TV Reviews: MTV's 'Underemployed' works; FX's 'American Horror Story' jolts
Michelle Ang plays Sophia, who wants to be a novelist but is working at a doughnut shop, in MTV's new series "Underemployed."
Evan Peters, center, portrays a man accused of being a serial killer and brought to Briarcliff, an insane asylum, in the second season of FX's "American Horror Story."
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FX's "American Horror Story" returns Wednesday for more scares, but first MTV debuts a charming 20-something light drama tonight.
Given its title, viewers might approach MTV's "Underemployed" (10 tonight) warily: It sounds like it could be an angst-fest.
But it's not.
"Underemployed" is one of the most enjoyably upbeat 20-something scripted dramas to hit prime time in ages. It avoids the moody, nihilism of HBO's "How to Make It in America" and the uncomfortable realism/cynicism of "Girls" in favor of smiling camaraderie even in the face of adversity.
An even mix of comedy and drama, "Underemployed" begins with five friends on their college graduation night pledging to reconvene in Chicago in a year. They think they're about to conquer the world only to have their expectations confounded by reality.
Again, this could be a depressing premise, but "Underemployed," written by Craig Wright ("Dirty Sexy Money," "Six Feet Under"), finds the humorous absurdities in young adult life.
Wannabe novelist Sophia (Michelle Ang) works at a doughnut shop to make ends meet; Daphne (Sarah Habel) tries to get a leg up in the advertising business but finds herself unsure how to respond to the advances of her older boss.
Aspiring model Miles (Diego Boneta, "Rock of Ages," "90210") winds up taking demeaning gigs so he can afford to keep living with environmentalist Lou (Jared Kusnitz), whose girlfriend, Raviva (Inbar Lavi), returns home pregnant.
Yes, they have problems, but they have them with perpetual smiles on their faces. Even when Lou learns he got Raviva pregnant, he's all smiles, eager to find a way to make the situation work.
"Underemployed" shows the characters encountering believable early career and life challenges, including taking a job that conflicts with personal values and beliefs, coming to terms with one's sexuality and learning how to balance hopes and dreams with the realistic need for a paycheck.
Through it all, the characters maintain a bond that's rare on 20-something soaps: They may have arguments and quarrels but in two episodes made available for review, they never let these disagreements overshadow their "Friends"-like friendship.
Sometimes the characters' reactions to their situations seem a bit off -- Raviva's mother shows no anger or enmity toward Lou the first time he shows up after the pregnancy is revealed -- but in a TV universe filled with darkness, there's something to be said for a series that puts its most positive foot forward with generally optimistic characters.
Viewers who tuned into FX's "American Horror Story" last season were surprised to learn at its end that the program is actually an annual miniseries with a new story and new characters but some of the same actors in different roles.
"AHS" returns for its second round, titled "Asylum," at 10 p.m. Wednesday. If season one had a straightforward premise -- family moves into a haunted house -- the show's second season begins with a more diffuse focus.
There's no family at the center of the story or even one particular character. "AHS" remains suspenseful, sexually explicit and occasionally scary (and gory) as it rockets in a multitude of directions at the same time.
"Asylum" begins in present day as newlyweds -- Maroon 5's Adam Levine of "The Voice" plays the husband -- explore the remains of Briarcliff Asylum during their haunted honeymoon tour. Efforts at sexy time in the rundown building come to naught when the couple hear things that go bump in the night.
From there "AHS" flashes back to 1964 when Briarcliff is overseen by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), who seems like she'd be a good friend of Nurse Ratched from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Sister Jude has a rivalry going with asylum physician Dr. Anthony Arden (James Cromwell), who may be performing medical experiments on patients with an assist from Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe). They all report to Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), whom Sister Jude secretly lusts after.
A new patient (Evan Peters), accused of being a serial killer, arrives at Briarcliff, but he insists he's innocent. If what viewers are shown is to be believed, he may be telling the truth: Aliens may have abducted and tortured his wife.
Meanwhile, a lesbian newspaper reporter (Sarah Paulson) attempts to infiltrate Briarcliff to get a story on the serial killer, only to find herself ensnared in Sister Jude's evil, homophobic gamesmanship.
Pittsburgh native Zachary Quinto ("Star Trek," "Heroes") shows up next week as visiting psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson, who objects to Sister Jude's harsh methods.
So where is this all going? Who knows? But in its first two episodes, "AHS" returns as a creepy, spooky jolt of unpredictable storytelling.
First Published October 16, 2012 12:00 am