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TV review: Cheery Chicago millennials lift 'Underemployed'

I'm not quite sure why the 20-something characters of MTV's new series "Underemployed" are surprised they're having a hard time finding success as a model, a rocker or an author. After all, everyone knows the path to success in entertainment travels only through such reality shows as "American Idol," "America's Next Top Model" or MTV's own "The Real World."

I mean, right?

Speaking of "Real World," the Chicago-filmed "Underemployed" (9 p.m. Oct. 16, MTV; 2.5 stars out of 4) plays like a slightly more scripted version of that creaky old trailblazer, except there are just five friends, they don't all live together and each episode doesn't end in a booze-fueled brawl. In other words, they get more "real."

They are more pleasant to watch, too. The series, written by Craig Wright ("Dirty Sexy Money," "Six Feet Under") and based on his son's group of friends, opens with the five graduating from college and planning to meet up again a year later in Chicago. They have high hopes of conquering the world when we first see them.

Cut to a year later and the current economy has changed their reality. Sophia (Michelle Ang) wants to write The Great American Novel but is working at Donut Girl to make ends meet. Daphne (Sarah Habel) toils in an unpaid internship at an advertising agency overseen by an older, hot and interested boss (Charlie Weber). The idealistic Lou (Jared Kusnitz) planned to go to graduate school but instead is one of those annoying people downtown asking, "Do you have a minute for the environment?" His former girlfriend, Raviva (Inbar Lavi), wanted to rock L.A. with her acoustic guitar; her unborn baby has other plans. Handsome Miles (Diego Boneta) is catering in Calvin Klein underwear and stripping at office parties while hoping to land a big modeling contract.

"Underemployed" shows its characters encountering fairly believable life challenges in Chicago, which gets a lot of love. The series makes great use of the city, setting scenes in such recognizable spots as Chicago River bridges and, as every show set in Chicago must, the "L" trains.

I was expecting to be perturbed by the grating whininess of the millennials depicted. (Why do they expect things to be handed to them? I guess that's a question for a different article.) Thankfully, you won't find too much whining or the cynicism of HBO's "Girls," another series depicting angsty 20-somethings. This group of friends generally is optimistic, which is a nice change for works centering on 20-somethings.

Speaking of that genre, "Underemployed" doesn't do a lot to advance it. Anyone who has seen films such as "St. Elmo's Fire" or "Reality Bites," or MTV's own "I Just Want My Pants Back" will recognize the familiar territory being trod. It's a cold, unfair world, and people over the age of 30, like Daphne's boss, are evil. ("Underemployed" isn't too subtle, by the way.)

Fans of "Sex and the City" will pick up on the tobak similarity of Sophia's narration to that of Carrie Bradshaw. (She's Carrie "Badshaw," a colleague of mine suggested.) There's even a little bit of "Friends" here, as the BFFs never seem to stay angry with each other for long. (They also live in a nice loft apartment that, on their underemployed salaries, would not be possible.)

Despite these familiarities, the cheerfulness of this group helps the show overcome its predictability and other faults. Reality bites, but at least they keep smiling.

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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