TV's New Work Ethic Take this job: Sitcoms are turning cynical about the workplace, or merely ignoring it. Could the trend have something to do with real-world corporate downsizing?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Chandler (Matthew Perry) is standing in the kitchen of Monica's (Courteney Cox) apartment sipping his second cup of wake-up coffee with the rest of the gang from NBC's hit sitcom, "Friends," when suddenly he looks at his watch.

"Oh, wow, it's late, I've gotta get to work," the young computer programmer says, reaching for his sports coat. "If I don't get to the office and punch those numbers into the computer "

Chandler stops himself in mid-sentence for the kind of pause that signals a sitcom punch line coming.

"Actually, it won't make any difference if I don't punch the numbers into the computer, will it?" he asks rhetorically. "My job is totally meaningless. I hate it."

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Cynicism about your job and a sense that the work you do is utterly without meaning might not seem like the stuff of which hit sitcoms are made. Those are, after all, pretty deep and dark feelings for what is thought of by many as superficial and escapist entertainment.

But they are part of what some cultural analysts see as a shift in ideas about work and depictions of the workplace in prime-time television. Much of the change on-screen is a reflection of anxiety among viewers about being fired and anger at the companies doing the firing, according to the analysts who study popular culture and the television producers who make it.

While experts disagree on how television and sociology actually intersect on an issue as complicated as work, they concur that the discussion now under way about it is a serious one -- canned laugh tracks notwithstanding. Some sitcoms today speak to the very same concerns and fears as do Republican presidential candidates such as Pat Buchanan.

One of the most significant aspects of work's portrayal on television is its very absence from some of the most popular shows, says Michael Brody, a psychiatrist who explored the topic in a paper delivered at a national convention of the Popular Culture Association.

"Shows like 'Friends' and 'Seinfeld,' in which almost no one seems to have meaningful work, reflect to some degree a rebellion against what is going on in our lives -- this whole process called downsizing, of people being put out of work by corporate America," says Dr. Brody, whose work appears in the current Journal of Popular Culture.

"Up until fairly recently, work and the workplace played an important role in television shows, just as they have in our lives," Dr. Brody says. "But, then, the shows started moving away from the workplace, and it got to a point where people are not working altogether in some shows. And I think the popularity of such shows is a reflection of deeply negative feelings about the work situation by viewers today."

Ralph Kramden, bus driver

Looking at the history of the way work has been presented in sitcoms, Dr. Brody points out, for example, that the bus company job was always there for Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason), of "The Honeymooners," no matter how miserably Kramden might fail in his latest get-rich-quick scheme. The message of the 1950s sitcom: It might not be a great job, but steady employment was something you could count on.

In the late 1960s and through most of the '70s, shows like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" depicted the workplace as a gateway to full participation in American life for women and ethnic minorities.

"Work was shown as a way for 'moving (on) up,' " as the theme song from 'The Jeffersons' says," Dr. Brody explains.

These were largely positive depictions of work. Indeed, as Ella Taylor notes in "Prime-Time Families: Television Culture and Postwar America," by the early 1970s and well into the 1980s, the workplace had replaced home -- with co-workers supplanting biological family members -- as the site for many popular sitcoms.

As Ms. Taylor puts it, "If the domestic hearth of television was becoming a repository for family anxiety, other, more benign images of family and community were surfacing in a subgenre designed for affluent young urbanites in the mass audience the television workplace series."

In part because Yuppies are still a viable market for advertisers, the workplace series survives. The best example is, perhaps, CBS' "Murphy Brown."

But by the mid-1980s, the number of such shows had dropped dramatically from a decade earlier. And by the late '80s, they reflected a pervasive cynicism often connected with jobs and the corporate workplace.

For example, when "Roseanne" debuted in 1988, much of it was set in the plastics plant of a corporation where the show's lead character worked with her sister. But outside of a bit of camaraderie with co-workers, it was an awful place: low wages, sexism, meaningless labor. In fact, one ABC executive at the time admitted off the record that he found scenes set in the plant so depressing that he hoped Roseanne would find another place to work. Before long, she was on to a string of odd jobs, such as shampoo "girl" at a beauty salon.

Life in the workplace at "Cheers" became decidedly less dignified and far more stressful even for the easygoing Sam Malone (Ted Danson) in 1987 when he wound up forced to reapply for work as a bartender at the bar he once owned. Suddenly, he found himself in a world of ruthlessly ambitious middle managers (Kirstie Alley's Rebecca Howe) and distant corporate masters (Tom Skerritt's Evan Crane). It got worse in 1989 when corporate raider Robin Colcord (Roger Rees) came on the scene.

While comparisons across genres from sitcoms to melodramas are problematic, it is worth remembering that 1989 was the same year that Michael Steadman (Ken Olin) and Elliot Weston (Timothy Busfield), of "thirtysomething," found themselves suddenly working for the cruel and cunning Miles Drentell (David Clennon).

