). Its slightly abusive workplaces are less gruesome and racist than 2 Broke Girls’; its hunky idiots are appropriately hunky and not too idiotic; and its characters seem to have real affection for one another. We have Awkward. and How I Met Your Mother. We just need something in that uncomfortable in-between.
A recent episode of New Girl found Jess and Schmidt awkwardly befriending their new, young neighbors, a group of too-cool-for-school hipsters who’d never heard of Urkel and refuse to learn to do their own laundry. Hey, I get it — many, many, many of today’s young people are insufferable. They text too much. I assume they listen to Skrillex and have preferred methods of quinoa preparation. They’ve had Facebook since middle school. They’re entitled! And petulant! And want things to be easy! But surely one could say those exact things about teenagers, and yet, we culturally fetishize high school. Freaks and Geeks is so wonderful; Sassy is still my bible, etc.
So, we’re due. It doesn’t have to attain a My So-Called Life–level of realism or a Felicity-level of emotional candor, but if we can’t make a show about a scary, exciting, empowering, confusing, sexually charged, professionally significant few years, what are we making shows about?