As the pandemic has acutely pointed out, America runs on the working class: grocery store clerks, sanitation workers, and delivery drivers who are doing the grunt work of keeping this country afloat as they fight for a reasonable minimum wage while barely being able to afford their own housing. Many of them are women; working-class sheroes who are stringing together paychecks and odd jobs to take care of themselves and, oftentimes, children and other relatives.
These are worlds that the glitz and glamour of Hollywood often ignore but that are taking prominent places in this award season’s crop of prestige television. SAG-nominated performances include those from programming such as Hulu’s “Dopesick,” the miniseries that gives faces to people impacted by the opioid crisis, and HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” a story of an exhausted and beat-down small-town cop surrounded by her equally exhausted and beat-down friends and family, and “Maid,” creator Molly Smith Metzler’s Netflix series inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir of cleaning houses as a single mother as she attempts to extricate herself from an abusive relationship.
“People in Alex’s position don’t have don’t have time to have a thing that is their own, often, because of the way that the work system basically enslaves people,” “Maid” star Margaret Qualley says of her lead character, a mother to a young girl and an aspiring writer and who oftentimes has just dollars to her name.
Unless the scene called for it, Qualley forwent makeup for the role and frequently braided her own hair because the time it would take for personal grooming would be a luxury Alex wouldn’t have. She also took care of Rylea Nevaeh Whittet, the child actress who plays her toddler daughter Maddy, on and off set both as a bonding exercise and to understand how all encompassing it is to take care of a small child.
Most any bit of spare time Alex does have when she’s starting to get her life back together is spent writing because, Qualley says, “for so long she was treading water and then, at a certain point, she was able to add on one thing because she got just an inch of safety.”
“Everyone should be able to have that thing,” she says, adding that “it’s that time that allows you to have an identity and allows you to like see the situation that you’re in.”
In HBO’s “Mare,” Julianne Nicholson plays Lori Ross, a working mom of two in an insular Pennsylvania town where everyone knows, or maybe is also related to, everyone else.
Nicholson, who grew up in a Boston suburb, says of “Mare” that she “felt like these characters were very recognizable.”
“I think there is something heroic in trying to keep a loving family together,” the actress says of the limited series created by Brad Ingelsby. “I just feel like the odds are so against us at the moment, economically and politically. Most people are just trying to do the best they can with what they have.”
Lori’s shared plenty of Rolling Rocks with her best friend, Kate Winslet’s detective sergeant Mare Sheehan. The two tell each other everything, sometimes without even having to say the words they’re thinking. But as this limited series progresses, there are things weighting on Lori that she cannot discuss. This guilt added to her already threadbare persona is palpable.
“She already starts from a place of being exhausted,” Nicholson says, adding that “she’s also trying to rise above it; to keep people happy and keep people okay. And she puts herself at the bottom of the list of caring if she’s OK.”
In plotting out how Lori would be keeping things bottled up, Nicholson says “a lot of this was thinking about when we have secrets in life, we don’t want to give tells. All we’re trying to do when we have a secret is protect it.”
For some characters, the pain wasn’t just emotional. In “Dopesick,” creator Danny Strong’s adaptation of journalist Beth Macy’s book about the opioid crisis, Kaitlyn Dever plays Betsy Mallum. The Appalachian coal miner who dreams of escaping her meager income and deeply religious parents’ house to live openly with her girlfriend in a part of the world that’s more accepting. Instead, a severe back injury at work sends her down a quick and slippery slope of Oxycontin addiction.
“The pain that she had to endure at work was brutal, but she didn’t have any other choice but to continue working,” Dever says of developing the fictional character who serves as a stand-in for countless real people impacted by the pharmaceutical drug. “She was desperate for anything to make her better. I wanted to make sure those stakes were shown and that it would be clear to the audience how negatively it would affect her life and relationship in so many ways if she had to stop working.”
Dever created a spreadsheet to chart Betsy’s pain levels and how that would affect things like the way she walked. She says she worked with hair and makeup heads Jeri Baker and Anne Marie Hurley to take the character on a journey from someone who, at the beginning of the series, looked like she’d trimmed her own bangs and put effort into how she presented herself. Eventually, Dever says, her bangs are gone and her “hair looks less and less washed to show the decline of her health.” For makeup, she says that “we were always trying to stay on top of the levels of withdrawals and that changed the way my makeup looked on a daily basis.”
There is also an argument of classism to be made of when and how, and when, quote-unquote “prestige” programming deems this demographic of people worthy of coverage. ABC’s “The Conners,” which is about a working-class extended family in Iowa, is in its fourth season; the sitcom having grown out of the medium-changing multi-cam “Roseanne.” Comedies like “Grace Under Fire,” “All in the Family,” “Good Times” and “One Day at a Time” also discussed wealth inequality and blue-collar workers.
So did “Shameless,” creator John Wells’ adaptation of Paul Abbott’s British series that wrapped its 11-season run on Showtime in spring 2021. Set in Chicago’s South Side and focusing on the gaggle of siblings from the Gallagher family and their friends and neighbors, the dramedy looked at the (sometimes elaborate) shenanigans many people have to go through just to keep the lights on and the fridge stocked.
What our show did way before time was portray people who had true love but who had to fight for everything that they had,” says Shanola Hampton, who portrayed Gallagher neighbor and confidant, Veronica Fisher, for the entirety of the show’s run.
“Shameless” was based on, and shot exterior footage of, a real community. Because of this, she says that “the food; the roof over their heads: it was very important that we were representative of sort of the neighborhood in which we shot in.”
But, like a lot of these and other shows, “Shameless” wasn’t always the best when it came to racial diversity. Veronica was one of the few Black series regulars and her counterpart on the British version is White. However, Hampton, who says she signed onto the role because she was looking to “play a raw character and to have social significance,” does remind that “there were very few dark-skinned women with natural hair on TV” when “Shameless” began.
Although Hampton did think it was weird that, say, the bar her character eventually owned with her husband Kev (Steve Howey) didn’t have any regular Black customers, or that “we didn’t touch on the race part of Veronica and those struggles until the last couple of seasons,” Hampton says that she did like that these characters’ interracial marriage “was about love.”
During a pivotal moment in the show’s final season, Veronica speaks to a panel of judges for a local childrens’ beauty pageant. She talks of race and representation as well as gentrification, saying that even though she was raised in this neighborhood, “the South Side doesn’t really feel like the South Side anymore.”
“I wanted to be the voice of so many people who feel that way,” Hampton says now, reflecting upon filming that scene. “I was really trying to send that message not only to the panel, as Veronica, but also out to our viewers and fans that watch the show.”
She says that “gentrification is such a real thing … And I think that’s what ‘Shameless’ did throughout our entire run really mirrored what was happening in the world.”
At the end of the series, Veronica and her family sell their home and bar and move to Kentucky.
“There’s a world where everybody could have stayed on that street, but then everything around them was going to be changing too,” Hampton says. “I felt like the depiction of actually doing that and taking those steps is what’s happening.”
It’s also hard to ignore the sheer irony of these tales being told now as topics like wage inequality on set have become more part of the mainstream conversation. Just this fall, members of the IATSE union shared their stories on social media, picketed and nearly went on strike as they campaigned for better hours, wages and working conditions.
“I love my job and I’m so incredibly fortunate to be able to do my dream job,” “Maid’s” Qualley says. “But then you look around and you see all of the grips who are risking their lives and wearing masks [due to COVID safety protocols] … there are so many hands that go into making a movie [or TV show]. And when you’re in the midst of a pandemic and they’re still showing up to work to make it so that you can play high-stakes pretend, it’s like wow; I’d better do my damndest [with this part].”