What Happened To TV’s Working Class Families?

by | March 31, 2011 at 2:09 PM | Special Features, TV News

During the recession of the early 1990s, television viewers could watch “Roseanne’s” Dan and Roseanne Conner struggle to make ends meet with a series of low paying jobs they hated while their dreams always seemed just out of reach. “Grace Under Fire” had a similar premise, with a single mother. Both were regularly among the ten most popular shows of their era. Back in the 1970s, when inflation seemed to be dealing a crushing blow to the American dream, Norman Lear produced a series of comedies chronicling the struggles of working class characters including “All In the Family” and “Good Times.”  During this same period, “The Waltons” chronicled a loving farming family during the Depression.

Today, with ten percent unemployment, nearly every family on television is upper middle class. All of the characters on “Modern Family” live in large houses and have enough disposable income to throw elaborate birthday parties for their children. The Walkers of “Brothers & Sisters” are millionaires, thanks to the successful business the family patriarch built before dying. Susan was the only one of the “Desperate Housewives” to suffer during the recession, and her struggles have been an excuse for a farcical storyline about her first becoming a web-cam girl then becoming Lynette’s nanny. Now that she needs a kidney transplant, that would be financially devastating for anyone without great health insurance, she no longer seems concerned about her finances. The characters on “Glee” are ostensibly trapped in a dying Rust Belt town, but have enough money for big budget production numbers and, in the case of Kurt, a closet full of designer clothes. Sarah is the only Braverman who ever has financial problems on “Parenthood,” and she maintains a high standard of living by moving into her parents’ gorgeous dream house.

The few poor or working class families on television are usually dysfunctional, and always headed by a single parent. The Gallagher children on “Shameless” are young con artists who are raising themselves because their father is an unemployed drunk and their mother abandoned them. The farcical “Raising Hope” is about a supermarket clerk raising a child who was conceived during a one-night stand with a serial killer with the help of his whacked out parents. “The Middle” is the closest thing to a sitcom about a working class family. Both of the parents have jobs that straddle the  line between blue and white collar and occasionally worry about money. However, the show is resolute that it is portrait of a middle class family, and a subplot of a recent episode concerned a purchase of $200 face cream. The one series that portrays a functional family in a lower tax bracket is CMT’s “Working Class,” a sitcom about a single mother struggling to make ends meet on a supermarket deli counter employee’s salary. Supermarkets: the employer of choice for television’s working class.

Watch Executive Producer John Wells Discuss The Season Finale Of “Shameless”:

Television seems to view earning a low income as the result of dysfunctional relationships. It’s true that in real life, single parents often struggle financially because of the difficulties of supporting a family on one income. On television, however, the two income family is a rarity. Though its title may be “Modern Family,” all of the couples portrayed have a stay-at-home parent. How does Phil manage to support a family of five selling real estate when the housing market is cratering? Who knows?  All of the married Bravermans are also living large on single incomes. It’s a one-hundred and eighty degree turn from the sitcoms of the 1980s and 1990s, like “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties,” which showcased upper middle class households where both parents had  high-powered careers. The most prominent stay at home mom was “Married With Children’s” working class Peggy Bundy. Now, having a stay-at-home parent is a status symbol.

Are networks shying away from portrayals of economic struggle because of a belief that viewers are looking to escape from their problems? Last season, “Hank,” a comedy starring Kelsey Grammer as a downsized CEO who moves to a small town bombed, although that could have been because it was difficult to sympathize with the problems of a tycoon.  Could it be that television executives and writers are simply not interested in telling the stories of characters who live paycheck to paycheck?

Jill Cargerman, who created “Working Class” thinks it’s mostly a coincidence. “I don’t think there’s a resistance and I don’t think that the subject matter is too dark. I think it’s how is it pitched to the network. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be a comedy on a network or more comedies on cable that deal with working class people. I don’t think that the era where ‘Roseanne’ was popular was more attuned to socio-economic struggle. I think it was a great show pitched by talented people and the network jumped on it.”

“Working Class” star Melissa Peterman has a slightly different point-of-view. “Maybe there’s a fear of we don’t want to look in the mirror and when the news, everything is about the recession, the economy, all of those things, I don’t know. Maybe there’s a little more shyness on the part of the networks.” She thinks that escapism is part of the appeal of all television shows. “I think the line between TV and keeping it real is hard to balance…. It’s hard to toe that line because you’re, like, well the wardrobe people don’t want to buy everything from Target or Wal-Mart. [They] want to have some  fun, too. The hair people are like, ‘We want to do your hair,’ but I’d never have my hair that nice.”

Cargerman acknowledges that the old adage “write what you know” may be a factor. “I happen to come from a working class household. We struggled tremendously financially when I was growing up. I’m able to find the humor in it because that was really the only way to get by without slipping into a major depression for many years… Sometimes, I think writers come from an upper middle class family. They have college educated parents. They have great opportunities. Then they get out to Los Angeles and start working in television and making more money. They might not be as familiar with the subject matter as a writer like myself might be.”

“Working Class,” which airs its season finale April 1, has struck a chord with viewers. “The response has been overwhelming,” Cargerman says. “People feel excited and relieved to find programming that addresses simple problems like how do you get your daughter a dress for the dance? How do you pay for your kid’s dental bill and where that can take you as an adventure. I think that people love that the humor comes from situations they’ve experienced themselves.”

So why aren’t their more sitcoms that fill  this niche? It could be that reality shows have become the chroniclers of the lives of America’s not so rich. Both “Undercover Boss” and “Secret Millionaire” portray blue collar people cheerfully performing backbreaking labor for low salaries, who are rescued from poverty by benevolent millionaires who bestow cash and promotions upon them. There are multiple shows about bakery and restaurant employees, even if they focus on the glamorous aspects of the jobs – not the near minimum wage salaries most restaurant workers make.  Series like “Ice Road Truckers,” “Deadliest Catch” and Spike’s new series “Coal” document men doing dangerous, blue collar jobs. The New York Times claims that the audience for the shows is largely white collar men who secretly envy macho physical laborers, but offers absolutely no proof of this phenomenon. Reality television, which is known for demeaning its casts, has ironically become the only genre that consistently respects the lives of working class people.

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