The past year has demonstrated, more than ever, just how essential essential workers really are. So why is it still so rare to see television shows that feature them as main characters?
There are, of course, numerous shows that feature nurses and other medical professionals in prominent roles, but one would be hard-pressed to name multiple shows that focus on different types of hourly, low-wage service sector workers, such as people in food service or retail/customer service — the type of people who have been praised repeatedly during the pandemic for their roles in keeping the world moving.
In fact, except for shows such as “The Conners” on ABC and NBC’s “Superstore,” which ended its run in March, there are virtually none. Fox’s “Bob’s Burgers” does technically feature a family that works in food service, but considering the Belchers are the business owners, they deliver a different kind of socioeconomic storyline. The lack of essential workers depicted in scripted television is peculiar, given how good of a track record shows about low-wage people have done in the past, particularly when one looks at the world of sitcoms. Shows including “Good Times” and “Married … With Children” nabbed awards attention from the Golden Globes and the Emmy Awards, respectively, while featuring main characters that worked as a housekeeper (“Good Times”) and a shoe salesman (“Married … With Children”). More recent examples including “Superstore” show that there is still an appetite for this kind of content. During its final season, “Superstore” averaged an approximate 40% lift in the Live+7 ratings in both total viewers and adults 18-49.
“I don’t know why it’s rare, or at least why it’s not happening right now,” admits Jim Donnelly, executive vice president of comedy development at Universal Television. “We do have some in development. I think we also see this as an opportunity. That is another segment of society that is underrepresented on television and deserves to be dimensionalized and to have a voice and be seen.
“We always talk about making sure that we are reaching everyone, and there are a lot more people in those kinds of jobs than who are bankers in Los Angeles or New York. Those are very well-represented on television.”
Gina Yashere, the co-creator and cast member of the CBS comedy “Bob Hearts Abishola,” which features several characters who are nurses and others that work in a manufacturing company, says numerous fans have approached her because of her role as hospital food service worker Kemi on the series.
“A lot of people have said to me, ‘I’ve never seen a show that features what I do for a living and the characters that I’ve come across in my daily life,’” Yashere says. “Not everybody’s going to live the Hollywood glamour lifestyle of Lamborghinis and Bugattis. It’s nice to see a fun show with great characters that you can relate to because they have a similar life to yours.”
Although essential workers have been heavily featured in the news during the COVID-19 pandemic, the conversation is not carrying over into development meetings for fictional fare. Multiple TV lit agents who spoke with Variety noted that they have not seen a massive influx of projects focusing on such characters since the pandemic began. Instead, the focus continues to be on more high-concept genre fare or more high-powered career fields. (Variety has previously reported that such major media companies as Disney are spending their resources on developing shows built around their best-known IP. Among those are the seven new “Star Wars” shows in the works at Disney Plus and several DC Comics shows coming together at HBO Max under the WarnerMedia umbrella.)
Given that, there is an argument to be made that some executives assume viewers want to watch programs that are more escapist or aspirational — something radically different from their daily lives that gives them access to a world hitherto undreamed of. But neither Yashere nor Donnelly thinks that is the entire story, with Donnelly calling it “the easy answer.”
“You don’t have to have a lot of money to escape,” he says. “Especially now that I have a kid, hanging out with my friends and having time to spend with them, that is my escapism. Who we are and how much money we have is only one piece of the full picture. And I think showing that full picture was part of the appeal [of “Superstore”]. People fell in love with those characters because they really got to know them and understand them.”
Although it might be a long time before an American network greenlights another show about big-box store employees or spends more time than just a scene or two in a grocery store (“Supermarket Sweep” aside), there are some upcoming series at least expanding into a more ordinary worker’s job experience.
Peacock’s “Bust Down” stars Chris Redd, Sam Jay, Langston Kerman and Jak Knight as casino employees in Middle America, while NBC’s “American Auto” has an “upstairs-downstairs” dynamic with the executives and day-today workers at a U.S. car company, says Donnelly. And the beloved 2005 sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris” is getting an animated reboot through CBS Studios. (In the original show, the titular character’s father, played by Terry Crews, worked as a security guard and cab driver, among other jobs at different times.)
Should all else fail, Yashere has an idea for a show about a more non-traditional career choice to pitch: “I used to build and repair elevators for a living,” she says. “I’ve written a book that I’m hoping to turn into something with Warner Bros. later on, and I want to do it about my life as an elevator engineer. I’ve never seen a show or a movie about that person. All the jobs that have never been represented on television, I’m going to bring them to television.”