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|03-08-2009, 12:57 AM||#1|
R.I.P. STEVE FORREST 1925-2013
Join Date: Jul 13, 2003
Location: Carthage, NC
Stretching a dollar with Roseanne? Or scheming with Alexis?
From '30 Rock' to 'Breaking Bad,' TV has begun to reflect the recession. This time, will shows face economic struggles head-on? Or can we expect escapism to reign?
As news trickles out of the networks about their fall TV plans, an unlikely theme is buzzing in the Hollywood air: recession.
Not very sexy, is it? Financial woe is a far cry from the diverting TV trends of the decade so far, from shows about geeky nerds and lusty cougars to a plethora of supernatural fantasies. It's as if Obama-era straight talk - explicitly discussing details of the economic crisis with the public - is setting the entertainment agenda. Step right up folks, put away your childish things, get your PoverTV.
Several network pilots sound like the socially conscious Norman Lear comedies that thrived during the 1970s downturn, like "All in the Family" and "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." ABC has "Canned," in which a group of friends are fired on the same day, as well as a sitcom starring Kelsey Grammer as a fallen Wall Streeter. Fox has "Two Dollar Beer," about a blue-collar couple struggling in Detroit, and CBS is chronicling a pair of poor slackers in "Waiting to Die."
There's no guarantee that any of these shows will make the fall schedule. Might one, though, establish itself as the TV emblem of the recession, just as "Dynasty" represented 1980s greed and glitz? Or will American TV viewers gravitate toward shows that avoid real issues, in the way we gave a Nielsen bump to "Friends" in the months after 9/11? As stocks continue to plunge and the unemployment rate rises, what will entertainment TV be for - comfort food and escape, or sympathy and acknowledgement? Will we want another whimsical "Bewitched," or an income-obsessed "Roseanne," in which the Connors struggled to crack the monthly nut?
One thing is certain: We will be watching TV - an inexpensive form of entertainment - as the recession continues. A recent Nielsen report noted that, for the fourth quarter of last year, Americans watched more than 151 hours of TV a month. That's up 3.6 percent from 145 hours a month in the fourth quarter of 2007.
Testing the waters
Actually, the show that embodies the zeitgeist may already be walking among us. All those home-improvement shows have certainly recognized that it's a new world, as HGTV's Sunday morning block now includes shows on selling in a down market. Share-the-wealth reality shows like "Secret Millionaire" have been sprinkled through the TV landscape. Now, though, a few scripted series have conspicuously added economic downturn plots this season. On a recent "30 Rock," for example, Tracy Jordan rocked the Asian financial markets during an appearance on Larry King's talk show. "I think people should freak the geek out," Jordan said to King in his inimitable way, causing international chaos. "Withdraw all your money and hide it." The episode flippantly - and effectively - captured the fragile mass psychology that's bound up in this crisis.
Financial tensions are creeping onto Wisteria Lane, too. On "Desperate Housewives," the Scavos's pizza shop is out of business, Susan has had to get a job, and Carlos's company has decided not to give bonuses this year (although a blackmailing Gaby eventually gets the money directly from his boss). Meanwhile, on "Ugly Betty," amid the financial difficulties of the hurting New York magazine world, Meade Publications has been duped out of its fortune. Even "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" is going there ever so slightly, with a recent joke about how a car trunk might be safer than a 401(k).
These shows are all testing the waters, in the same way series TV cautiously inched into terrorism themes after 9/11. They want to be somewhat relevant in the coming months, especially a satire such as "30 Rock" that prides itself on topicality. If Carlos's company had automatically given him a $30,000 bonus, viewers might have felt irritated by the show's cluelessness. TV writers don't want to disrupt the spell that a show is casting over its audience. Right now, series that are built entirely as light escape and that court irrelevance - the low-rated "Chuck," the canceled "Dirty Sexy Money," the kitschy "Knight Rider" - are not in vogue.
But then writers don't want to create out-and-out bummer TV, either. The 24-hour news scrolls can take care of that.
The corporate enemy
TV dramas that tend to demonize corporations are predisposed to voice recession anguish, even if they don't take on specific story lines involving layoffs or bailouts. Resentment of big-business-bred self-interest is in the very DNA of "Fringe," a sci-fi drama revolving around Massive Dynamic, a nefarious company involved in human experimentation. "Dollhouse," too, gives us an evil company that programs the minds of its doll-like workers. These are by-the-book paranoia dramas, and they offer grim victimized-employee fantasies in the way that "The Twilight Zone" offered fear-of-annihilation fantasies during the Cold War.
The most rabid of these anti-corporate shows may be TNT's "Leverage," even while it has a wry, comedic surface. Timothy Hutton's alcoholic con artist has formed a Robin Hood-like gang of expert crooks to help ordinary people in need. He's motivated - and psychologically broken - by his hatred for his former employer, an insurance company that refused to pay for an experimental therapy that might have saved his late son. He is channeling his rage against the system into good - but very illegal - works.
My vote for the series that cuts closest to the bone right now is AMC's "Breaking Bad," which returns for season 2 tonight at 10. This brutal drama is acutely relevant to a moment of domestic crisis without a single reference to the recession - it's a timely dark fable. Bryan Cranston plays a man in New Mexico who is so beaten down by money troubles and lung cancer, and so desperate to provide for his family after he dies, that he is secretly cooking and selling crystal meth
Rather than fight for financial security within a system that has already failed him, Walter White has taken to the street in a last-ditch effort for a rescue package.
While movies have been called our collective dreams, TV is our cultural stream of consciousness. It reflects what's on our minds at any given moment, like a minute-by-minute ticker tape of the national mood. And as that mood becomes increasingly stressed, eruptions of graphic violence can be perfect expressions of angst. TV shows can signify generalized feelings - not specific disgust about unemployment, for example, so much as just plain disgust.
On a recent "House," in one of the show's most memorably repulsive moments, a doctor accidentally broke off a patient's toe, which had mysteriously turned black. The toe scene was largely gratuitous - the rest of the story, and the diagnosis of the week, barely related back to it. But it gave viewers an opportunity to feel the catharsis of getting completely grossed out - what a good horror movie offers its audience. Likewise, "CSI" viewers were recently treated to the sight of a liquefying cadaver dripping down from a ceiling onto the face of one of the investigators.
With its digitally sophisticated visuals, "Fringe," too, offers up some of the most grotesque moments on TV every week. Since the show's premiere last fall, a huge, viscous slug slithered out of a guy's mouth and a man on a plane was spontaneously transformed into a sort-of giant porcupine. In a sequence that could serve as a handy metaphor for the recession, a crook was shown walking through a wall into a bank vault and then getting stuck in that same wall on the way out.
Certainly, this kind of gore has been in our faces for a decade now - to vie with video games for attention, to compete with the freedoms of cable TV, to capture a sense of the massive scientific and technological leaps of the last few decades. But it nonetheless offers release to a culture increasingly cornered by hard times. Horrifying imagery on TV enables us to lose ourselves in entertainment and groan loudly at the very same time.
Looking for the pulse
Despite concerted efforts to tap into the national mood, by creating plots with jobless characters, Hollywood may produce the great recession-era show entirely by accident.
If series that deal with the human side of the downturn fail, TV programmers will likely start producing money-themed fantasies aimed at helping us to forget. Maybe we'll want to lust after frivolous rich folks more than we already do. Or maybe the horror stylings of "Fringe" - already a moderate success for Fox - will grow into a full-fledged cultural sensation.
In any case, the networks and cable channels will keep throwing shows at the wall, and one or two of them will inevitably stick. They want to stimulate our imaginations, while the government tries to stimulate the economy.
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