The Recession on Television

James Poniewozik points out that, because of how television production works, the economy characters have to work with in television shows will always lag behind where we actually are:

Does TV have some sort of agenda to talk down the economy? Do programmers realize that average Americans are hurting far more than the statistics and positive spin might make it show? The truth, if you follow the TV business, is neither so nefarious nor profound. Whenever TV chases social trends and zeitgeist plots, there’s a lag time. It takes months or even years to develop scripted shows, and often by the time TV jumps on a trend in the headlines, the headlines have changed. Just as it was quite a while before primetime shows addressed the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, you’d have to expect it to be a while before they reflected any recovery. (Just look at the recent Work It, thankfully no longer with us, in which two guys dressed in drag to get jobs to play off the already-dated “mancession” trend.)

Though I also suspect that any recovery and boom—if and when there is one—will have to be well along before primetime TV is willing to acknowledge it. TV networks want a great economy to sell ads in, but TV writers probably like working with the assumption that it’s tough out there—not for propaganda reasons but dramatic ones. Hard economic times create conflict. They provide stakes, and they supply motivation. TV thrives on characters with challenges in extreme situations, and a recession provides a perfect reason to have characters go to extremes to put food on the table.

I’d argue, though, that the current crop of recession shows hasn’t actually confronted the economy particularly head-on for the source of drama. The use of Ponzi schemers rather than investment bankers is a perfect example of this. Television’s littered with Madoff-like Ponzi schemers from 2 Broke Girls, to Revenge, to Don’t Trust The Bitch in Apartment 23 all out of proportion to the actual number of Ponzi schemes operating and the damage they did. Outright fraudsters may be sexy and dramatic, but they’re not actually the reason the economy ended up in a recession.

Explaining what did happen is a much more complicated process, something that many shows don’t seem particularly interested in tackling. But there are other ways to get at the long-term changes in the economy that are going to affect characters and constrain their choices for years. Both 30 Rock and 2 Broke Girls have alluded to student loans their characters carry—Liz, when interviewing with a co-op board explains of her loan that “It is outstanding,” and Max labors in service to her debt rather than their future. But rather than shaping their decisions. In both shows, the loans show up briefly and then disappear—Liz talks to Jack about wiping out her debt and saving for retirement, and Max and Caroline pay off Caroline’s debt with a party. In neither show is debt the long-term problem it is in real life. Similarly, we haven’t had a lot of programing that addresses the lack of retirement security: there’s a generation of workers who are going to have to keep working much longer than they anticipated, and there’s drama in that, even if it’s not of the “what desperate act will I take to put food on the table this week” variety. It’s true America may be going to work. But that doesn’t mean that we’ll suddenly stop bearing the consequences of long-term changes in our economy that were under way before the recession started and will have consequences long after it’s over.