Kim Shaw

Stacey (as played by Elisabeth Hower), Eric (as played by Jordan Carlos), Tina (as played by Kim Shaw), Jason (as played by Peter Vack) in “I Just Want My Pants Back”. (Courtesy of MTV)

It is difficult to dismiss a show like “I Just Want My Pants Back,” but it is even harder to praise it. The show, which premiered on MTV Feb. 2, is an ensemble comedy revolving around the lives and loves of four slightly witty, slightly convoluted 20-somethings. A “Friends” for the Urban Outfitters crowd, the show explores Jason’s (Peter Vack) played-for-laughs neurosis pitted against that of his best friend Tina (an unassumingly beautiful Kim Shaw) and their ‘mature’ grad school friends Eric (Jordan Carlos) and Stacey (Elisabeth Hower).

Needless to say, a scripted television show called “I Just Want My Pants Back” is bound to be lacking in plot and overall narrative ambition. Even though Jason’s jeans are stolen from him after an overly saccharine one-night stand, this action doesn’t really drive the story: it’s just an excuse to introduce the characters and their “Garden State”-influenced world, full of excessive, self-serving diatribes and a painfully obvious lack of plot.

“I Just Want My Pants Back” seems made to cater to a certain demographic: the elusive and slightly abstract young-adult crowd. The show might do well with teenagers (if solely on the basis of explicit sexual content) but those in their mid-20s will find it an inaccurate, contrived and ultimately naive imitation of their own experience. Even though witty dialogue and incessant bursts of brilliant comebacks is a staple of prime time television, nobody truly talks like that, and if they were brilliant enough to do so, they wouldn’t be unemployed like Jason.

The show feels like MTV’s take on “Seinfeld” (or anything Larry David ever produced for that matter); the problem with that is MTV cannot replicate “Seinfeld’s” distinctively charming brand of neurosis because beautiful, healthy would-be adults tend to be a bit lacking in that department (and sadly there’s no college-level substitution for George Costanza).

Based on the novel by David J. Rosen, the show is produced and directed by director Doug Liman (“Swingers,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”). Liman’s extremely canny sense of pace is one of the show’s biggest assets because, after all, there are some aspects of the show that make it worth watching. Kim Shaw, a manic-pixie-dream-girl archetype if there ever was one, is fantastic as Tina. A stunning combination of morbid wit and heartbreaking looks, Shaw’s character is vibrant and livid but still realistic. She somehow manages to avoid the cliches of the archetype and consequentially her character is the most grounded and the better played of the lot because of it.

The writing is also very sharp at times. Even when the story is dull and nearsighted, the characters never fall short of a punch line. When Jason is approached by a girl who says, “I like your shirt,” he retorts, “I like your potentially clouded judgment.” As is to be expected, Tina always ends up having the most fantastic one-liners, like: “a hand job is a man’s job.”

However, even though the dialogue is clever, at such a brisk pace it ends up feeling overtly contrived and self-aware. This is also what’s wrong with the pop culture references: They simply try too hard to be relevant for their target audience by bashing embarrassing remnants of a Clinton-era infancy like “Dawson’s Creek.”

The ultimate problem with “I Just Want My Pants Back” is that the characters’ biggest objective is for life to replicate a hit show on television (or a “Garden State” sequel). However, this is the state of the generational zeitgeist which the characters embody all too well.

Romantics at heart in desperate need of slightly sad and slightly awkward situations, Jason and his friends seem all too aware that their lives have to be interesting enough, which only leads to an uncomfortably self-aware viewing experience, as if everything and anything that happened to them would be interesting enough for other people to  watch. This heightened sense of awareness ultimately leads to a feeling that you are, in fact, watching a television show not only custom-fit for one’s generation but also painfully conscious about their life-as-a-sitcom aspirations.

Printed on Thursday, February 16, 2012 as: 'Pants' tailored to fit college generation