As a child, I recall watching The Brady Bunch. Wow, they were rich. Although they had a large family, it never seemed to impact their finances. They had money for bikes, vacations, really nice clothes, nice cars, a gleaming kitchen commanded by a servant, a huge house in an obviously nice neighborhood. Didn’t they also have a swimming pool? While my mind followed the plot, it also created a subplot of questions: do people like this really exist? How? Where? What are those items? Where do you get them? How much do they cost? It seemed like a foreign country.
Nowadays, I’m a fan of Parks and Rec, but I see implanted in this small Indiana town an invasive non-native species: crazy impossible spending and financial decision-making that would never be possible in that setting. On Parks and Rec, public workers spend like they’re from Manhattan. Tom Haverford starts a company and hires professional sports players and model-like receptionists and pays them salaries for months while pouring on drinks and food for parties that would break a millionaire. At one point, a limo with a hot tub is conveniently available because Tom forgot he was still renting it.
Jobs come and go, and unemployment is never a trauma. Ben, Leslie’s boyfriend, gets one wonderful job offer after another. He gives up the private sector with no sign of fear whatsoever that he might be unemployed for months or years, that he might eventually have to take a part-time service job or move away forever. How many fabulous jobs can a small town offer? An infinite number according to Parks and Rec. When Leslie is running for city council, she has no budget limitations. Placards and signs and van rentals and campaign manager salaries appear out of nowhere. A Parks director in a Michigan small town has a starting salary of $68,000. One in Massachusetts has a salary of $60,000, and Leslie is just a deputy director.
True, the houses are not enormous. Ann Perkins’ house is modest though as a nurse, she probably makes a reasonable salary. Donna Meagle, on the other hand, is an office worker, likely to be making about $35,000 yet she drives an Escalade, shops at malls that resemble Rodeo Drive, and comes from family money with a vacation home. I wonder how many small-town African-American office workers can match that.
Perhaps most bizarrely of all, after the massive displays of consumption in Pawnee, the show brings up their snobby rich neighbors in Eagleton as if to imply they themselves are mere ordinary small-town folk. This might be the most psychologically accurate part of the show: ten percenters feeling poor, resentful, and ill at ease around five percenters.
I think many opportunities are missed when the only world TV characters can live in is that of the haute bourgeoisie. Of course, I acknowledge that comedy might sometimes need to go beyond the bounds of realism in order to amuse, but think of the many shows—Roseanne, Drew Carey, All in the Family, George Lopez (to some extent), Freaks and Geeks and a host of BBC programs—that were tremendously funny while remaining grounded in people’s real financial lives.
I’m not seeing the working class on TV much anymore. It’s as though to be a typical American is somehow in bad taste, not to be discussed. The way most Americans live can’t be shown for some reason. Has it become taboo? It makes me uneasy as if our popular culture, for all that it pretends to include ordinary life in flyover states, begins and ends in wealthy California suburbs.