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?

March 03, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

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."


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.

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