Full disclosure: I may work for the same company that is owned by MTV, but that doesn’t mean I’ll just watch anything they put on and give it a thumbs up. I haven’t exactly given Jersey Shore the thumbs up for its portrayal of barsexuals and lesbian kisses. So when I tell you the network’s new show Underemployed is really, really good, I hope you know that I am not being paid to say so.
So why aren’t you watching it? I’m asking because I haven’t noticed as much of an interest in it compared to the likes of Glee, Grey’s Anatomy or Once Upon a Time, and that show doesn’t even have any lesbian characters. I get that the first two have had a few seasons to build up a solid fanbase, but they also get a lot of flack for not being the best at handling their queer characters. And Underemployed has seriously impressed me with how they’ve handled Sophia Swanson.
Sophia (as played by Michelle Ang) is the main character of the show, and she’s a newly out lesbian. As we’ve seen on the three episodes that have aired thus far, Sophia met a woman she was interested in, began dating her and came out to her friends. An aspiring novelist, Sophia narrates the show by telling their stories of her friends’ lives.
“She’s sort of the eyes of the show. She’s the eyes through which we look at all the other characters,” said creator Craig Wright. “She’s the one telling all their stories.”
Wright created the show based on a real life group of people — his son and his son’s friends, a generation that are graduating college to find that there aren’t the career opportunities there once were. Sophia is based on one of those people — a real life lesbian — but Wright said the character likely would have been anyway.
“Since a lot of shows portray gay characters as questioning their sexuality and quite often head back towards heterosexuality in the long run, we knew that we wanted to not do that,” Wright said. “Mostly because we feel like it promotes an idea about sexuality that says it’s always a choice for people. And we wanted to be clear that it’s not a choice. And the only way to show that it’s not a choice is to give her the option of choosing, so we knew we had to tell the story of her trying to choose but then being unable to.”
Last week we watched as Sophia wondered if she should try sex with a guy (her friend Miles) just to make sure she wasn’t confused. But when it came time to go through with it, she just couldn’t. It wasn’t her. She was gay.
“We knew when we told that story about her going to Miles that everybody would go ‘Oh shit! Don’t do that!’” Wright said. “But we were so happy. Personally, between you and me and your 10 million readers, that scene between her and Miles is probably one of my three favorite scenes of the whole season. It’s such a unique moment to sit in the room and watch it happen. It’s so sweet to me.”
And it was. It was the anti-Skins, where Tea ended up bedding Tony and relinquishing her lesbianism. Instead, Sophia thanked her friend as they harmlessly hugged one another, mission accomplished.
It’s not altogether surprising that Wright has created a lesbian character we can get behind, because he started his career on both gay-friendly and well-written shows like Six Feet Under and Dirty Sexy Money. Besides Sophia, who is Asian, Miles is played by Mexican actor Diego Boneta, and there is also Raviva (Inbar Lavi), who is of Israeli descent, and Laura, Sophia’s African-American girlfriend (Angel M. Wainwright).
“I’ve always been a big proponent of trying to use TV to advance society in small ways and to improve the perception of all kinds of people,” he said. “And so I knew that when I created Underemployed I would want at least one character who was gay or lesbian — possibly more. As we go forward, there will be more. I think TV should make the world a better place if it can.”
Wright said he’s only seen “one or two” complaints about Sophia’s sexuality on Facebook, and they are of the “Why does every show have to have a gay character?” variety.
“This culture we have now of the universal critique where every person is a critic and every person has an opinion and every opinion is available worldwide to see, you really can’t model what you make, you can’t echolocate off people’s voices,” Wright said. “They just don’t matter. You have to make the show you want to make. That being said, if there was a negative response, I’d just put more gay characters on the show.”
Luckily, we will be seeing more lesbians on the show soon. Not only that, but Wright teased a very special “strap-on” episode.
“[It's] devoted to when and how to use equipment,” Wright said. “A whole episode about a strap-on and whether [Sophia] should use one or not.”
There’s also an out lesbian writer on staff, Jen Braeden, who likely had some input on Sophia’s storyline. In tonight’s episode, there’s a hilarious exchange between Sophia and Miles where she has him trying to “degay” her apartment before her parents come over. Seriously — the show only gets better and gayer.
While Sophia is concerned about how her parents might react to her being a lesbian, she needn’t worry about her friends. Everyone embraced her relationship with Laura, which Wright said he wouldn’t have had any other way.
“I would never consider having a main character [be critical of her sexuality],” Wright said. “Obviously the show is very much about a generation so if we’re going to have bad guys it’s going to be another generation.”
As far as Sophia’s professional life goes, it doesn’t appear that she’ll be getting a book deal anytime soon.
“I don’t want to give away the story but like most people who struggle to be writers, I think she’s going to bounce from menial job to menial job for a while,” Wright said. “Because that’s the story I want to tell. That was definitely my history. And also a lot of other characters have ambitions that force them into the workplace, if that makes any sense. But when you’re a writer, you can sort of choose to take jobs just to make money and then write on the side. So Sophia has the freedom to pursue that. The show is called Underemployed so I sort of always want at least one character to have a shitty job. Sophia’s going to get stuck with a shitty job.”
At least she’s having some fun in her personal life. Sophia has been spending a lot of time with Laura, an older professional who lives in the same building as Oprah.
“I think it would be very very unrealistic to say that someone’s first sexual experience leads to their one and only relationship in life,” Wright said. “My guess is that Sophia is going to have a lot of adventures with a lot of different women as time goes on. In a sense I’d say we were careful not to partner her at first with someone who she’d stay with forever. We wanted her to choose somebody that she’d eventually have to make a decision about.”
But that decision, Wright said, will not include any men in the equation. Instead, he teased that we’ll meet more lesbians and “god willing, we’ll see a lot more in Season 2!”
Either way, Wright said he’s glad to have explored what he has with Sophia, as other depictions of female sexuality on MTV haven’t been as ideal. For instance, Tea on Skins, who identified as a lesbian but ended up having a relationship with her male best friend.
“Even if we don’t get a second season then I’m happy,” Wright said. “If we managed to undo that, then I’m happy.”
In the meantime, I implore you to watch this smart, hilarious, poignant, sexy show because I want to know more about Sophia, her friends and the story of a new generation.
“The people who are going to find the show are going to find the show for their own reasons,” Wright said. “And if the lesbian community wants to get together and support Underemployed, I would show up at every one of their homes and host a party.”
Underemployed airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on MTV. We also run episodes right here on AfterEllen.com the following day.