NOTH­ING LEFT TO DO

Money wor­ries and striv­ing were once part of the main­stream sit­com. Now most char­ac­ters ex­ist in a world with­out work

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Wes­ley Mor­ris Ho­race and Pete

We tend to fetishise labour. Any­body who has drooled over a sexy-fire­men cal­en­dar knows that: blue-col­lar dudes are hot. It’s a cliche. But the third episode of the 10-part Brook­lyn-bar web se­ries Ho­race and Pete turns the cliche into a four-alarm tragedy. A mid­dle-aged woman named Sarah (Lau­rie Metcalf) sits at a ta­ble con­fess­ing to some­thing that mor­ti­fies her. She is deeply turned on by her fa­ther-in-law. Roger is an 84year-old ex-navy man who drives a pick-up truck and used to farm. He comes over to make re­pairs on Sarah’s coun­try cot­tage, and as he does his thing — shirt­less, in­dif­fer­ent to her — she just, you know, watches him.

What arouses Sarah is not Roger him­self. It’s Roger’s work. It’s as if she hasn’t seen a man wield a tape mea­sure or tighten ta­ble legs in so long that she has pornographised it.

I get it, sis­ter. I’ve been watch­ing tele­vi­sion. We’re out of Rogers, what few we had. In 2007, TV un­der­went a great ex­pan­sion — be­yond the ma­jor broad­cast net­works, be­yond TVs and into all kinds of gen­res — just at the mo­ment the econ­omy shrank, and a fan­tasy emerged. As real peo­ple be­came poorer and lost their jobs, the ones on TV got richer, and their jobs seemed more be­sides the point. All that space to tell new sto­ries ended up ded­i­cated to a lim­ited set of jobs and an in­creas­ingly ho­mo­ge­neous no­tion of what work means.

These days, there are only a hand­ful of work­place tax­onomies in scripted TV. We’ve got po­lice precincts, crime-and-foren­sics teams and le­gal-med­i­cal-belt­way dra­mas. NBC’s Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. are a vir­tual sexy-cal­en­dar night. These shows might know what a blue col­lar is, but they’re class-un­con­scious: their char­ac­ters don’t usu­ally work for the ex­plicit main­te­nance of their liveli­hoods. They work for com­edy, for sus­pense, for sport. For the most part, TV cops, lawyers, bu­reau­crats and doc­tors in­habit the same kinds of tooth­some res­i­dences and wear the same exquisitely tai­lored clothes, all show­ing off how fab­u­lously art di­rec­tors and cos­tume de­sign­ers earn a pay cheque. Some­times we see more of their work than that done by the peo­ple who in­habit it. Now on TV, no mat­ter what your ac­tual job, al­most ev­ery­body be­longs to the same generic, vaguely up­per-class class.

To the ex­tent that TV has al­ways been an ad­ver­tise­ment for some­thing, it was of­ten an ad­ver­tise­ment for the mid­dle class: a job, a fam­ily, a home, prod­ucts to put in it. But early sit­coms en­gaged with mat­ters of as­pi­ra­tion and fail­ure, and they were tied to work. If em­ploy­ment didn’t de­fine a char­ac­ter from episode to episode, it sus­tained him (and it was usu­ally a him).

Some, like Jackie Glea­son’s Brook­lyn bus driver Ralph Kram­den, the hu­man caul­dron of The Hon­ey­moon­ers (1955-56), had jobs. Some, like Dick Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie, the klutzy TV writer on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66), had ca­reers. Work, or the lack of it, slot­ted you into a clear so­cioe­co­nomic class. Kram­den’s dis­sat­is­fac­tion — he de­voted a lot of time to hatch­ing get-rich-quick schemes — be­came the tacit sad­ness of the The Hon­ey­moon­ers. It was the first rue­ful sit­com. Petrie had a sub­ur­ban New York liv­ing room that Kram­den would have killed for.

