Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On TV, the 99 percent become the one percent

Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs shop at Goodwill on CBS's 2 Broke Girls. Photo courtesy of zap2it.com.

Much of the discussion about TV this fall has focused on the resurgence of the comedy and the corresponding decline in serialized dramas and, especially, reality shows. This conversation often overlaps with discussions of the current economic downturn and, more recently, the economically-driven anger that has erupted into the Occupy Wall Street movement. Most analyses - including this one from the New York Times - draw a link between economic troubles and the resurgence of comedy by citing the tendency to escapism. This explanation is almost always accompanied by a reference to the flourishing of screwball comedies and musicals during the Great Depression, because, at least according to people who write about popular culture, when times are hard viewers want nothing more than to forget their troubles by watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance.

This may be true, but the escapism explanation becomes problematic when you look at last week's ratings. Four of the six leading shows last week were half-hour comedies; Modern Family led the night, immediately followed by Two and a Half Men, both of which beat out the World Series on FOX and NBC's Sunday Night Football. It's the sixth-ranked show, however, that throws a wrench into the escapism theory, as CBS's 2 Broke Girls slid into the top ten, just below The Big Bang Theory.

It's not that 2 Broke Girls isn't funny (although sometimes it isn't; seriously writers, the endless vagina jokes are not edgy). Instead, the reason that Girls' impressive ratings can't really be ascribed to escapism is that this show is, in fact, about two young women existing right around the poverty line. I mentioned in my review of the show that this perspective was refreshing, particularly given a TV landscape that, since Roseanne went off the air, has contained almost no characters for whom money is a real, pressing issue. (It's even more surprising given that one of the co-creators is Darren Star, the man who launched a craze for $600 shoes with Sex and the City). Unlike the many unrealistic portrayals of twenty-somethings who live in enormous apartments, wear designer clothes and eat out every night, Denning's Max is living paycheck-to-paycheck, crippled by debt from unpaid student loans and working two jobs in order to make ends meet.

This case is made in an excellent piece on ThinkProgress.org. Not only does 2 Broke Girls present a realistic portrayal of the lifestyle that most people live, it also points at the reasons underlying Max's poverty. In "And the 90s Horse Party," we learn that Max has been digging herself deeper into debt by only paying off a minimum amount every month and letting the interest pile up. This particular problem is one that contributed to the current economic situation, as people took out loans they couldn't afford and never managed to earn enough money to pay them back. More importantly, however, the show indicates a solution for Max. Smart Caroline (who is a pretty interesting character, as opposed to Stupid, Shallow Caroline) who, let's not forget, has a business degree, teaches Max that she needs to "figure out the interest rates on her credit cards and start paying down her student loan debt because she can't discharge it in bankruptcy." This is a really, really useful lesson, and one that many people haven't managed to learn.

In a TV landscape where financial troubles are alluded to, but almost never explicitly shown (when was the last time we heard about Annie's money problems on Community, much less were actually shown them?), a show like 2 Broke Girls is pretty damned groundbreaking. Not only does the series deal with two characters struggling to make ends meet, it provides a backstory for that poverty that is highly relevant. Most people don't end up poor because of one piece of bad luck, which is what happened in Glee's recession storyline last season; instead, they ended up there because of a system that encourages people to borrow beyond their means, and then penalizes them for their inability to pay back their loans. If this is escapism, it isn't doing a very good job. However, I suspect that people aren't watching 2 Broke Girls for the escapism; they're probably watching because the situation part of the sitcom is identifiable. Now, if only the comedy part would get funnier.

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