Television news frequently uses personal stories to shed light on broader issues, an approach that works to varying degrees. While the message in “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert,” comes through loud and clear, it’s rendered slightly numb via this collaboration of HBO and Maria Shriver, which focuses on the struggles of one single mother to illuminate those of the 42 million women living near or below the poverty line, along with the 28 million children who depend on them, according to the show. Spare and troubling though the documentary may be, its anecdotal strategy produces the feeling in this instance that less is, indeed, less.
Filmed over the course of a year, Gilbert’s story is designed to put a face on the issue of poverty — and to provide a not-so-thinly-veiled rejoinder to the conservative media’s message that most poor families headed by single moms are welfare slackers. Far from that here, Gilbert, a 30-year-old mother of three living in Tennessee, is working at an extended-care facility as a nursing assistant while trying to further her education, and relying on subsidized day-care for her kids.
As for her job tending to the sick and elderly, Gilbert sums it up with resignation but not bitterness: “$9.49 an hour, for what we do.”
With so many still struggling, “Paycheck to Paycheck” provides an unvarnished look at the working poor, and women in particular, seeking to pull themselves up but seemingly held back by a system that doesn’t offer much hope beyond mere sustenance. The docu shows that Gilbert has little margin for error, with any setback — financial or otherwise — having the potential to throw the family into a tailspin.
Such advocacy pieces, however, need to be actually seen to generate maximum impact, and the storytelling style here (as produced and directed by Shari Cookson and Nick Doob) feels more designed for screenings at progressive think-tanks than an attempt to reach out beyond the Beltway.
By that measure, “Paycheck to Paycheck” is solidly executed — the sort of longform personal account only HBO or PBS seemingly have much appetite to provide. As constructed, though, it’s not apt to have much impact, or be acknowledged, in today’s age of self-selecting media, by many of the people who most need to see it.