The Myths And Challenges Of Making Working Class Television

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"The Myths And Challenges Of Making Working Class Television"

Josh Eidelson’s right that working-class people aren’t proportionally represented on television, noting, “The people of TV-ville compose a community far removed from our own: a town with a data-capture expert but no dishwasher, a rocket scientist but no sanitation worker, and a tech magnate but no truck driver. […] Compared to the rest of us, they’re much more likely to be wrangling with underlings or regulators rather than bosses.” But while I think it would be nice to have more working people on television, I think Josh misses a couple of critical points about why we don’t have more of those shows, especially in this paragraph:

After mounting defenses of the inherent drama of their favorite occupations, I imagine those executives would suggest that they’re giving the people what they want. They’d say that viewers who are underpaid or underemployed would rather come home to the sexual hijinks of young doctors or the maneuvering of high-powered executives. As long as executives snatch up shows about New Yorker cartoonists and diamond magnates while neglecting shows about people on the assembly line or behind the register, there will be few opportunities to test that hypothesis. But my experience organizing in low-income communities suggests that Roseanne is right to blame the professionals rather than the viewers. There’s no lack of high-stakes drama in the lives of poor people, and there’s an audience ready to see it reflected on TV. Whether advertisers are ready is a different story.

1) It’s not actually clear to me that there’s an enormous untapped audience for shows about working class characters. Ugly Betty, which is explicitly about the confrontation between someone from a working class background and a luxury industry, pulled 11.3 million viewers per episode in its first season and the ratings marched steadily downward. The very good Raising Hope is exactly the kind of show that I think Josh is looking for. The main character runs a gardening business with his father, while his mother works as cleaning woman. The show pulled an average of 6.4 million viewers, which is fine, but not spectacular. Mike and Molly, also new this season, about a romance between a public school teacher and a Chicago beat cop (categories that may not make them working poor, but I think most people assume makes them working class), did somewhat better, pulling an average of 11.14 million viewers per episode. The Middle, about a saleswoman and a quarry manager, pulled 6.9 million viewers in its first season and 8.11 million per episode in its second. CMT tried to do a show called Working Class, about a single mother who tried to get her kids better opportunities by moving them into an upscale neighborhood, drew 1.2 million viewers for its first two episodes, tanked thereafter, and was quickly cancelled. Each of those is less than half the 21.5 million episodes Roseanne pulled during its first season — numbers that declined steadily every year it was on the air.

I don’t know what Josh hears from the folks he organized, but if, as he suggests, there’s big pent-up demand for shows about working people, something in here should have broken out bigger than it has. Blaming this on advertisers doesn’t really seem accurate, especially given that shows about working people who are successful in their niches, like Tyler Perry’s sitcoms (which are about a fireman and a guy who opened his own nursing home), The Simpsons (about a homemaker and a power plant worker), or The Family Guy (Peter’s worked in factories and as a fisherman, Lois is a homemaker and gives piano lessons), both stay alive for a long time and have been spun off in multiple iterations. It may be that there’s a market for more shows about working class people, but the numbers don’t suggest a massive unfulfilled demand for them.

2) It’s absolutely true that “there’s no lack of high-stakes drama in the lives of poor people.” The question is whether it’s a kind of drama that lends itself to the kind of structures that satisfy people on television. Police procedurals are so satisfying because they pose an extremely high-stakes problem — who killed or assaulted someone — and resolve it in the space of an hour. The reason Law & Order marathons are on all the time is they’re like crack: every time the hour is over, you get a hit of justice. Ditto is true for medical procedurals. These kinds of shows provide the promise of full resolution in each show. Presumably a character who goes through a grueling session with Dr. House isn’t going to get that same bizarre medical condition again. Dead men can’t be murdered twice. But being working poor isn’t something that you solve once and it’s done. That doesn’t mean that standing up to a yuppie teacher who doesn’t undertand that you’re losing pay coming in for a parent-teacher conference, or expanding your lawn-care business aren’t successful to watch on screen. But those are less emphatic victories than the week-by-week reaffirmation of justice on procedurals or the season-long transformative narratives of competition reality shows.

The reason movies about union organizing, or fighting corporate power, are so successful is that they provide the comforting illusion that if you stand up to the boss, if you win that recognition campaign, things are going to be different going forward, and they condense the period of time when relentlessly bad things are happening to people in a fairly short period of time. Television shows force you to confront that they don’t. Part of what’s shocking and interesting about Roseanne is that even this epitome of working-class shows is a parable about how television audiences will only tolerate so much reality when it comes to working-class characters: like Newhart, Roseanne ended its run with the revelation that key parts of the story were the main character’s fantasy of her own life.

There are obvious exceptions to this divide between television and movies, most notably the second season of The Wire, which is all about unions fighting a rearguard action to survive, with disastrous results. But that’s not something that anyone’s going to be able to replicate, because people aren’t going to replicate David Simon’s years of reporting that made the narrative as rich as it was, and because getting folks to commit to a show (and a very small number of watchers ever committed to it) as relentlessly depressing as The Wire just isn’t going to happen on a regular basis. Simon was really good at making a political show that wasn’t spinach, but he’s also a rare genius. There’s no reason that we can’t have shows that have working- rather than middle-class or upper-class characters acting out the universal dramas of family and friendship, but I’m not sure that the particular dramas of getting through life as a working-class person are going to lend themselves structurally to a whole crop of television programming in a way that will be broadly successful.

3) Context and intent matter. Yes, there are a lot of rich people on television. But a lot of them exist to be mocked or critiqued by their audiences. Jack Dongahy may be a corporate titan, but he’s a weird, dysfunctional person who clearly pursues wildly immoral goals for the sake of business. The entire purpose of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise is, as Ta-Nehisi puts it, to allow people to purchase the privacy of wealthy women for the purposes of judging their behavior, beliefs, and consumptive practices. The Bachelor and all of its spin-offs are all about the rottenness of a upper-class fantasy of marriage and security. Representation is part of having a balanced conversation about class on television, but it’s not everything.

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