TV’s class struggle

Working stiffs absent in fall season lineup

The country is in enmeshed in a crippling economic crisis. Oil prices are skyrocketing, unemployment is steadily growing, and the national mood is polarized by an unpopular war overseas and a political morass at home.

And what’s the No. 1 show in primetime? “All in the Family.”

Although it sounds like a summary of last week’s headlines, the above also describes the zeitgeist of the 1973-74 television season (which kicked off early with the summer miniseries “Watergate Hearings” starring Sen. Sam Ervin).

Plenty of Americans in that turbulent era took solace in a weekly visit with Archie Bunker, the blue-collar Napoleon who reigned on a sitcom where the jokes and storylines were often ripped from the headlines. But not any more.

Look at the primetime landscape this fall on the major nets: The hardest thing to find is an earthy “All in the Family”-type portrayal of blue-collar Joes, or two-income families juggling paychecks and bills, or frankly anyone with a hint of money trouble.

This fall, shows revolving around the moral bankruptcy of the super-rich (“Gossip Girl,” “Dirty Sexy Money,” etc.) and the neurosis of well-educated professionals (“Private Practice,” “Two and a Half Men,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “30 Rock,” “Eli Stone,” etc.) are far more prevalent than shows reflecting anything like the angst Main Street is feeling.

In fact, on TV these days, wealth rains down on the most unlikely suspects: the dimwitted loser on NBC’s “My Name Is Earl” wins the lottery; the cop wrongly imprisoned for 12 years on NBC’s detective drama “Life” gets out of jail to — hello! — a $50 million settlement. (By contrast, Jim Rockford of “The Rockford Files” lived in a trailer and was constantly hounding his clients to pay their bills.)

Where are the Roseanne Connors, the titular character on ABC’s long-running “Roseanne,” who went through a series of bad-to-worse jobs and family cash-flow crises? Where are the Norm Petersons, who rode out most of the ’80s unemployed on a bar stool on “Cheers”?

Social commentators point to the pop culture worship of celebrity and the push for conspicuous consumption in a countrywhere individuals as well as institutions are maxed out on their credit cards. Who wants to become involved with characters fretting about losing their homes when there’s fresh dirt on Britney or a celeb-gone-wild vid to seek out on YouTube.

Biz veterans say the trend in scripted entertainment has less to do with rampant elitism in Hollywood than the harsh reality of trying to program for mass appeal in a 200-channel, multiplatform universe. With viewers having so many more entertainment options, major network shows need a high-concept hook that is easily marketed as something different.

“If you came in to pitch ‘Cheers’ today, I think the networks would say, ‘There’s not a lot of sizzle there. It’s just people in a bar,’ ” says comedy writer Ken Levine, whose long resume includes that classic NBC sitcom.

In ’73-’74, television’s top 10 included a show about a wise-cracking junk dealer (“Sanford and Son,”), a charismatic young man trying to work his way out of the barrio (“Chico and the Man”) and a laffer about a poor family in Chicago ghetto (“Good Times” — imagine that pitch meeting happening today).

Today, the young dudes working ho-hum retail jobs on NBC’s “Chuck” and CW’s “Reaper” are distracted from the daily grind by their secret identities and truly fantastic adventures. The single mom on CBS’ “The New Adventures of Old Christine” doesn’t spend much on-air time worrying about how she’s going to pay the rent.

The lead character on CBS’ new comedy “Gary Unmarried” is a manual-labor kind of guy, but he owns his own construction biz and it seems (judging by the pilot), he’ll be spending more time fretting about his post-divorce love life than how much it costs to fill up his truck between jobs. Although they live in the hardscrabble town of Scranton, Pa., the motley staffers on NBC’s “The Office” rarely deal with money woes.

Even the countrified stars of the Blue-Collar Comedy troupe aren’t playing working stiffs on TV. Bill Engvall stars as a family counselor, not a factory worker, in his TBS sitcom “The Bill Engvall Show.” Jeff Foxworthy gives away money as the host of Fox’s gameshow “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” (though there are plans for him to star in a NASCAR-themed pilot.)

Working-class folks are more easily found as contestants on reality shows, where they’re always vying for a pot of gold to change their lives. Or if their jobs are exotic or yucky enough, they might wind up on an episode of a docu-reality shows like Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs.”

Levine points to the overall dearth of comedy as another factor in the invisibility of blue-collar folks on TV. Going back to the days of Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners,” the half-hour form was the prime vehicle for allowing the vast expanse of viewers to laugh at the predicaments of folks more or less like themselves.

NBC’s drama “Friday Night Lights” has drawn critical hosannas for being the rare show that’s not focused on a case or disease of the week but rather is a weekly serving of a slice of life in contempo America. But as much as the crix rave, viewers have shied away. “Friday Night Lights” barely squeaked out a third-season renewal.

“It’s all network-driven, because they are the buyers. If the networks said ‘We’re looking for blue-collar comedies,’ (writers) would come in with blue-collar comedies again,” Levine says.

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