What do today’s teens aspire to become? Not much, according to MTV.
If you’re wondering what MTV has to say about the millennial generation, look no further than its two new scripted programs, Underemployed and I Just Want My Pants Back. Both shows are about a group of recent college grads trying to navigate a grown-up life that’s already full of deflated expectations. In its attempts to relate to these low-earning, high-stressing young adults, MTV tries to put a positive spin on going nowhere, but the network can’t resist talking down to a generation that, in its estimation, is more concerned with getting laid than getting a job.
There’s a lot of anxiety these days around marketing to millennials, which often gets expressed through a fumbling desire to speak in their internet-codified language. MTV’s efforts are no exception. On Underemployed, five friends in Chicago find their options limited a year after graduating. The valedictorian works at a donut shop; the model serves cocktails in his underwear. Craig Wright, the show’s creator and writer, is a generation removed from these characters—he based the show on his 23-year-old son’s experiences—and it shows in the creaky dialogue and excessive references to Facebook and Angry Birds.
I Just Want My Pants Back is Underemployed’s cool older cousin. It centres on Jason and his deadpan best friend, Tina, who gallivant around Brooklyn, smoking weed in bar bathrooms and hooking up with whomever they happen to brush up against. They seem to delight in their vacuity, and their conflicts usually revolve around something or someone spoiling their good time.
The problem with MTV’s take on this generation isn’t the characters’ poor decisions—the girls of HBO’s Girls make some questionable choices, too, but creator Lena Dunham resists the we’re-a-happy-family ending that concludes every episode of Underemployed. Girls dramatizes the terrifying prospect of being shoved into the world with a college degree and not much else, and it leaves the loose ends dangling precariously in mid-air. But then, MTV is not exactly known for its ambiguity.
Criticize these shows and you risk coming across as a finger-wagging parent: If these people have no money, how come they’re always going out to bars? How can they afford spacious loft apartments with exposed-brick walls? These gripes also sound a lot like the ones levelled almost two decades ago at another show about aimless young adults: Friends. When the series began, the characters on Friends were in their mid-20s—only a couple years older than MTV’s post-grads—but they seemed so much more grown up than their MTV counterparts. They helped each other make good decisions, instead of encouraging bad ones.
That protective-chosen-family dynamic was both relatable and aspirational, which is part of why Friends had such broad appeal—it was a network hit in the heyday of network hits. But it’s not surprising that Friends’ simple premise, which has been recycled by countless other shows, adopts such a different tone when translated for a much narrower demographic on MTV.
One of the network’s recent forays into scripted programming was the 2011 teen sex-and-drugs romp Skins. A remake of a British drama, the American version drew so much ire from critics like the Parents Television Council that advertisers backed out and the show was cancelled after one season. Having learned their lesson, MTV’s programmers have shifted focus from the ruinous debauchery of teenagers to the hilarious debauchery of recent college grads. That’s the only reading of Underemployed and Pants that resonates with me: The glorification of a period that’s so bleak for so many young people almost makes sense if it’s aimed at high-schoolers, who might see in these shows the golden possibility of a future without rules.
TV is an aspirational medium. People on TV are prettier than you are; they say funnier things and wear nicer clothes than you do. So it’s troubling and truly condescending that the primary message of a youth-oriented network seems to be that going nowhere is super cool. But don’t wring your hands just yet: The network has already cancelled Pants, which suggests today’s teens aspire to something more than watching other people do nothing on MTV.
Underemployed airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on MTV. I Just Want My Pants Back airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on MuchMoreMusic.