By Tim Kenneally
LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) – What with the usual assortment of doctors, lawyers, ad executives, jingle writers and police showing up on your TV set, you would hardly believe that more than 14 million Americans are out of work.
Finally, that tide seems to be shifting.
On Fox’s “Raising Hope,” the unabashedly downtrodden Chance family struggles with finances while rearing an infant borne out of a one-night stand.
CBS’s new comedy “2 Broke Girls,” about a down-and-out Brooklyn waitress and a newly impoverished former rich girl, became one of the first series this fall to receive a full-season order.
And Roseanne Barr, the queen of blue-collar TV, has sold a new sitcom, “Downwardly Mobile,” about a family living in a trailer park, to NBC.
Television, it seems, is finally ready to settle down into the economic rut with the rest of the country. It’s happened before.
In the 1970s, when the misery index was sky-high and America stewed in its own malaise, series featuring characters from the lower classes such as “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son” and “All in the Family” flourished.
And in the ’90s, as the country suffered the economic hangover from the go-go ’80s, Americans reached for the remote and tuned in to “Roseanne” and “Married … With Children” in search of comfort and laughs.
“Married’s” family patriarch, Al Bundy, was a shoe salesman with a barely-running car; Barr’s blue collar mom worked at a factory. “Roseanne” was consistently in the top three-rated series on television, and was the most-watched series from 1989 to 1990, when that recession first began to take serious hold.
So why has it taken so long for television to adjust to economic reality this time around?
For one thing, audiences tend to lean toward escapist fare in uncertain times — which might go a long way in explaining the recent popularity of reality fare such as “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” with the oh-so-glamorous-but-why-are they-famous adventures of Kim Kardashian and her siblings, and the striving opulence of the “Real Housewives” franchise.
Of course, there have been a number of reality series that broach the topic of poverty and the challenges facing the lower-income spectrum — hard luck stories on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” spring to mind.
Even Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing” morphed from a series about real-estate agents raking in big bucks from selling extravagant Malibu and Hollywood homes to a reflection on the lousy housing market; sellers are cautioned that they should expect to get a lot less than they were hoping for.
Cable outlets appear to be ahead of the networks in acknowledging the economic downturn — perhaps ironically, since cable TV is one of the luxuries that people are increasingly finding themselves unable to afford.
Of course, poverty’s not an easy sell at any time. There’s nothing particularly glamorous or sexy about being broke, and the everyday struggles of lower-income life aren’t necessarily the stuff that compelling television is made of.
“It isn’t ‘Mad Men’ — you go to work every day and do the same thing,” Pamela Rutledge, director of Media Psychology Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif., told TheWrap.
With contemporary cultural sensitivities being what they are, there could also be a reluctance to mine economic misfortune for entertainment fodder, particularly in the comedy genre.
“Shows such as ‘Sanford and Son’ and ‘Roseanne’ were very politically incorrect, and these are very politically correct times,” Rutledge notes. Indeed, one of the early criticisms of “Raising Hope” was that it took a mocking attitude toward its low-income characters.
On the other hand, it might not be a coincidence that “Raising Hope,” ‘2 Broke Girls” and the upcoming “Downwardly Mobile” are all comedies. “Two and a Half Men” creator Chuck Lorre recently noted to the New York Times that comedy thrives during economic downturns.
“You know, if you’ve had a bad day, laughter is a better remedy than watching a coroner pick shrapnel out of some poor guy’s private parts,” he said.
“2 Broke Girls” co-creator Michael Patrick King — whose previous hit, “Sex and the City,” was pretty much the antithesis of his current offering — hinted at the difficulties of portraying lower-income characters at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour.
When conceiving “2 Broke Girls,” he “really liked the scary dynamic of actually talking about money on TV, because there’s rarely any sitcoms where they actually say how much something costs, including their rent,” King told assembled press.
But with the country’s financial difficulties becoming more and more entrenched, and the economy continuing to sputter like Al Bundy’s old rust bucket, the stigma of being broke is beginning to disappear.
It could be that the economic realities have become so unavoidable that the viewers are ready to take an honest look at the situation we’re in — and maybe have a laugh or two about it. Because, really, what else is there to do while waiting for the economic clouds to clear?
“The subject matter of being broke is a huge deal always, and especially right now,” Kat Dennings, who plays struggling waitress Max on “2 Broke Girls,” told MTV in September. “Everyone can relate to that, and it’s nice to see people go through it on TV.”
Maybe there’s something good to come out of the country’s current economic doldrums after all.