Our TV Programming Is All About Rich People Dreams
Television sitcoms are one of the most important outlets for American culture, and have long been a center of gravity for American society to grow and flourish. The iconic characters in television programming have often broken new ground in advancing the national discussion on a variety of issues.
But in recent years, television programming has trended away from featuring characters from working-class backgrounds dealing with the same problems as the rest of America. Instead, television has reoriented itself around the lives of the rich, or at least the comfortable, often throwing out the concept of any real struggles altogether. This trend is a direct assault on a recent history of television.
Working Class Heroes
The social movements of the '60s and '70s produced not only a more progressive policy regime, but a much more progressive culture. When it came to elevating that progressive culture to TV, one man had a greater impact than any other. Norman Lear was the brains behind the popular program that aired between 1971 and 1979, All In The Family, a show about a working-class family in Queens. It was anchored by Archie Bunker, a crass conservative patriarch who would often spar with his liberal son-in-law, a product of '60s counterculture. The show featured debates about gun control, gay rights, segregation, women's liberation, and other hot-button issues.
While politicized storylines are rare in today’s programming, All In The Family thrived on them, pulling social issues and contentious debates into the daily lives of the protagonists. And America embraced it; the show was the most-watched sitcom in America for several years in a row. It went on to spawn a pair of spinoffs, Maude and Good Times. Maude, which broadcast from 1972 through 1978, starred Bea Arthur as an opinionated feminist, and was unrestrained in probing topics dealing with sexism and equality. (Even its theme song featured lyrics that served as a sort of history lesson.) Maude consistently ranked in the top 10 most watched programs in America from 1972 to 1976.
The second spin-off, Good TImes, was perhaps the most radical of the three. It featured the trials and tribulations of the Evans family, a poor African American family in inner-city Chicago. In the pilot episode, the family is unable to come up with $72 to make the monthly rent and face eviction. The protagonists all approach this problem in different ways. The proud family patriarch James Evans, who frequently held down two jobs at the same time during the course of the show, refuses to take help from anyone and goes down to the pool hall to hustle money, while his wife Florida goes to the welfare office to find assistance. For the first time in American television history, American audiences were able to relate to the poverty and discrimination that inner-city black people faced.
Good Times went on to probe many different topics; it was the first program ever to deal with the topic of sexually transmitted diseases. It was no slouch when it came to bringing in audiences, either. From 1974 to 1975, it ranked #7 in the Nielsen ratings, reaching 17 million households.
Lear’s shows mixed powerful political content with smart writing and likeable characters, creating programming that allowed American families to have a great time around the TV set while asking themselves thought-provoking questions about American society. His shows were matched by a bevy of other programs that invoked class-consciousness and political awareness, such as Sanford and Son and M*A*S*H. But in the '80s, things started to change.
The Rise of Rich TV And Respectability Culture
The 1980s saw Ronald Reagan capture control of the political system, greatly enhancing the power of the super-rich while setting into motion a trend of income inequality that continues today.
This power-grab by the rich was mirrored in American sitcoms. Programming like Dallas and Dynasty became the most-watched shows on television. These shows involved power struggles between wealthy and attractive families, and rarely featured plotlines that anyone outside the one percent could relate to.
Alongside this programming that glamorized the ultra-rich, the '80s saw the introduction of The Cosby Show, which has been credited for helping mainstream the African American family into American culture. It featured a middle-class black family facing the same problems many middle-class whites faced, like getting kids to eat vegetables and a teenage daughter’s first date.
But the specific way the show went about doing this undermined much of the social progress of the previous decade. Take one iconic scene with the protagonist Cliff Huxtable explaining to his son Theo about the value of working hard in school. Theo protests that he could just be a “regular” worker and drive a bus, while his father explains how much money he’ll need when he’s an adult and tries to shame Theo for trying to get by on mediocre grades and avoid going to college. It’s a message of personal responsibility most parents would impart to their children, but it ignores the facts of the societal situation many young people found themselves in. Class and racism were rarely mentioned in the show.
Three decades after that episode aired, black college graduates and white high school dropouts have virtually the same chances of landing a job. Despite its important role in elevating the status of black Americans in American TV culture, the show’s ultimate message was to ignore the powerful social forces harming working people, minorities, and women — it was a message Ronald Reagan himself could have crafted.