Today, even some of the most traditional workplace sitcoms are adding new elements of anti-corporate satire, and viewers seem to be responding.

For example, CBS says the addition of Garry Marshall as the capricious network president bent on making life miserable for the "F.Y.I." crew is largely responsible for "Murphy Brown" being renewed for another season.

"The response to that character has been absolutely sensational," says CBS Entertainment President Les Moonves.

"I think it is fair to say that there seems to be a new level of cynicism about the corporate workplace," says Lawrence E. Mintz, who teaches courses in humor and popular culture at the University of Maryland College Park.

"I would challenge the idea the workplace has disappeared, because clearly there are still some sitcoms set in the workplace," Dr. Mintz says. "But if the workplace is shown only in a negative way or with such total cynicism in some sitcoms, then that is a difference worth exploring."

'Good Company' premieres

Viewers will have a showcase for exploring that difference tomorrow night at 9:30 on WJZ (Channel 13) when CBS premieres "Good Company," in one of the struggling network's few good time slots -- the one between "Murphy Brown" and "Chicago Hope."

"Good Company," which stars Wendie Malick ("Dream On") and Jon Tenney ("Equal Justice"), is set in a large advertising agency. It is only a tryout series, so it could be gone after six weeks. But, in terms of the sociology of work, it is worth going out of your way to see. The two episodes I screened are as cynical and bitter about life in corporate America today as the film version of "M*A*S*H" was about the military during the Korean War. It is a new level of anti-corporate contempt in a sitcom.

In tomorrow night's pilot, Will (Tenney), the agency's art director, quits his job to fulfill his dream of attending art school at Yale and becoming a "real artist." But he soon winds up having to grovel to get hired back at the job he finds so unfulfilling.

Part of his groveling includes having to try out for his old job by designing a campaign for a hopeless product -- toilet paper with baking soda. At 2 a.m. on the dark night of Will's soul, he is given the secret to success by a colleague. It involves giving only the appearance of an honest day's work to your corporate bosses through lying and other means of deception, while you otherwise enjoy and fulfill yourself at the company's expense.

The episode airing March 11 is titled "Downsizing." In it, Will tryes to fool his cutthroat boss (Malick) into rescinding her directive that he fire one of the three members of his creative team as part of an agency-wide downsizing.

"We really are trying to deal with those real-life issues of working in the '90s," says Dan Staley. He and co-creator Rob Lon were two "Cheers" executive producers. "They are very real for a lot of people across the country. Company after company is just downsizing ruthlessly all the time. It's just a fact of life, and there's a lot of insecurity out there."

Mr. Staley acknowledged the thematic similarity between his sitcom and the central message of Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign. "Pat Buchanan seems to be really tapping a chord, and it is precisely that same chord of insecurity and fear about the future," he says.

"Good Company" is a television show with the potential to tell us something worth knowing about ourselves.

"It seems to be playing off the fears that many people in our society and culture have," says Neil Alperstein, who teaches courses in popular culture at Loyola College. "The show is feeding that fear back to them, and it will be very interesting to see how that's received by members of the audience."

Viewer response

Predicting how a show will be received is mainly a guessing game, because many aspects beyond its messages play a role. Furthermore, responses to a show will vary viewer to viewer based on the thoughts, interests and opinions of each audience member.

And, just as researchers have come to understand that the audience in not monolithic, neither is television. With more than 50 channels available in most American homes, there is not just one message or even one set of messages on any subject as large and complex as work.

Cynicism about work and intensely negative feelings about the corporate workplace are only part of television's prime-time discourse on labor. But it is a part that has been steadily growing since the late 1980s, when the effects of takeovers and $l downsizing were starting to be felt by workers throughout corporate America, including those at ABC, NBC and CBS. Furthermore, the voices of discontent heard on television are now connecting with the call of similar voices in other realms of popular culture, such as presidential politics.

"Popular culture both reflects and is an observation of what's going on in society," says Dr. Brody.

"And work is such a very important part of our existence. $H Discussions about it fill up so much of my clinical time -- especially since many of my patients are in their mid to late 20s, a time when they are deciding on career choices.

"These are tough times right now when it comes to work," says Dr. Brody. "And that's why I think these shows like 'Friends' are so popular. I really think they plug into the fact that many of these young people don't know where they're going to go in terms of work any more.

"As a result, I think some young people -- to use their jargon -- just blow it off. They decide they don't want to deal with what looks to them like a hopeless work situation and would prefer to live an existence like the characters they see on 'Friends' where work is not an issue.

"Whether that's popular culture reflecting what's happening sociologically, or whether the sociology is reflecting popular culture," Dr. Brody says, "it is not a very promising pattern."

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