By the 1960s, prime-time TV was barely two decades old, and it was al­ready a lit­tle nos­tal­gic and class-neu­tral, broad­cast­ing shows safely en­sconced in ei­ther the sub­urbs or the dis­tant past. But the decade’s re­lent­less tur­moil (civil rights, Viet­nam, po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tions, Water­gate, fem­i­nism) de­manded dis­course. On TV, that con­ver­sa­tion hap­pened in the liv­ing rooms of the work­ing class, mid­dle class and work­ing poor, on All in the Fam­ily, Maude and Good Times, each a cre­ation of Nor­man Lear, each a demon­stra­ble em­blem of its char­ac­ters’ so­cial sta­tion.

Archie Bunker ( All in the Fam­ily) was a white fore­man in Queens; Florida Evans ( Good Times) was a spo­rad­i­cally unem­ployed black house­keeper in Chicago’s Near North Side projects. Bunker’s arm­chair racism, sex­ism and all the rest wouldn’t seem to have any­thing to do with Evans’s pride­ful de­spair. But the two shows drama­tised their op­pos­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion. Class was the perch from which to see who you were and were not, and from which mem­bers of the TV au­di­ence could see who they were, too. The dis­con­tent on those shows ran like a fuse through the 70s into the late 80s.

The end of the Rea­gan era and start of the first Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion co­in­cided with the ar­rival of Mar­ried ... with Chil­dren and Roseanne, a pair of long-run­ning sit­coms about the white lower-mid­dle class and work­ing poor — the Bundys and Con­ners, re­spec­tively. The first was more bit­terly toxic (my mother got a whiff of its vul­gar­ity and for­bade it). But each show de­scended from Lear’s right­eous class con­scious­ness. And each felt like a re­buke of the ver­tig­i­nous af­flu­ence and phys­i­cal beauty of soaps like Dal­las and Dy­nasty and a re­join­der to the up­per-mid­dle-class com­fort of The Cosby Show.

Writ­ers and pro­duc­ers from The Cosby Show — Matt Wil­liams, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner — also helped cre­ate Roseanne, which was set in Lan­ford, Illinois, a fic­tional fac­tory town whose homes had a cor­re­spond­ing livedin av­er­a­ge­ness. The show made work and money mat­ter. A dol­lar had to stretch and food had to last for a fam­ily of five. Through its early sea­sons, nei­ther Roseanne nor Dan Con­ner could keep a full-time job. Fun­da­men­tally, the show’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tions were as typ­i­cal as those on The Cosby Show: how, for in­stance, do we raise these kids? But some weren’t: Are we go­ing to stay mar­ried?

At the time, the coun­try wel­comed the du­al­ity of Brook­lyn’s pros­per­ous black Huxta­bles and the pen­ni­less white Con­ners. Rather than sink to the bot­tom of the rat­ings, Roseanne hov­ered at or near the top, of­ten along­side Cosby, for most of its run. Some weeks, more than 20 mil­lion peo­ple watched them both.

In lat­ter-season Roseanne, some­thing cru­cial changed. Roseanne be­came the man­ager of a loose-meat-sand­wich spot. Her fi­nan­cial wor­ries didn’t abate (un­til, of course, a fi­nal-season Hail Mary had the Con­ners hit the lottery), but steady em­ploy­ment changed the na­ture of the show. Grad­u­ally, ev­ery­body spent more time at the restau­rant, hang­ing out. The change now feels like both a so­cioe­co­nomic tri­umph and a cre­ative ca­pit­u­la­tion: the show was just fol­low­ing where other sit­coms were al­ready headed. Char­ac­ters went from hang­ing out at work ( The Mary Tyler Moore Show, WKRP in Cincin­nati, Taxi) to hang­ing out in­stead of work­ing.

Cheers, which ran for 11 sea­sons on NBC, start­ing in 1982, was the first great han­gout show: neu­tral­is­ing the de­pic­tion of class and re­mov­ing the pres­sures of work. Life is hard enough, Cheers said; let’s just make TV. Ever since, TV started tak­ing it eas­ier on us. Bill Clin­ton was in the White House and the econ­omy had im­proved. On Se­in­feld, Liv­ing Sin­gle, Friends, Ellen, It’s Like, You Know, Sex and the City, Girl­friends and, much later, Happy End­ings and New Girl, the com­min­gling, child­less men and women might have had jobs, but al­most none had a con­se­quen­tial ca­reer. How many jobs did Elaine and Ge­orge have on Se­in­feld? And in how many fields? And Kramer — how was he pay­ing to live across the hall from Jerry? Han­gout shows placed friend­ship above fam­ily, ob­vi­at­ing the typ­i­cal eco­nomic ecosys­tem. Be­long­ing to a fam­ily of friends prob­a­bly means you only have to sup­port your­self.

