Back in the ’30s, a report on small towns rejecting rube feature films inspired an unforgettable Variety headline: “Stix Nix Hick Pix.”
Almost a century later, another group seems to be giving the raspberry to the proletariat. Emmy voters’ anointed 2014 lead actors for drama and comedy alike are distinctly cut from urban, white-collar cloth.
Polished operators pop up in dramas (Jon Hamm and Kevin Spacey in “Mad Men” and “House of Cards,” respectively) and comedies (sleazy consultant Don Cheadle in “House of Lies”; Matt LeBlanc as himself in “Episodes”).
Jim Parsons, brilliant scientist in “The Big Bang Theory”; chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad”; news anchor Jeff Daniels in “The Newsroom”; Gotham standup Louis C.K.; slick cop Woody Harrelson in “True Detective” — one and all, these fellows work much more with their minds than their hands.
You’ll find dirty fingernails among Ricky Gervais’ child-man “Derek,” and sitting-in-their-own mess Matthew McConaughey (“True Detective”) and William H. Macy (“Shameless”). But they’re outnumbered by the manicured men.
Or are they? Is the apparent bias toward well-groomed professionals all that meets the eye? Let’s turn to the record.
Nominees for lead actor in a drama have traditionally leaned toward what Horace Newcomb, president emeritus of the George Foster Peabody Awards, calls “the professional class. It’s always been ‘suits’. … You get conflict from your docs and lawyers.”
1959-60 stands as a turning point, when Raymond Burr won the first of his two Emmys as smoothie attorney Perry Mason over three Western stars and two gritty private eyes. Thereafter, metropolitan professionals dominate the dramatic ranks, most demonstrably during the 1980s heyday of “LA Law” and “St. Elsewhere.”
By contrast, the roster of comedy series stars — at least up until the 1990s when “Roseanne” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” ruled — betrays a decidedly proletarian bent. Think “All in the Family,” “Taxi,” “Cheers.”
Taking the categories together across the sweep of Emmy history, you mostly find annual parity between white- and blue-collar roles. The domination of the Armani-clad, power-hungry operator is relatively recent.
That change, according to MediaPost columnist and PR consultant Gary Holmes, mirrors a cultural shift since TV’s early days. “The default was typically middle-class, and America itself was a much more middle-class, homogeneous society.”
Today, he says, “The country seems to have stratified more, and the default now seems to be upper-middle-class. People who are professionals, who don’t have to worry about money or child care. It’s natural that as the big, important shows feature those in the upper middle class, they’re the ones that would get nominated.”
College-educated writers, producers and voters play their part as well. Thirty or 40 years ago, showrunners might well have gone to state universities or eschewed college altogether. But “if you go from the Harvard Lampoon into a writers’ room, your view of the world is going to be a lot different. … Their concerns are going to be what they write about.”
More than half a decade of economic hardship may have played a role. Documentarian and UT-Austin dean Paul Stekler says, “When things are bad, those who make media tend to want to do stories about people who are millionaires.”
That was certainly true in the Depression (back when the stix were nixing the hick pix). “To get lost in the fantasy of cinema, that fantasy is a lot more pleasant if you’re watching people who are better off. And it’s aspirational. … Our ideology is that we’re all upwardly mobile, and we’re all doing fine or going to do fine.”
Newcomb goes even further. “Most of us want to see the ‘big guys’ get theirs. And as opposed to promoting a working-class hero, I think we’re going to get it this way.”
Strikingly, many of today’s white-collar protagonists aspired to — and did — make their way up from miserable surroundings. Don Draper in “Mad Men” is really Dick Whitman, bred on a farm that makes Tobacco Road look like Rodeo Drive. (“A real Jay Gatsby,” Holmes dubs him.) “Breaking Bad”’s Walter White was a shlubby high school chem teacher before his ascension to meth kingpin.
“Louie’s’” troubled lower-middle-class background up north isn’t so different from the fundamentalist Texas upbringing of Sheldon Cooper on “Big Bang Theory,” while Frank Underwood on “House of Cards” was the product of distinctly weird abuse in South Carolina.
Echoing Stekler, Holmes says, “There’s a lot of aspiration in all these shows,” with the promise of delightful entertainment as a bonus. “If you’re a middle-class or lower-middle-class viewer, it’s fun to think about what it’d be to live like that.”
Then again, should one crave an alternative, down and dirty is well represented elsewhere in the judge shows, confessional talkfests and backstage exposes collectively known as reality TV.
Of course viewers know “Duck Dynasty” boasts college-educated millionaires. But the Robertsons behave like hirsute clucks and audiences seem delighted to go along with the gag.
Were an actress like Margo Martindale to impersonate the trailer-trash mom of a bratty kiddie pageant competitor, who would believe it, let alone watch it? Evidently we need a veil of reality to accept a Honey Boo Boo.
And as Newcomb points out, “Even when you have people going in to do an auction of a storage locker, you do get a sense of what lower-middle-class and working-class life is about.”
Reality shows, then, allow viewers to spend plenty of time with folks “just like us.” But no one is letting candid cameras into the personal and professional intimacies of law firms, Congress or ad agencies. Enter “The Good Wife,” “House of Cards” and “Mad Men,” respectively, to provide blue-chip insider access.
On soundstages, thesps don their expensive attire and act up a storm to show us how the Other Half lives and, especially, how it suffers. And whatever the genre or class represented, that’s the kind of acting that leads to nominations.