News & Politics

Is American TV Finally Facing Reality? 6 New TV Shows Bring Real Economic Struggle Into Your Living Room

Is TV finally catching up with us and depicting real life?

While the US economy drowns in a sinkhole of its own making, sometimes it seems like pop culture has forgotten the people. On TV’s "Gossip Girl," the glorification of torpid, trust-funded teens rages on; chart-topping film The Help’s underlying narrative (after the racism) is that rich people have housekeepers; and the latest collaborative album by Kanye West and Jay-Z is a great reminder that you probably do not own one Beamer, let alone multiples. With many states having a 15 percent unemployment rate, it’s enough to make you wonder exactly how gated the entertainment community can get. And while there’s an argument to be made for cultural escapism during hard times—hello, Harry Potter 8!—lots of this stuff just feels like staring into the window of a fancy restaurant while you’re stuck outside with a crust of bread.

But on television, at least, it seems the tide is finally turning; pop culture is finally catching up to the predicament of the folks it’s supposed to entertain, and it’s a huge relief. Maybe it’s because people on television don’t make as much as they do on the silver screen? Who knows, but here are six brand-new programs debuting on network TV this fall that don’t ignore the fact that there are poor people all across America.

1. 2 Broke Girls

Thanks for getting to the point, CBS. A new program created by Michael Patrick King—who you may already love/hate for his work on “Sex and The City” and brilliant, underrated “The Comeback”—”2 Broke Girls” follows the lives of two 20-something waitresses who aren’t exactly living in Carrie Bradshaw circumstances. The immensely awesome Kat Dennings plays Max, a girl from a poor working-class background who has to school her Paris Hilton-esque coworker Christine (Beth Behrs), who has a degree from Wharton Business School but had to get a job in a Brooklyn restaurant after her formerly affluent dad was incarcerated (presumably for doing something shady on the stock market). They sling coffee and burgers and move in together, and judging from the previews much of the humor is based on their class differences—all of Christine’s belongings have been seized, except for a horse. As a premise, the rich-plus-poor-equals-hilarity equation is nothing new. But the circumstances surrounding their odd-couple friendship are incredibly timely, and the show acknowledges one soul-crushing truth: in this economy, you have to take whatever work you can get.

2. Hart of Dixie

There are no jobs in New York, even for top-of-her-class, brand-new medical doctor Zoe Hart—sound familiar? So when she loses a fellowship, then gets laid off from one of the best hospitals in Manhattan, she has to make her way to a small working-class town in Alabama, to become the town’s general practitioner. Clearly the premise is couched in reality—in the past few years, under the reign of City Council Speaker/Bloomberg golden girl Christine Quinn, eight hospitals have closed in New York City—and the trailer shows a variety of people who seem as down-home as the (kind of silly) pun-title would have you believe. Expect serious drama, with a little coming-of-age subtext—the series is created by Josh Schwarz of "The OC," and stars Rachel Bilson.

3. Up All Night

Aside from having an incredibly talented cast—Christina Applegate! Will Arnett! Maya Rudolph!—this follows a young couple with a newborn who try to balance their lives as new parents with their lives as busy working people in New York. And while they are doing fine money-wise, playing successful professionals, their possibly Latino nanny makes a cameo in the trailer. Hey, maybe this isn’t about working-class people after all. Bring back “Ugly Betty”!

4. A Gifted Man

You might not expect a television show about a man who's being visited from beyond by his dead ex-wife to be specifically class-oriented, but “A Gifted Man” is probably the most explicit one on this list. Patrick Wilson plays a super-talented, super-rich surgeon who’s been privileged from birth, and thoroughly enjoys his luxurious lifestyle. But when the ghost of the aforementioned deceased implores him to volunteer at her former place of employment, a free medical clinic administering healthcare to the impoverished and underprivileged, he necessarily has a life change. The real clincher: can a materialistic jerk change his lifestyle and send some compassion out into the world? Talk about an amazing-looking show, particularly when it depicts the realities of the healthcare crisis: crowded waiting rooms, festering illnesses and the like.

5. Revenge

This one’s less obvious... but if a thriller about a girl who moves to the Hamptons to unleash hell upon the bourgeois community that killed her parents sounds like a subtle allegory for class war to you, it might be time to set the DVR.

6. The Playboy Club

Right now you’re probably like, are you kidding? And certainly, on paper, NBC’s ridiculous, unrealistic resurrection of Hugh Hefner’s 1960s Playboy Club looks like a grody, revisionist history glamorization of the real-life version that helped drive Gloria Steinem to feminism. But the show is clearly meant to snag “Mad Men” fans and is certainly ripped from its template. There was already a great storyline involving the Playboy Club in that show, and the "Playboy Club" theme song sounds like a generic version of the one in “Mad Men.” So if they rip off ideas from its script, as well, they’ll conceivably highlight the horrible class disparities between single women and men in that era, showing that there were few options in the way of gainful employment available to women, and some of the most lucrative were very degrading. Certainly the early preview alludes to that element in the premise—women being bewildered at making as much money as their fathers—and frankly it does look deeper than many have assumed, dealing with rape, racism and sexism just in the trailer. And it's a reminder that the disparity still exists, that even in 2011, the jobless rate among women has risen as men’s has declined.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.