Now starring in TV's prime time: the recession

From the sitcom 2 Broke Girls to recession-friendly fashion on TV hosts, television is trying to reflect the hard economic times of its audiences.
Giuliana Rancic’s on-screen wardrobe is now recession-friendly, and she is launching a clothing line featuring items that cost US$50.
Giuliana Rancic’s on-screen wardrobe is now recession-friendly, and she is launching a clothing line featuring items that cost US$50.

The American sitcom 2 Broke Girls was just a pilot script when it became the subject of a network bidding war last year and when it premiered in the US last month, the entertainment magazines had declared it one of the top new shows to watch.

Why bank on a show called 2 Broke Girls? As Bill Clinton well knew: it's the economy, stupid.

In the first episode, a 20-something Paris Hilton type struts into a sleazy Brooklyn diner, pulling on a mustard-stained apron for her first day of work. The laugh track plays as she complains about wearing it on top of a Chanel ensemble.

"We lost all of our money," she explains to the other waitress. "I really need this job."

There are 14 million people out of work in the US - nine per cent of the population. Job-seekers come from all walks of life: recent graduates, middle-age victims of layoffs, retirees who have lost their pensions. But Hollywood sees something they have in common: market potential. Since the 2008 crash, a dozen new recession-inspired shows have debuted every year, seeking to capitalise on the failures of capitalism.

The trend isn't entirely surprising. It's chic to be cheap in today's America. Even over on E! News, a show dedicated to celebrities and excess that airs in the UAE through OSN, the host Giuliana Rancic is making a point of each day dressing in outfits that cost under US$100 (Dh367). This January, Rancic, who with her husband also stars on a reality show that airs in the UAE - Giuliana & Bill - is launching a clothing line where everything will cost just $50.

But does that mean people who've just spent the day pounding the pavement, résumé in hand, want to watch others doing the same thing on their television screens? Spike TV certainly believes so - it's put the recession front and centre with Flip Men, a new reality show about an entrepreneurial duo trying to turn a profit by fixing up foreclosed homes. It's also just renewed Repo Games, which asks car owners to correctly answer trivia questions in order to avoid having their cars repossessed.

Still, pop-culture critics aren't so sure Hollywood has put its finger on America's pulse.

"The big hits on TV at any given time are generally not directly addressing whatever the biggest news is," says Robert Thompson, a pop-culture professor at Syracuse University in New York. "The big comedy on TV for the last several years has been Two and Half Men. It was the top-rated comedy before the 2008 crash. It remained the top-rated comedy after the 2008 crash."

Thompson says this is because people's tastes in entertainment don't change overnight.

"The fact is, if you find shows about rich housewives really, really funny when you've got a good job, the day you get your pink-slip is not going to mean you suddenly don't find them funny anymore."

But Mina Tsay, a communications professor at Boston University, is more optimistic about the future of the recession-based shows. They seem to meet two emotional demands: misery loving company and Americans loving a shot at financial success.

In the CW network's new show Hart of Dixie, a talented young medical doctor can't find work in Manhattan and moves to Alabama - where she inherits a medical practice. At the end of each episode of 2 Broke Girls, a tally appears to show how much money the waitresses have saved up for their dream of opening a cupcake shop.

"I do think that it gives people hope," Tsay says. "I think that experience could really be a beneficial one if the way that the narrative plays out is that they are successful at the end."

What's the secret to a successful TV programme? That's the million-dollar question.

Thompson maintains a more sustainable model is a show like Roseanne, which ran for nine seasons. It depicted a working-class family in Illinois who went through tough times, better ones, and then tough days again. The plot wasn't tied to a single event.

He contrasts this to the 2009 sitcom Hank in which Kelsey Grammer played a New York City chief executive who lost all his money and had to move back to his hometown and spend time with his family. It lasted five episodes. It was a "one-joke pony", Thompson says.

Grammer wouldn't quibble with that. The show's star was the one who phoned the president of Warner Bros and suggested they "put the bullet in this thing". He later told reporters: "It wasn't very funny."

"The entertainment industry is always looking for something they think an audience will respond to," Thompson says. "I think that rule is sometimes applied in a knee-jerk fashion. The economy is bad, let's do a sitcom about a guy who lost all his money. When in fact... it's got to be done with a lot more complexity."

Published: October 11, 2011 04:00 AM


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