Not so long ago, TV series were all about “Big Shots,” sporting pockets bulging with “Dirty Sexy Money,” and pampered women living in a “Lipstick Jungle,” who were platinum members of the “Cashmere Mafia.”
But those cards have been cancelled.
These days, once thriving CEO “Hank” has been downsized, a financially squeezed but “Hung” teacher uses his asset to make a buck and the car dealer momma in “The Middle” better sell an auto before she loses her job.
The recession has finally hit television and this fall practically every new series, and quite a few returning shows, have some sort of angle addressing the lousy economy.
Over at “Melrose Place,” medical school intern Lauren discovers dad has lost his job and she needs to come up with a way to pay for her tuition. A wealthy businessman visiting his mom in the hospital asks her out to dinner. Over a romantic meal, he offers a solution to her financial needs: a quick romp in the sack and he’ll pay off that debt. She’s appalled, then intrigued. And in the pilot for “Eastwick,” Rebecca Romijn’s financially strapped character seriously ponders the idea of sex as barter.
Of course, the plots have more to do with the salacious nature of these steamy shows than a concern for the economy, but it does reflect a recession reality. In a recent Salon story, the writer reported women who once toiled in well-paid middle management positions before getting laid off are now listing sex services on Internet sites like Craigslist because they can’t land a legitimate job with equal pay.
Dmitry Lipkin, co-creator of the HBO comedy “Hung,” said he was interested in exploring the life of a guy who had it all, but now discovers he’s being shoved out of the middle class. And what lengths he will go to plump up his declining income from pay cuts and bad mortgage contracts. Star Thomas Jane said at first he was put off by the concept of a high school coach who pimps himself out for money.
“Honest to God, when I first looked at the cover of the script I thought, ‘HUNG? Really? HUNG?’ Come on, ‘’ Jane said. “Then I read it, and it was at a time when the economy was going down the toilet and the script dealt with that. People can’t make ends meet and this is what they end up doing.”
Money troubles on ‘Glee,’ ‘The Middle’
Four new fall shows also play the recession for laughs. “Glee” features another financially struggling teacher told that he has to help pay for the show choir program because of budget cuts, but he earns his extra money by taking a second job as the school’s night janitor.
“Hank” centers on a financial whiz whose career takes a dump when the market goes south. He downsizes his life, determined to claw his way back up the success ladder. In “Brothers,” a former football player comes home after losing all his money and discovers his brother’s restaurant is teetering in an economy where fewer people go out to eat.
“The Middle” shows a struggling middle class family from the Midwest, with mom juggling a hectic family life with a low-paying job.
Frankie (Patricia Heaton) sells cars at “the last surviving car dealership” in her small Indiana town. In the first episode of “The Middle,” she opens her paycheck to discover the amount is less than what she spent on gas to get to work. When she complains, the boss tells her she’d better sell a car or “you’ll be out on your keister.” But, she explains, her keister has had some real cash-flow trouble But she has been close to selling a car, she tells him. So he points up to a mounted deer head on his wall.
“See that buck? He came real close to not getting hit by a bullet.”
As Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert can tell you, we could all use a little comic relief about now. But most makers of this season’s TV shows are wallowing in the drama of it all.
When developing a remake of the 1980s miniseries “V,” about a marauding alien race first appearing friendly, the producers took a turn that wouldn’t have been considered back in the day of “Dynasty” and “Dallas.” In the 1980s, when the economy was booming, it was all about big hair and bigger bank accounts.
“The economy is in the toilet. There are people losing their homes. Wouldn’t it be awesome if 29 (space) ships showed up and they all said, ‘We’ve got this. We’ll take care of you. Don’t worry about it.’ Wouldn’t that be great? ‘’ asked “V” producer Scott Peters, who used the ailing economy as the springboard for the aliens to dominate Earth. “(There’s) a line in the pilot that says, ‘The world is in bad shape … who wouldn’t welcome a savior?’ “
Or at least an escapist TV series that acknowledges the recession while still entertaining us.
In the midseason Fox series “Human Target,” the pilot opens with a guy holding his old boss hostage, ready to blow the entire office and his former co-workers into the next galaxy. He says he was let go without even a decent severance package.
It’s a pain many TV writers are feeling after the 2007-2008 writers’ strike left many without their generous development deals. And with the current network business model crumbling in the wake of severe economic downturns, studios have begun slashing once plush writing staffs.
One writer who works primarily in the area of teen programs commonly airing on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, said during an interview for a spot on the writing staff for a new series she was told they were looking for someone with a series like “Entourage” on their resumes.
That’s how it is these days. Writers who once worked in the upper echelons of primetime broadcast and cable TV now compete with those struggling to make a living in the kids' programming trenches.
Even name actors, who once were spared much of the economic upheaval, have job security issues. When asked how he felt about the reported antics of a spoiled TV star, Christian Slater of the new ABC series “The Forgotten” quickly replied now is not the time to be pulling such stunts.
“I’m just happy to have a job,” Slater said. “Everyone should be grateful they can do work like this. It’s not like we’re being asked to dig ditches.”
It’s enough to make Carrie Bradshaw fall right off her Christian Louboutin stilettos.
Susan C. Young is a writer in Northern California.