As the college and university graduating classes of 2012 know all too well, the decades-old if dubious term “underemployed” has come to refer to a worker who is overqualified for a position due to education or experience; part-time workers who want full-time work, and an overall dissatisfaction felt by the millions of hardy souls who have navigated the economic depression of the past few years.
At the moment, 18.2 percent of America’s work force falls under the heading “underemployed,” which is also the name of the new MTV show written and produced by Craig Wright, the award-winning playwright and screenwriter who got his start in St. Paul and has made a name for himself in Hollywood with his Emmy-nominated work on “Six Feet Under,” “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Parenthood,” “Lost,” and “Brothers and Sisters.”
“I was having dinner with the head of MTV drama,” said Wright by phone from Chicago, where he’s shooting, writing, and editing the first season of “Underemployed,” which is slated for debut this fall. “I was pitching him a show, I can’t remember what it was, but he passed on it and asked if I had anything else. Off the top of my head I said, ‘Oh, why don’t we do a show based on my son Louis and his friends graduating from college in this bad economy and call it ‘Underemployed’?’ He said, ‘Yeah, let’s do that.’”
A TV show was born. Based loosely on the travails of St. Paul Academy and New School grad Louis Wright (whose namesake is played by Jared Kusnitz), “Underemployed” enters a hard times zeitgeist in America that has inspired the Occupy movement, a simmering class war, a desperate voting populace, and a generational divide that at least one media outlet has labeled the baby boomers’ “War On Youth.” Doom and gloom all, but Wright and his writing staff seek to rise above the nit- and scab-picking and make the point that money doesn’t buy happiness.
‘If life is about living …’
“The last line of the first episode is, ‘If life is about making money, then we’re all screwed. But if life is about living, then none of my friends are underemployed.’ And that’s kind of what the show is about,” said Wright. “It’s saying, ‘Don’t believe the hype. Don’t let the bad economy con you into thinking that life is about succeeding in the workplace, because it’s not.’
“When we started writing the show, I said to the writers, ‘In order to write, I think you need to have an idea in your head about what the purpose of life is. It doesn’t matter what idea you have, you just have to have one. So if you think life is a Darwinian struggle for survival, then at any given moment when you’re confused about what to write, you can say, ‘Well, if life is a Darwinian struggle for survival, then I guess this is what we should do.’
“ ‘But if you’re going to write on this show, you have to provisionally at least go along with what I believe, which is that the reason for living is to love and create. But then you look at the world and you realize that that’s not happening everywhere, is it? There must be a reason why. Why is it not happening? The reason it doesn’t happen is fear.
“People are essentially good, so they want to solve the problem of fear. So they go, ‘I know what I’ll do. I will make money. And if I make enough money, I will then feel safe enough to love and create, and it will immunize me against fear.’ But that’s an illusion, because the fear is too big and the money is never enough.
“The real answer is that people do not need money in order to love and create; they need purpose. So I said to the writers, ‘Armed with that four-pronged idea that love and creation are the positives, fear is the problem, money is the false answer and purpose is the real one, then at any given moment you know how to write a story on ‘Underemployed.’ Every episode, over and over again, is the story of people learning in various ways that the answer to the problems of our age is not money, it is purpose.”
The Tropicals, Kangaroo
If that sounds too lofty for the cut-throat workaday world of mainstream pop culture, consider that it’s coming from Wright, who received a master’s of divinity degree from the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and was co-founder/songwriter of long-lost Minneapolis thought-pop-rockers The Tropicals and Kangaroo.
Check out his collected works and you’ll find love and creativity at the heart of it all, not to mention the recurring themes of beauty, curiosity, and a wizened faith in the grace of the human condition – as rendered, this time out, through the prism of the millennials.
“The millennial employment saga is sort of a two-way street,” he said. “It’s the story about young people with a lot of qualifications who are unable to find employment that meets their expectations of what they think they deserve. But at the same time, there’s a comedy that’s happening of millenials who are employed, but are having a hard time accepting the constrictions of the traditional work place because of the way their generation was raised to expect things from life that the workplace doesn’t give them.
“Millenials don’t like hierarchy. They don’t like dressing up. They don’t want to dress up for work. They like transparency. They don’t like being told to do things without understanding all the reasons why. They want everything to be democratic. They want continuous positive feedback. So it’s sort of a perfect storm of high expectations for job satisfaction bumping up against a really bad economy.”
Wright’s experience as guiding light
Which is not a new story for American workers, or the characters on “Underemployed,” who pursue their dream jobs (architect, writer, model) while dealing with competition, capitalism, selling-out, self-worth, and the roads less traveled, with Wright’s personal experience and philosophies serving as guiding light.
“I didn’t have much privilege growing up, and I left home when I was 14, with only $300 from my mother’s Social Security to live on,” he said. “In my late teens I hitchhiked around the country and slept on park benches and in cars and had nothing. So it’s always been a part of my life experience; I know what it’s like to not have enough, and I also know what it’s like to be a guest in the homes and lives of people who do have privilege.
“I was always very grateful for their assistance, but also very jealous or ambivalent about it. I always wanted that security, and yet I knew that at the end of the day, being a person and having found yourself being born is a problem. For everybody.
“I’ve said this before, but it still drives me slightly crazy that you don’t ask to be born, and then you find yourself in a place where you have to pay for everything. It just boggles my mind. That still makes me mad. I mean, there’s a reason that line is in the Bible: ‘It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.’
The great illusion
“It’s like money is the great lie. It’s the great illusion that somehow money is going to fix everything, and I just think it’s never a bad thing to call that lie into question and say, ‘I don’t care if the economy is bad, money is not the answer.’ ”
That much will be explored on “Underemployed,” with music provided by the Minneapolis- and Venice, Ca.-based music production house Egg Music, led by local music luminaries Bryan Hanna, John Hermanson, and Eric Fawcett, and inspiration doled out by the times we’re living and playing through.
“They’re stories about love and grace set inside the matrix of the money/work problem,” said Wright. “I don’t really have the answers; I just want to ask the questions of, you know, are we headed the right way as a culture? I just read an essay about success and failure, and the whole essay is about what you do when you realize that success doesn’t make you happy. And at the end of the essay, he says, ‘Perhaps our culture has been a little too successful with the idea of success and failure, and maybe it’s time for something else.’
“If anyone understands that sentence, they’ll understand ‘Underemployed.’ ”