Todd VanDerWerff has a fantastic piece in the AV Club about why working-class characters, and even more specifically, working-class problems, have disappeared from sitcoms, touching on everything from the influence of aspirational shows like NBC’s Must-See TV lineup, concerns about writers tackling scenarios they don’t have personal experience with, and the challenges of depicting working-class families without appearing to mock them even when writers and creators themselves come from the backgrounds they’re depicting. Much of the piece addresses the question of why networks aren’t making or airing these kinds of shows, which may or may not be a reflection of audiences’ actual preferences. But it’s also intriguing to see the small evidence we have for what resonates with viewers at home. Todd considers Modern Family, a ratings monster that overshadows shows like my beloved Raising Hope and The Middle:
Take Modern Family, currently one of the most popular comedies on television. The series’ central family—Phil and Claire Dunphy, played by Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell—is headed by a real-estate agent and his stay-at-home wife. Yet even though the show debuted in 2009, at the height of the financial crisis, when a real-estate agent would have been at wit’s end, trying to make sales, the Dunphys never want for money. This isn’t even about how the family can afford a gigantic house—it’s perhaps plausible that Phil got a sweetheart deal. The lack of worry about money is built into the DNA of the show. The characters are constantly getting in car accidents that don’t seem to have any financial effect on them. (Even with good insurance, the number of cars this family goes through should be prohibitively expensive.)…Even if TV comedy’s borderline ignorance of class issues shouldn’t be considered politically irresponsible, consider how much it robs any given series of stakes. When Modern Family started out, it was about a family where the individual members often didn’t get along. As time went on and the conflicts softened—inevitable on a TV comedy—the source of drama too often has to come from outside elements, like all those car accidents. Attempting to avoid this is why so many great TV comedies have given their characters money troubles. (On Roseanne, those money troubles actually got worse as the series went along, until the central family won the lottery in an ill-advised final season.)
I sometimes wonder if television is where the last vestiges of our burst economic bubble linger. We may have come to terms with the fact that we, personally, can’t have the big house with the adjustable rate mortgage, but we haven’t quite gotten over the idea that it would be nice if someone, somewhere could, whether in the Hamptons estates on Revenge, the light-filled loft on New Girl, or even the haunted apartment building on 666 Park Avenue. We may have accepted a stagnant unemployment rate and its impact on our day-to-day lives, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to look at a world where the Clintonian dream of unimpeded growth still procedes apace, where jobs are unstressful, student loan rates aren’t a problem because no one needs student loans, and people who work in the service industry, like Rachel on Friends, do so on their way to careers in fashion or the arts rather than out of economic necessity. If television is an engine of national fantasies, it makes sense that it would be one of the final places where we indulge the dreams we’ve set aside in our day-to-day lives, not because they’re bad dreams, but because they’re unsustainable. And if television has trained viewers not to look for themselves and scenarios they can identify with but for aspirational problems and something they’d like to have, that’s a preference that took time to build, and will take time to reverse.