Network's docus put mirror to society

Given its status as a premium channel in the midst of a recession, HBO might seem like an unlikely venue to champion the struggling middle class and disappearing blue-collar economy.

Yet pundits waiting for primetime TV to react to the financial crisis have thus far found little reflecting current hard times in the wilds of scripted broadcast television, other than the occasional reference to making ends meet on “Desperate Housewives.” The upcoming ABC sitcom “Hank” does feature Kelsey Grammer as a former CEO forced to downsize his existence, but that’s played mostly as a “Green Acres” revival. In the main, the networks’ fall lineups look determined to get our minds off the economy or change the subject with the usual assortment of cops, doctors and sci-fi, garnished with hunky vampires and female cougars.

By contrast “Hung,” HBO’s new half-hour dramedy, has become (to paraphrase star Thomas Jane) better, or at least more textured, than a series with that below-the-belt title and premise has any right to be — in part by zeroing in on the ailing middle class in auto-depressed Michigan. Screwed by a lapsed insurance premium and facing layoffs at his teaching job, the show’s protagonist attends a get-rich seminar before turning to male prostitution out of sheer desperation. Later, his ex-wife and her well-to-do husband find themselves down on their luck too thanks to misguided investments.

Where HBO really stands apart, though, is in the documentary realm, where it has put a human face on the toll exacted by outsourcing and layoffs, endangering entire ways of life. The people shown — telling their stories in their own words — are so rooted in these professions that the prospect of starting over hardly sounds plausible to them in their 40s and 50s.

On Labor Day, HBO will air “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant,” a heart-breaking look at the 2,400 workers and managers left without jobs by the shutdown of an Ohio assembly facility — two days before Christmas. A week later, the equally wrenching “Schmatta: From Rags to Riches to Rags,” about the demise of the Garment District in New York, will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival before arriving on the pay service in October. In the latter, one garment veteran discusses how the migration of manufacturing jobs to less-expensive nations represents “a microcosm of everything that’s going on in this country.”

Two more similarly themed projects are in the works, including a look at a Bronx factory strike, and Alexandra Pelosi’s examination of children of the working poor.

HBO documentary chief Sheila Nevins said the birth of these projects was more organic than orchestrated, but they do begin coalescing into a picture of “domestic sorrow” and the plight of the American worker.

“All I do every day is hear sad stories,” she said.

Nevins has often championed subjects that receive short shrift elsewhere. The HBO exec, who at times seems to be single-handedly supporting the serious documentary, will receive the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Governors Award next month for such entries as this year’s Emmy-nominated “Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery” and “The Alzheimer’s Project.”

Still, the divide between HBO’s sobering approach and other channels is becoming more of a chasm — and isn’t accidental. “This is pay television,” Nevins said. “You have to go where somebody else isn’t going. … It has to be worth paying for.”

Sure, blue-collar guys do pop up elsewhere, but generally they’re required to have some death-defying occupation, like catching crabs (the actual kind) or driving trucks in Alaska. Otherwise, the only way they can grab the media’s attention is to appear on a reality show, have a blonde relative go missing or conspicuously carry a loaded gun to an anti-Obama rally.

Most TV execs doubtless assume that people flip on the tube (or the YouTube) seeking escape from their daily burdens, so why smack them with more bad news? Still, thanks to HBO’s faith in the empathy of its audience, there is a small haven where the economic downturn is addressed, directly and in stark detail.

You just need the wherewithal and willingness to pay extra in order to see it.

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