Since time immemorial, a large percentage of TV shows have been set at work, but at no job site that resembles reality. A show like “Perry Mason” convinced a generation of young viewers that being a successful lawyer was simply a matter of getting the actual murderer to crack under cross-examination, while “Dragnet” implied that cops could solve any crime in a day or two.
Not that much has changed in 65 years. Most workplace shows continue to use the setting solely as the jumping-off point for comedy or melodrama, and the jobs themselves are essentially an excuse to get a group of disparate adults to interact on a regular basis. Three of my favorite shows — “Veep,” the regrettably now-canceled “The Grinder,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” — are workplace comedies set, respectively, in The White House, a law office and a police station, and they could not be further from the reality of those places. But that’s OK, because in their absurdity they still manage to make amusing points about human nature.
At the same time I’ve been noticing an increase in the number of series that accurately portray real-world work. I’m thinking particularly about “Better Call Saul,” which is set in the New Mexico legal world. The show is practically a tutorial in how and how not to be a lawyer, with detailed explanations of civil procedures, legal ethics, new business acquisition, and client service.
What’s most remarkable about “Better Call Saul” is that the protagonist Jimmy McGill pulls a lot of stunts that in most dramas would be laughed off as comic relief and never referred to again, but which, in this show, produce actual repercussions. In the funniest scene of the season, Jimmy convinces the cops that his client is guilty only of a (fabricated) sexual fetish involving fruit pies — and he produces a staged video to prove it. In any other series, this would have been the end of it. But on “Saul” Jimmy’s straight-laced girlfriend yells at him for the potentially career-ending practice of fabricating evidence, which is something that real lawyers would actually think about.
Even the world of comedy occasionally delivers an accurate depiction of work. “Silicon Valley” does a great job of illustrating what it’s like to launch a 21st century start-up. I have no idea whether the technology being fought over on the show (which involves an algorithm to compress data for faster transfer) makes sense, but the way in which start-ups are funded, promoted, operated, subjected to legal challenges and victimized by vicious internecine battles seems on-target.
It isn’t just prestige premium channels that deliver realistic depictions of work. Even “Modern Family,” which is usually an upper-middle-class fantasy, has found comedy gold in a running gag about how Jay and his daughter Claire take the management of their family closet business oh-so-seriously. Their belief that good closet design is the fulcrum around which a happy family functions seem far-fetched to most, but not to anyone who’s actually owned a small business and acted like the world revolves around their own little business niche.
This mini-trend towards realism at work began with “The Office,” the successful sitcom about the travails of toiling in the regional sales office of a mediocre paper company. Much of the outlandish behavior of Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott was exaggerated for comedic effect — but underneath his antics was a real sense of what it was like to sell paper and navigate corporate office politics.
“The Office” proved that the most mundane details of office life could be funny, but what really enables realistic TV depictions of the workplace is the trend to season-long story arcs. Unlike the old days, writers are not forced to deploy far-fetched shortcuts to wrap up individual stories in an hour. This allows a plot to unspool the way it would happen in real life. And season-long stories that play out over 10 or 13 episode leaves plenty of time to sprinkle in real workplace details for verisimilitude.
Another factor in the rise of honest depictions of the workplace is the emergence of the attentive viewer. For decades, television was aimed at couch potatoes and viewers who just wanted to “relax” after a hard day on the job. In a world with only a handful of networks, no one wanted to rock the boat with programming that would make viewers think too hard.
But the fragmentation of the television audience created an opening for challenging programming. It turns out there’s an audience segment that doesn’t want to be spoon-fed its video entertainment. Shows that provide a taste of the drudgery and unique characteristics of a particular workplace require more attention and patience than traditional shows. They are not for everyone, but an attentive viewer is likely to appreciate them.
It’s unlikely that scripted television is about to be overrun with “how-to” series (although it’s interesting that some of reality television’s most popular shows are in-the-weeds depictions of how to fix up a house, run a restaurant or captain a fishing boat). Still, “Saul” and “Silicon Valley” demonstrate that you don’t need to dumb down work to make a successful show. As anyone who’s ever had a job (that’s most of us) knows, truth is sometimes stranger, and more interesting, than fiction.