Recession finds primetime

TV begins to portray economic hardships on screen

As it turns out, the recession will be (sort of) televised.

Primetime has never been particularly comfortable with stark images of economic hardship. Most sitcom families are portraits of middle-class bliss. In decades past, there was “Roseanne,” yes, but the prevailing norm has been the “Friends” gang, which never seemed remotely stressed about rent in Manhattan. Indeed, ABC’s “Modern Family” has already been second-guessed for appearing “oblivious to the recession,” as one website put it, including a season-closing excursion to Hawaii.

Even newsmagazines venture only sporadically into this space, preferring spicier true crime and celebrity oddities — from Mel Gibson to Lindsay Lohan — to cold reality.

Still, the roots of the current economic downturn are apparently too deep to ignore — and manifesting themselves on TV in ways both overt and subtle.

“Dateline NBC” has taken a break from missing women with “America Now,” documenting the hard times facing the country. The latest special in the series, “Friends and Neighbors” on July 25, focuses on a food pantry in Ohio, where families are struggling to stay afloat. Granted, bad habits die hard — beyond Ann Curry’s sad-eyed interviews, the soundtrack includes Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” and (honestly) snippets of the “Brokeback Mountain” theme — but the tone is generally sober.

One day later, documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi delivers a de facto companion piece, examining the plight of the working poor — many living within sight of Disneyland — in HBO’s “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County.” Scripted programming has characteristically been slow to recognizing the recession’s effects. “Friday Night Lights” continues to explore hard-scrabble lives in Texas on TV’s version of an off-Broadway stage, and talk of financial hardship has cropped up in some unlikely locales — including subplots on once-happily oblivious Wisteria Lane, the home of “Desperate Housewives.”

For the most part, though, primetime largely deals in escapism. Even TV’s doctors and lawyers are too busy pursuing their noble callings to be ostentatious about their incomes.

It’s notable, then, to see the current recession’s ripples hitting not only certain programs, but the composition of this fall’s primetime schedule.

Producer Greg Garcia — who previously explored the economic underclass in “My Name Is Earl” — is back in that socioeconomic strata with “Raising Hope,” an absurdist Fox comedy about a youth who suddenly finds himself a father and must rely on his struggling parents to help him out.

A more subtle indicator can be seen in the broadcast networks’ Friday-night scheduling. For years, networks were reluctant to program that night aggressively due to diminished HUT (homes using TV) levels. Execs assumed the younger audience they covet simply wasn’t available on “date night” heading into the weekend.

Come September, virtually every network is more vigorously attacking Friday, perceiving opportunities as more people opt to stay home. The onslaught includes a handful of new series as well as relocating established shows such as “CSI: NY” and “Supernatural.”

Admittedly, the major networks were emboldened by a rebound in advertising sales as they sold time for the coming season — and could easily retreat to cheaper reality fare and newsmags when their scripted entries fail.

Nevertheless, television has already benefited from what looks like a recessionary ratings bounce for big events — from the Super Bowl to marquee award shows — throughout the past year. As the AP reported, moreover, while sports attendance has dropped, TV became “where Americans turned to satisfy their craving for sports in the recession-plagued year of 2009.”

Seemingly, the ongoing fragility of the U.S. and global economy, coupled with high unemployment, has become the elephant in the living room — which doesn’t necessarily mean audiences want to be regularly reminded of those hard times when they flop on the couch.

Frankly, it would be enough if the news divisions — and not merely HBO’s gutsy (and thus often lonely) documentary unit — exhibited a sustained commitment to tackle serious matters beyond their nightly newscasts at a time when so many are hurting.

For now, though, to borrow from Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “The revolution will not be televised,” fallout from the recession is finding its way into primetime. And if that’s not quite a revolution, it’s at least a start.

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