NOTHING LEFT TO DO
Money worries and striving were once part of the mainstream sitcom. Now most characters exist in a world without work
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