Escape from TV-ville: A Response to Alyssa Rosenberg

Escape from TV-ville: A Response to Alyssa Rosenberg

Josh Eidelson: Escape from TV-ville

Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress has posted a thoughtful critique of my piece on the jobs that TV networks do and don?t tend to buy scripts about (?Welcome to TV-ville, Population: People Richer Than You?). She agrees that the working class is underrepresented on TV but says my piece misses three points about why. I?ll address them in turn.

First, Alyssa questions whether there?s a ?massive unfulfilled demand? or ?an enormous untapped audience for shows about working class characters.? I wouldn?t (and didn?t) claim to know if there?s an audience of that size. But as I wrote, my experience suggest that there?s enough of an audience out there that there?s no reason to let the networks off the hook.

In response, Alyssa cites viewership stats for five recent shows with working class characters and notes that none of the five drew even half the audience of Roseanne?s first season. She says Raising Hope, with 6.4 million viewers, did ?fine, but not spectacular.? Three of the other shows she mentions?Ugly Betty, Mike and Molly, and The Middle?did better than that in their first seasons, and the final show, Working Class (on CMT), was a flop. Given how successful Roseanne was, and how many TV shows are cancelled before making it through a first season, I don?t see how Alyssa?s sample undermines my argument that there?s an audience for shows more representative of our actual society?or my complaint that the TV networks aren?t giving us a lot of examples to test that hypothesis.

My piece looked to the role of advertisers, because advertising makes some audiences more valuable to networks than others. In defense of advertisers, Alyssa cites the success of ?shows about working people who are successful in their niches?: The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Tyler Perry?s sitcoms. I don?t think these examples exonerate advertisers, but I do think they reinforce my point that shows don?t have to be about doctors or diamond magnates to be successful. (It?s worth noting, as Alyssa does, that the shows she?s talking about are more working class than working poor, a distinction worth exploring elsewhere.)

Secondly, Alyssa says while she agrees with me that ?there?s no lack of high-stakes drama in the lives of poor people,? she questions ?whether it?s a kind of drama that lends itself to the kind of structures that satisfy people on television.? She points out that each episode of a procedural or season of a reality TV contest ends on the sort of satisfying and final resolution that?s uncommon in the lives of poor people. She suggests that audiences are more ready to see stories about organizing unions or fighting big business in movies, where the audience can walk away with the sense that justice has been secured once and for all. (What I find striking about union organizing movies is just how few and far between they are.)

Alyssa is right that stories that foreground poor or working class struggle would be unlikely to fit easily into a strict procedural storytelling paradigm (having more shows with such struggle in the background would be an improvement, too). But I?m not convinced that would doom them to failure. Nobody could have guaranteed the success of Lost, a show that gleefully denied its viewers any satisfying resolution for five years (some of us are still waiting for one). The protagonist?s lack of resolution or satisfaction is a major current not just of HBO?s In Treatment but also of CBS? somewhat procedural The Good Wife. And then there?s The Wire, which I think Alyssa too quickly cordons off as an exception due to David Simon?s ?rare genius.? Sure, Simon is brilliant, but I can?t believe that he?s the only person who can write TV scripts about poverty that Americans will watch. Part of what?s in play here may be what conservative TV writer Rob Long recently criticized as a process by which producers ultimately ?choose among ten or twelve versions of one basic idea.?

Finally, Alyssa argues that ?context and intent matter,? and that representation alone isn?t everything?we should also pay attention to the judgments that TV shows make about their characters. Alyssa and I are in strong agreement on this point (it?s the basis for some of our previous debates). As she points out, not all portrayals of rich people reinforce conservatism. On the other hand, where our culture is conservative about class, it?s usually in leaving it unmentioned. For every joke about the excesses of the super-rich, there are hours of TV quietly reinforcing the idea that being poor or deeply economically insecure is an aberration. And when we do see self-identified working class characters show up on TV, too often it?s as the bearers of ?cultural? conservatism, making a guest appearance to complain about gay people hitting on them or immigrants speaking Spanish in public (not that there are too many of either on network TV). Then they depart TV-ville, having indicted its supposed liberalism without confronting what really separates it from America.

We can do better.