TV be­came — and still is — a medium strug­gling to un­der­stand “av­er­age”, “or­di­nary”, “nor­mal.” When the econ­omy be­gan to tank in 2007, TV was barely equipped to re­flect the col­lapse, in part be­cause the peo­ple who make shows were largely im­mune: They were well-com­pen­sated crea­tures of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, mostly un­af­fected by a shrink­ing econ­omy. That dis­con­nec­tion sani­tised TV against the com­plex­i­ties of race and class. Many sit­coms now are set in the places their cre­ators know best: sound­stages and writ­ers’ rooms.

A diet ver­sion of the Huxtable-Con­ner di­chotomy is re­cur­ring on the Amer­i­can ABC net­work. It pairs The Mid­dle, about get­ting by in the heart­land, with Black-ish, which asks whether pros­per­ity di­lutes black­ness. But the net­work’s mar­quee show, Mod­ern Fam­ily, a mas- Roseanne ter­ful ma­chine that makes highly pol­ished sit­com­mery, has so lit­tle to do with most mod­ern fam­i­lies that its claim of moder­nity of­ten feels like a joke.

Peo­ple work­ing for the min­i­mum wage or do­ing manual labour be­came the prov­ince of re­al­ity-TV shows such as Dirty Jobs and Un­der­cover Boss, which has com­pany ex­ec­u­tives pre­tend to be em­ploy­ees. More than once, the rev­e­la­tions and class dis­junc­tion that emerge from the ruse have made me cry. We’re still some dis­tance from The King of Queens, which was set at a United Par­cel Ser­vice-like fa­cil­ity.

Watch­ing Mod­ern Fam­ily, Two Broke Girls and Girls, I of­ten find my­self ask­ing what it even means to work. The char­ac­ters on these shows, es­pe­cially Girls, ex­ist in an al­ter­na­tive realm — a kind of “what­ever” class. Neu­ro­sis, there, is a con­di­tion of iden­tity, not of so­cial sta­tion. The work you do is on your­self. But af­ter five sea­sons on HBO, even Girls sus­pects a prob­lem.

The show has al­ways been a stealth­ily shrewd satire of mil­len­nial life. Its char­ac­ters’ re­la­tion­ship to work has ranged from nonex­is­tent to in­sult­ingly in­dul­gent. The tri­umph of the most re­cent season’s fi­nal episode is the glee it takes in thumb­ing its nose at gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in our neigh­bour­hoods and on TV. Flighty Shoshanna con­verts con­sci­en­tious Ray’s empty cafe into a anti-hip­ster cof­fee shop. As the orig­i­nal owner, Her­mie, goes on a tirade while pour­ing free cof­fee around the shop, you can see the place is busy with cops and nurses, the av­er­agelook­ing and the elderly, the solidly mid­dle-class.

It’s a joke — if you’re not work­ing, you’re not real — that dou­bles as a cri­tique of both Girls and the cul­tural rav­ages of the han­gout show, es­pe­cially. TV is los­ing what work is and knows it. Sarah’s arousal by that old work­ing man on Ho­race and Pete is a recog­ni­tion that some­thing pri­mal has gone: the mak­ing, the do­ing that prove that we ex­ist. We built this; we man­u­fac­tured that. Those jobs are dis­ap­pear­ing. The fac­to­ries and mills and laun­dries are now lofts and cafes where char­ac­ters sit around and talk — where all they do is hang out. is avail­able at louisck.net.

Roseanne Barr, Ali­cia Go­ran­son, Sara Gil­bert, Michael Fishman and John Good­man in the 1980s-90s sit­com

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