Recession-era TV notes how families get by Network series tackle economics, emotions o the working class

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

Los Angeles -- TWO MAJOR ASPECTS of American life are rarely depicted on prime-time television programs -- watching television and worrying about money.

A recent three-week press tour here, sponsored by the networks to promote their fall schedules, has revealed no breakthroughs on the watching television front. But there is considerable evidence that the changing economy has caused programmers to sit up and take notice about the issue of money.

For the most part, prime-time television families have been almost like members of the British class system -- economically, they simply were what they were, stuck in their financial slot with no particular hope or desire for advancement. They weren't moving up, but they weren't moving down, either.

It wasn't really important what Beaver Cleaver's dad did to keep his family the picture of solid middle-class life. The same for Ozzie Nelson. The fathers just went to the office and the house got paid for and groceries appeared on the table.

That the Bunkers of "All in the Family" were working class and destined to stay that way was never a matter of discussion. The same for the upper-class status of the Huxtables of "The Cosby Show." Basically, in all these families, except for the occasional episode that uses economic problems as a plot device, money is just not an issue.

Indeed, in recent years when money has been a part of prime time, it has simply been celebrated in passing, in the greed of "Dallas" and the opulence of "Dynasty," for example.

The situation might be a bit different in the fall, however.

Consider the new ABC sitcom "Sibs," which focuses on a relationship between two sisters. It was created by Heide Perlman. James Brooks, whose credits range from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to "The Simpsons," is one of the executive producers.

"I think more than anything else I've ever been around, this show sees money as a factor in people's lives," Brooks said. "Amounts of money, who has it, who doesn't, what your prospects are of getting it."

Perlman said that this aspect of the show was inspired, in part, by her relationship with her sister Rhea, who plays Carla Tortelli on "Cheers."

"It has to do with when I was struggling and very poor and she was lending me money or giving me money and the dynamic of my resentment of that and how she used that as a power over me," Perlman said.

In addition, there are two new blue collar sitcoms, Fox's "Roc," which is set in Baltimore and stars Charles Dutton, and CBS' "Royal Family" with Redd Foxx.

There have been plenty of blue collar shows before, particularly in the wake of "All in the Family." Indeed, Foxx starred in one of them, "Sanford and Son." "Roseanne" is probably the best of the current bunch. "Married ... With Children" is also in that genre and does crudely poke fun at the father's inability to make ends meet. But both "Roc" and "Royal Family" are set up so that the earning, spending and saving of money should be essential issues in their stories, not just a setup for a cheap joke.

In "Roc," the title character is a hard-working trash collector married to a nurse. They are saving for their dream house. Their thrifty ways are challenged by the hustling attitude of Roc's brother.

"Royal Family" depicts an all-too-real aspect of the current economy -- a grown daughter and her children move back in with her just-retired parents. It appears that much of Foxx's crusty humor will come in complaints about the amount of money this is costing him.

Money is at the center of a new NBC show, "The Torkelsons," which centers around a big, lovable Oklahoma family that constantly and imaginatively struggles to get by. In the pilot, the mother figures out a way to replace the just-repossessed washer and dryer, then takes in a boarder to help make ends meet.

It is not surprising to see the networks sit up and take notice of the shaky economy; after all, they've been affected by it as much or more as any part of society.

The changing competitive situation with the emergence of cable combined with a depressed advertising market have sent tremors through network television. Layoffs abound.

In Hollywood, people are thinking that they have to be content with merely huge amounts of money instead of obscene amounts.

Veteran writers of TV shows who a few years ago would have posh development deals at studios -- meaning they get to sit around and think up new programs -- instead are scrambling for jobs as staff writers on existing shows.

And with high costs and restrictive union contracts, work is going elsewhere -- to Florida, Georgia, Canada. And the production of cheaper "reality" shows also reduces the number of people employed by the networks.

Though there is a bit of the type of escapist entertainment that characterized movies during the Depression years of the '30s -- CBS' "P.S. I Luv U" is silly stuff, and its "Sisters" is a money-oriented fantasy about three young women who get the free use of a New York penthouse apartment -- that is not the primary programming response.

That might be because this recession is selective, while the Depression was so general that the entire country needed its spirits lifted. Economic hardship was a daily reality that didn't need emphasis in entertainment. But the apparent precariousness of the current situation is more subtle and thus ,, an understanding of it may be enhanced through entertainment.

Indeed, if any spate of programming can be seen as helping us turn our back on the present situation, it would be three nostalgia programs -- CBS' "Brooklyn Bridge" about family life in New York in 1956, ABC's "Homefront" about the years immediately following World War II, and NBC's "I'll Fly Away," set in a small southern town in 1959 at the nascence of the civil rights era. But, if these shows are done right -- and all three have that potential -- they will use their setting to let the audience look at contemporary problems without facing them head-on. The economy is only one of the realistic issues addressed in the shows coming this fall. For example, Joshua Brand, the co-executive producer of "I'll Fly Away," said his show might help the country face up to its racial problems.

"Race is obviously a very, very touchy subject for most people," Brand said. "By painting a picture of a very idyllic town in a very idyllic time and an idyllic place, hopefully you invite an audience in so they don't think they're going to get hit over the head.

"You're trying to invite people into a situation that is appealing to them," he said. "And once they are into that situation and involved in the characters' lives, then you can deal with more troublesome matters. I think setting it in the present day would have been a little too close to the bone."

The irony, of course, is that if the makers of the programs that take note of the precarious economy have read the situation correctly and their shows become hits, then they will make so much money they won't have to worry about these matters ever again.

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