Shows About Nothing
There was one television program that defied this trend of programming in favor of the rich. Roseanne featured a feisty white working mother who spoke up strongly for average people. Take one episode where a state representative knocks on her door asking for her vote. He claims to be bringing businesses to the district, but Roseanne wants to know how. He explains that he wants to offer special tax breaks, which Roseanne objects to, saying this will simply shift the tax responsibilities to the working class. Before long, she is giving the state representative a lecture on how he’s trying to turn the local people into scabs and help break unions abroad, before he quickly decides to leave.
But Roseanne’s rebellion was no match for the rise of a third genre of television programming: shows about nothing in particular. The pivotal show Seinfeld was the leader of this march.
Seinfeld featured comfortable New York City residents in spacious apartments who never had to seriously deal with economic deprivation, racism, sexism, or any tangible form of hardship. The plotlines revolved around inane topics, ranging from waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant to a character who wears a wedding band to attract women.
Numerous other television shows featuring upper-middle-class socialites embracing postmodern plots proliferated through this decade, a trend that continues today: Friends, Sex and the City, and other class-blind television proliferated. These sort of sitcoms didn’t promote an almost royal lifestyle the way Dynasty and Dallas did, rather, they promoted a sort of existence that working Americans could just barely imagine they could one day achieve: a nice New York apartment, attractive friends and few existential worries. They featured worlds just aspirational enough to be considered outside the realm of fantasy, which gives this sort of television, which dominates the market today, both an appeal and a constituency.
More recently, we've seen a return to TV focusing on the one percent, like the recently concluded Mad Men, which is about advertising executives, and House of Cards, in which the protagonists are political sociopaths. Those shows found their niche on cable and online, but Downtown Abbey, aired on PBS, is more accessible to the average viewer. The show features an aristocratic elite that formed the backbone of the classical liberals of England. It features characters who push the limits of social liberal advancement — basic feminism and gay rights— but their class privilege is never in question. Like Modern Family or the gamut of other television programming today, Downtown Abbey embraces diversity but never truly questions power.
Bringing Working People Back To TV
One argument in favor of today’s programming is that it simply reflects the desires of what people want to watch. We’re no longer the irreverent culture of the '60s and '70s, this argument goes, and we want our screens filled with good-looking people in huge houses and fancy apartments. If anything, a show like Modern Family — where families who live in multi-million-dollar homes in California face off with such struggles as a husband and wife sparring over a treehouse — is perfect for modern audiences, because we’re just interested in what we aspire to be, not challenging the society.
But there is bountiful evidence that Americans are no less concerned about pressing social issues than they were in the past. America’s “wealth gap between middle-income and upper-income families is [its] widest on record,” and Americans are worried, with two-thirds of us saying we’re dissatisfied with our income and wealth distribution.
Does this mean that Americans want to see this discussed on the sitcoms they watch? It’s possible that the country prefers these topics relegated to news and documentary channels, yet the few attempts that have been made to bring working-class characters back to television have yielded some level of success.
2 Broke Girls premiered in September 2011, the same month Occupy protesters were taking Zuccotti Park by storm. The show featured two young women working at a diner to raise the funds to start a cupcake shop. One of the protagonists comes from a millionaire family while the other comes from poverty. The opening scene featured one of the waitress protagonists mocking a hipster for not having a job and calling her to the table with a rude gesture.
While the show has not taken off the same way Lear’s shows did in the '70s, it did net the biggest audience for any fall comedy premiere since 2001. Unsurprisingly, the show has done particularly well with young people, who can likely relate to waiting tables in pursuit of a steadier job and a brighter future with a nest egg. The show has a more limited cast and crew than the working-class shows of yester-year; it is definitely aimed at 20- and 30-somethings and has been criticized for its white protagonists’ use of cheap racial humor.
But it shows that it is possible to produce programming that depicts the lives and struggles of working-class and other underprivileged people. Perhaps it isn’t so much about Americans themselves changing as a particular group of Americans holding more economic and social power than they used to. I asked Zack Stentz, a screenwriter who has worked on Thor, X-Men First Class and other films why there’s been a dramatic turnaround in the kinds of people our television sitcoms feature. “An insulated, upper-middle-class group of writers writing what they know plus advertisers chasing upscale demographics,” he replied.
While the situation may seem hopeless, it is important to remember that while the arc of TV culture may be long, it bends toward justice. America went from I Love Lucy’s separate beds for a married couple, to a couple on Good Times discussing STDs. It can very well go from Modern Family’s McMansions to television looking at the enormous income inequality chasm. Our current nihilistic TV sitcoms may be more the bump in the road than the destination.