TV’s Distorted View of the Working World

The office photo

Those of us who loved “Mad Men” hated to see it end for many reasons but I was especially sorry to see it go because it was one of the few TV series that actually showed what it’s like to go to work and do a job.

The majority of scripted television shows focus on one of two big topics: 1) the family or 2) the workplace. In other words, there are already a lot of TV programs ostensibly about people working.  Yet considering how many of them there, it’s hard to find one that truly represents the way we spend one-third of our lives.

I can’t speak to what it was like to work in a 1960’s ad agency, but I did work in a PR agency for twenty years and there were times on “Mad Men” when I thought I was watching my life flash before my eyes.  Not the drinking, smoking and blatant sexism, of course, but the office politics, chasing after new business, complaining about the clients, and general fear that we might be wasting our God-given talents on something not quite worthy of us. All that seemed familiar.

TV shows are not documentaries and series about the workplace shouldn’t be expected to get every detail right, but it’s still surprising how infrequently we get shows like “Mad Men” or that other classic depiction of office life, “The Office,” which strike a such a powerful chord of recognition.

One reason it’s hard to relate to the workplace on TV is that many job-related shows are not really about working at all; instead, the workplace is frequently just an excuse to throw people together in a non-family environment.  If you only watched television, you might be inclined to think that only single people work.  Which leads to one of my pet theories: on any TV show about an office with six or more unmarried characters, at least four of them will have romantic relationships with each other eventually.

And even on series that eschew romantic story lines and really are about the work, there are a small number of professions that are disproportionately represented, especially law enforcement, medicine and the legal field.  If you’re a cop, doctor or lawyer, you get to see yourself on TV all the time.  But the five most common jobs in America are: 1) retail salespersons, 2) cashiers, 3) office clerks, 4) food preparation and serving workers, and 5) registered nurses. Except for the occasional show about nurses, these jobs are rarely seen on TV.  (By the way, cops are 43rd on the list of most common jobs, lawyers are 48th and physicians are 96th.)

It’s pretty clear why there are so many shows about cops, doctors, and lawyers: these are frequently life and death professions with a steady diet of new cases and stories.  There’s always a new patient to heal, a new crime to solve, or a new client to defend.  But I have to think that the disproportionate focus on these three professions is a bit lazy.  Exhibit number 1 is “Aquarius,” NBC’s new show about the 1960s, which is told through the eyes of a police detective.  Really?  Another detective?

Certainly there are other jobs that have dramatic potential. Journalism, for example, seems a lot more interesting to me than the law, yet the number of hit shows based on news rooms can be counted on one hand (“Lou Grant,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The News Room” and “News Radio.”)  Also, why haven’t there been any shows about Wall Street and the financial sector?  Ever since the 2008 financial collapse, Wall Street bankers have been political villains but I can’t remember a TV series that ever focused on them.

Then there’s the clergy, who also literally deal with life and death. There are occasionally series about angels but very few shows, if any, about what it’s actually like to be a parish priest or minister.  Or teachers.  What about them?  There have been shows about high school students but hardly any about educators themselves.

TV could also take a look at the country’s most important economic sectors.  For example, given its enormous importance in the economy, it’s surprising that it’s taken this long to get two series about the technology sector (AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” and HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”)  “Silicon Valley” in particular demonstrates that you can create a successful TV series that takes the nitty-gritty of the job seriously. This is a show that never talks down to the audience, always manages to make an intelligent point about the tech industry, and is still vastly entertaining.

In fact, it’s striking that the settings for “The Office” and “Silicon Valley” – the two comedies that most accurately depict the 2st Century workplace – could not be any more different.  One’s set in a sleepy district sales office and the other’s in a dynamic technology start-up. What these series prove, though, is that it isn’t the job itself that’s important for a successful TV show, but the writing, creativity and insight.  After all, no matter where you work, bosses are bosses, co-workers are annoying and customers and clients are too demanding.  There’s no end of comedy or drama in that.

1 comment
  1. Then there are the souls working from home…. wonder what that show would look like.

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