Take this job and ... put it on TV, where more shows are presenting the workplace as hateful and work as meaningless.

March 15, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The new ABC midseason sitcom, "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place," opened last week with one of the main characters, a woman in her 20s, complaining to two male friends about how much she hates her job.

"I have to put on heels, which I hate, and go out in the real world and sell chemicals, which I hate, while you two knuckleheads get to play golf, which I also hate."

"Yeah, but you make like a bazillion dollars," one of the guys says.

"Selling my soul! Look, if I close this deal today, I make commission on 500 gallons of toxic cleaner I'm selling to some oil rig. So, I can enjoy a weekend at the cape while killing off all sea life between here and Guam. Ooohhhh, I hate myself!"

Cynicism about jobs may seem like pretty dark stuff for sitcoms. But it's part of a major shift in prime time in the '90s. Reacting to the vast changes in corporate America, TV is changing its ideas about work and the workplace.

From television's earliest days up to the late 1980s, the workplace was generally treated positively. By the 1970s, in fact, it was where such characters as Mary Richards and Barney Miller found their most meaningful relationships.

But these days, most sitcoms either ignore the workplace altogether or trash it. And wait until next year, when an animated version of "Dilbert" arrives in prime time, courtesy of cartoonist Scott Adams and producer Larry Charles, the co-creator of "Seinfeld."

Most obvious among the new sitcoms this season exploring the topic is NBC's "Working," with Fred Savage, formerly of "The Wonder Years," as a junior executive coming of age in corporate America at a firm called UPTON-WEBBER.

" 'Working' seeks to capture what it's like working for a monolithic, faceless corporation," says executive producer Bill Davidoff.

Adds Bill Rosenthal, Davidoff's partner, " 'Working' is intent on skewering corporate culture and its ability to deprive well-intentioned, highly talented individuals of the last shred of their dignity."

"Working" has been struggling to capture the sensibility of "Dilbert" -- the Scott Adams comic strip about the absurdity of life lived in a corporate cubicle.

Dilbert-mania has spread throughout popular culture, from best-selling books to TV ads for office supplies. But turning a cartoon strip into a sitcom with actors is no easy job. Adams gave up this year on making a live-action sitcom for Fox and instead signed a deal with Charles to bring an animated version of "Dilbert" to prime time on UPN in 1998-1999.

Adams said the series will try to deliver the sense of "absurdity and deeper stuff" about the workplace that his comic strip does. As for its connection to viewers' real lives, he says, "Obviously, the corporate layoffs and that stuff helped me in terms of my success. I mean, I felt guilty that I was profiting over the bones of downsized people, but all of that is part of the popularity of 'Dilbert.' "

"I'm very attracted to subcultures," says Charles, who has his pick of projects in Hollywood, "and I thought the corporate culture was a particularly interesting and unique subculture and was really well-depicted in the Dilbert strip. It has its own rituals, behaviors, languages, codes -- there's a certain degree of anthropology involved. And I just thought it would be great to bring that to television."

As to whether he thinks there's a TV audience for "Dilbert," Charles adds, "Employees have finally realized that they can't trust their employers to take care of them, and they have a whole set of feelings about that. They feel that, at the most inopportune moments, they're likely to be laid off or something bad's going to happen -- the company's going to go out of business or merge or whatever -- and I think Dilbert speaks so well to those sorts of feelings."

Reflection of real anxiety

The change on-screen reflects real-world anxiety among workers about being fired and anger at the companies doing the firing, according to cultural analysts and television producers.

One significant aspect is the very absence of work from some of the most popular shows, says Dr. Michael Brody, a Washington psychiatrist who wrote about the topic for the Journal of Popular Culture.

"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 of downsizing, of people being put out of work by corporate America," Brody says.

"Up until fairly recently, work and the workplace played an important role in television shows, just as they have in our lives," he 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."

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