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Kids these days: MTV just doesn’t get them

Things change. Time was, MTV was a pop music TV channel. A middle-of-the-road radio station, with videos instead of vinyl or CDs being played. This had a big impact. Changed pop music into a format that is still going strong today.

Things changed again. Less video on MTV, more reality-TV. (Pedants, take note: We're doing fast-forward here in the complex history of MTV and this is just the gist.) The Osbournes, Laguna Beach, The Hills, that skin-crawler A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila and that pop-culture sensation, the much-studied Jersey Shore.

Then again, things change. MTV is back in the fiction racket. And no, for those of you who think Jersey Shore was fiction, it wasn't. I have met Snooki. She's real. She was not in character. You can't fake authentic Snooki-ness. Now it's back to shows with actors in drama or comedy series created by people who have a track record in network and cable TV. Mind you, MTV's model is not the network model of throwing some pilot episodes on the tube and praying that some of it sticks to the eyeballs of viewers.

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MTV makes your zeitgeist TV, if you will. MTV aims to be relevant, on the edge, speaking to and about the MTV demographic. Late teens and twentysomethings. Kids today, that is.

So along comes Underemployed (MTV Canada, 10 p.m.), which follows the ups and downs of a small group of college grads a year after they've graduated. "Twentysomething" is what some critics are calling it, as if it were a copy of thirtysomething, that precious, late-eighties homage to the angst of baby boomers edging into their thirties.

Underemployed is not that. It's rude, coarse, sentimental and, while it's interesting, on the evidence of the first episode, it's a failure. We meet the characters as they graduate in Chicago. Sophia (Michelle Ang), says she is going to write The Great American Novel. Miles (Diego Boneta) has been told so many times that he's a hunk, he's sure he'll be a famous, rich underwear model inside a year. Daphne (Sarah Habel) wants to succeed in advertising. Lou (Jared Kusnitz) is geared for graduate school in environmental studies and expects his work to have a huge impact.

One year later, Lou is fundraising for an environmental group in a mall. Miles has merely been used by older women promising an underwear commercial. Daphne is an unpaid intern at an ad agency and giving sexual favours to her boss on the chance that he'll actually hire her. Sophia is working in a doughnut shop and writing nothing.

Comedy is mixed with drama, some of it sharp, but the series feels watered down. Daphne's anger at being an unpaid intern is poorly handled, in sharp contrast to a similar scenario in HBO's Girls. The idea of focusing on the young who face a much harsher world than they expect is promising, yet there's a contrived air to Underemployed. We get it – they're underachieving because the contemporary world is more bleak than benign. There's a recession. We get it, big time.

A far more successful MTV series is Awkward. (It airs in Canada on MuchMusic, and you can find it online, easily.) It's about the high school and home life of one Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards), an articulate, witty teenage girl who blogs about her often chaotic life. In the opening episode – the show has just concluded its second season – Jenna was mistakenly labelled as a potential suicide risk and, well, things get even crazier from there.

The show has enormous zest, a wry sense of humour, and Jenna is an appealing character. It's hard to believe that you could worry about whether she should be with Matty or be with Jake, her two beaus, but you do. The show has a satirical tone to the treatment of high-school angst but has a genuine bite, especially in its treatment of the obnoxious adults who complicate Jenna's life. What's zeitgeisty, if you will, is Jenna's frank attitudes toward sex and bemusement at the ordeals she must undergo in order to grow up. It's worth your time, even if you've long since left the drama of teen life behind. The vigour of Jenna's declaration to one of her beaus – "I'm not now, nor will I ever be, your doll face" – will linger a long time.

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MTV has added considerably to the popular culture, a bulwark of blatantly pagan programming, sometimes tweaking pieties about American youth, sometimes going on epic benders of foolishness and often producing highly original programming. Underemployed is bad MTV. Awkward is great MTV.

Also airing tonight The 2012 Presidential Debate (multiple channels, 9 p.m.) is a must-see. Obviously. The first debate and last week's vice-presidential shindig provided utterly captivating drama. Tonight it's a Town Hall format. Cling to your seat as Romney tries not to be robotic engaging with real people, not CEOs. Hold your breath as Obama tries to appear likeable and passionate, but not desperate. Unpredictable is what it is. And by the way, few elections have energized U.S. TV as this one has. New Girl sashayed into Romney-mocking recently and Glee took delight in satirizing the demonization of Obama. But this, tonight, is no comedy. It's the main drama of the moment.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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