TV, The Recession and Escapism

iconic depression-era photo

Bill Brioux has an article in the Toronto Star about how the recession is impacting television; and he has more to say at his blog. The trends include a move toward escapism and comedy, and more stories about evil Wall Street/corporate types and rich people who lose all their money. Well, all these things have been on television for a long time, but the recession has caused the networks to green-light a few more pilots that fit into those respective categories, and make a few more recession-specific jokes in TV episodes (maybe not as many as comic strips, though). And that’s enough to make it a trend.

It will be interesting to see if there are any successes among the upcoming comedies about people who are laid off, lose all their money, move back in with their parents, etc. Remember, it only takes one success to create a sustainable trend, since every success is followed by half a dozen imitators. One thing I’ll note is that in dealing with a recession, addressing it head-on is not necessarily the best strategy; at least, it’s not always enough. In the ’30s, entertainment was famously schizoid: the most successful entertainments acknowledged the existence of the Depression, but then proceeded as if the Depression didn’t apply to the characters. The iconic movies of the era weren’t about people losing their jobs and going on breadlines — movies on subjects like that were probably more popular in the ’20s, when the subject was more remote from everyday experience — but Busby Berkeley musicals, Shirley Temple films, and crime dramas about gangsters who lived the high life until they were gunned down at the end. These films didn’t pretend that there wasn’t a recession, they just offered an escape into a better world. Leverage is cited in the article as an example of a show that got renewed because it fits that pattern: an escape into a world where the good guys win out over the recession-era baddies.

If you assume that audiences want some escapism these days, it’s not surprising that Better Off Ted isn’t doing so great; it’s a good show, but it’s anti-escapist, about a cartoonish corporate hell where the only thing worse than staying is leaving. (The Office is a bit different; by now that seems like a fairly fun place to work.) However, the more likely explanation for its problems is not that it’s out of touch with recession-era zeitgeist but that it’s on a network, ABC, where most of the single-camera comedies are tanking. So I had better pull back before I start attributing every case of low ratings to some kind of broad cultural force.