Working for the Man This season, television rediscovers the proletariat.
Domination has its own aesthetics, and democratic domination has its democratic aesthetics.
Well I'd say they've won. The man, the bosses, the guys upstairs. They want us to fight with each other so we won't go after them. They want us to be confused and distracted.
--Brett Butler as Grace,
in Grace Under Fire
Television loves the working man. Also the working woman. So when America falls on hard times, the American Broadcasting Corporation gives us what Entertainment Weekly calls "Working Class Wednesdays," two hours of prime-time hard times, with a spoonful of sitcom sugar to make the bitterness go down. At 7:00 p.m. there's Ellen and her book-selling buddies (estimated hourly remuneration $6.50, no benefits). At 7:30, we've got a trio of low-rent New England waitrons on Townies (minimum wage plus tax-free tips). Grace Under Fire is actually Grace-in-an-affirmative-action-job-at-the-oil-refinery (approx. $25K, with benefits stripped away on the October 23 episode). Finally, at 8:30 p.m., potato-head Drew Carey mans the tenuous trenches of Cleveland middle-management (call it $28K with no job security). These shows typify the nightly miracle of the medium: That is, they repackage feelings of anxiety, resentment and impotence into a consumer-friendly form. In metaphorical terms, television not only dissembles the wolf under soft woolly skin, but convinces that wolf to join the sheep on the way to the market.
Nowhere is this class-consciousness costume masquerade more apparent than on the new Bill Cosby show, shockingly titled Cosby. Four years of Clintonian compassion may have dimmed our memories of Cosby's original black bourgeois fantasia. Back then, Cliff Huxtable (rhymes with huggable) was a well-off obstetrician; his wife, Phylicia Rashad, a lawyer. In contrast, Cosby's new character, Hilton Lucas, is a downsized airline employee and probable Perot voter. That famed, multi-hued brood of cuddle-ready kids has been replaced by a weeping white neighbor carrying $15,000 of credit card debt. And the Huxtables' uptown row house with its stately staircase has gone South in more than one sense. The Lucas home (mind you, it is still a home) opens onto a commercial street in Queens. Of course, Cosby remains Cosby in all his curmudgeonly irascibility. Lucas, like Huxtable, mugs and clowns with squeaky-clean valor in atonement for the perceived minstrelsy of Martin and the rest of the faded Fox line-up. On Cosby, then and now, the center holds; when the unemployment checks stop coming, there'll still be Jello-brand pudding pops.
The show that replaced The Cosby Show atop the Nielsen ratings, Roseanne, came on like a hangover after a decade-long intoxication of hollow optimism. Roseanne's wild odyssey since then, as an actor and an institution, is now the stuff of scholarly dissertations and tabloid hysteria. A pivotal enterprise in the Roseanne biography might be the story of the Iowa sandwich shop she opened with then-husband Tom Arnold (a former Minnesota meat-packer). Imagine Planet Hollywood with only two attending stars and more cold cuts and mayo on the menu. The restaurant was to be easily accessible from the couple's planned estate; was it a vanity theme park, or a secure source for midnight munchies? This ambiguity was at the heart of Roseanne's acting credibility. Later, when she began shedding those cold cuts at scalpel-point in the plastic surgeon's chair, one knew her show could never be the same.
This season, the Conner family has won the lottery--a contrivance Roseanne first proposed about five years ago. So far, this has inspired a lot of dopey fantasy sequences and fatuous guest appearances. The Halloween show, for instance, featured the undynamic duo of New Yorker editor Tina Brown (who recruited Roseanne as an adviser for the magazine's abominable "Women's Issue") and monomaniacal politico Arianna Huffington. The laugh track shamelessly feigned public recognition of these non-celebrities. What Roseanne seems to be grappling with is the problematic status of the conspicuous "common man" celebrity. Think of the Bruce Springsteen of the mid-1980s, who diligently wore his "work" uniform both onstage and off, while serving as CEO of a multi-million dollar company: Bruce Springsteen Incorporated. The Boss (a nickname Springsteen apparently loathed) proceeded to pump up, Piscopo-style. Roseanne's reduced. Perhaps portraying herself as a lottery winner--a beleaguered victim of unforeseeable good fortune--is the most honest act of self-knowledge she can presently conjure.
Meanwhile, over on Wednesday nights, many of Roseanne's progeny romp though their own colorful proletarian escapades. After reaching back-of-the-the-milk-carton-level obscurity during a four-year exile in France, Molly Ringwald makes her small-screen debut in Townies. There, along with two twenty-nothing peers, Denise and Shannon, Ringwald waits tables in a diner in Gloucester, Massachusetts. A handful of predictable exterior shots and half-hearted New England accents deliver the illusion of regional identity; Gloucester locals, we can assume, are insulted.
People of a certain age have fond memories of Ringwald's pouty starring turns as poor little rich girls (or rich little poor girls) in a string of lousy John Hughes (or Hughesian) movies: The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Fresh Horses, et cetera. Depending on one's individual charity, she was either bad or atrocious. Today, the camera keeps a polite distance so as not to expose the grain in Ringwald and Co.'s wooden performances; when Shannon cries in one episode, the camera modestly hides behind her back.
Shannon has two things to cry about: She's broke and she's loose. We know the first fact because she can't get an auto loan; the second, because her friends say so after her new conquest each week. Denise, in contrast, has but one concern: Insolvency. "I spend most of my time either working like a dog," she says, "or lying awake at night afraid that my family is gonna starve. And it's so hard." Later that episode, Shannon roams a used-car lot in search of a serviceable jalopy. One can picture the quick-witted young Harvard grads scheming in Townies' script room: Isn't this how The People live? Within 45 seconds, both women's crises have passed. Shannon is not a slut. Denise, although fiscally challenged, retains her free will. Cut to commercial. Producer's graphic. Encore. Theme song. Credits.
However sincere such a subplot is (or isn't), one well-crafted commercial can spoil the mood. Consider the spot for the Oldsmobile Aurora that followed Shannon's car-lot woes. Compared to the program itself, the ad's image quality is cleaner; the editing, quicker; the color palette, richer; the depth-of-field, deeper. Sometimes Oldsmobile ads are even letter-boxed in an attempt to lend the cultural cachet of European cinema to the handicraft of Detroit. Cars in particular are filmed with such sensuous detail that one would not be altogether surprised if the driver were to get out of the car, pop the gas cap, drop his trousers, and get really intimate with General Motors. Of course no one fucks the Oldsmobile Aurora, but this curvy sedan does come "fully loaded" at $36,400. Panning to a parking meter above this year's model, the commercial gamely suggests that that sticker translates to only "145,600 quarters!" Start saving your tips, Shannon; every Townie deserves a town car.
Far more ingenious than an advertisement that whets desire for what one cannot have are those commercials that acknowledge the methods of their machination. Sprite's "Obey Your Thirst" campaign, in which spots satirize the value of advertising, is a crude example of this strategy (see also the Energizer Bunny). Yet neither of these begins to approach the dense strata of contempt and solicitude showcased by TCF banks in their talking gorilla campaign. In these spots, busy working folk complain about thin wallets and life's daily inconveniences... all the while wearing the worst ape suits seen this side of 2001! The simplicity of the approach is gorgeous to behold: TCF's working-class customers are thick-tongued plebes who identify favorably with lower-order primates. From the longevity of the campaign--the spots have aired locally for more than a year--one can only assume that TCF is very much tuned into its troglodyte proles and their banking habits. Television loves the working man all right, but it sometimes picks a funny way of showing it.
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