Luckily for viewers, grim recession trends inspire good TV
The best new comedy of the season, "Bored to Death" on HBO, pivots on a fresh start. Jason Schwartzman plays Jonathan, a Brooklyn writer-stoner who, after his girlfriend leaves him, decides to advertise as a private eye on Craigslist.
"The Good Wife," a CBS series inspired by the Eliot Spitzer scandal, may turn out to be the best new drama, and it too is focused on a second act. Julianna Margulies is a Silda-esque spouse who has to forge a new identity after a sex and corruption scandal drives her husband (Chris Noth) from elected office.
Misfortune and renewal are themes that vein almost all of the new fall series, from the ABC comedy "Cougar Town," which stars Courteney Cox as a newly divorced mom dating younger men, to "Trauma," an NBC medical drama about paramedics, most of whom are returning to first-response work after surviving the worst rescue disaster in San Francisco history.
The nation is on a grimmer track, and the fall season echoes that mood shift. Luckily, bad news seems to inspire good television; this is one of the better fall seasons, particularly for comedy, in years. But while almost all of these new shows reflect the economy, they do so indirectly.
Change, mostly unsought, is everywhere, but it's not imposed by a recession that has cost millions of Americans their homes and jobs and plunged the nation into unfathomable debt. The global economic slump is not a catalyst for all these transformations; it's closer to background noise.
Put it this way: Jules, Cox's character on "Cougar Town" is a successful real estate agent in Florida, a top breeding ground of the subprime mortgage fiasco. On the show Jules is desperate to find a hunk, not a home buyer.
The disconnect is a little odd, but it's not denial so much as deflection. Television has a tendency to absorb feelings faster than it assimilates facts. Some events are too momentous - and depressing - to address head-on in a sitcom or a drama. Instead writers filter them through more familiar, reassuring scenarios from the past.
The invasion of Iraq began in 2003, but it took almost two years for producers and writers to work up full scripts about the war. The first dramatic series about combat troops in Iraq, Steven Bochco's "Over There," was shown on FX in 2005, and it was skillfully made. It was hard, however, to be entertained by a war that was still being fought, and few people watched. Even now, viewers seem to prefer shows that allude to the war without dwelling on the horrors of combat, such as "NCIS" and "Army Wives."
The same has been true of the recession. Villains styled on Bernard L. Madoff popped up on shows like "Law & Order" and "Flashpoint" last season, and Lehman Brothers investment bankers were mocked on "30 Rock," but the newest series steer away from plot lines and references that are too uncomfortably close to the headlines.
Hardship that is too topical is too hard to take.
The most overt sign of the economy can be found on late-night television. Jay Leno's show at 10 speaks to a new frugality at NBC: Leno has boasted that five episodes of "The Jay Leno Show" cost the same as one episode of the CBS hit drama "CSI: Miami." In this economy, cost cutting is as valuable to shareholders as high ratings.
Life is not going on as usual however. A few shows posit cataclysmic forces of change, like "V," a series on ABC about aliens who invade the planet by posing as friendly visitors. Mostly personal lives fall apart and careers implode, but not because of a stock market plunge.
Joel McHale plays Jeff, a fast-talking lawyer on "Community" on NBC, who enrolls in a community college. It's a very funny show, one of the bright spots of the season, and, perhaps not coincidentally, Jeff has to reboot his career not because his practice went belly up, but because the state bar discovered he does not have a legitimate college degree.
The exceptions are few. "Hung," the HBO series that began this summer, is daring, and not just with sexual content: The story of a male prostitute uses the collapsed economy of Detroit as a backdrop.
Newer shows on broadcast networks are less explicit. Patricia Heaton plays Frankie, a Midwestern wife and mother on an ABC sitcom, "The Middle," who works at her town's last surviving car dealership. The state of the auto industry is acknowledged, glancingly. Frankie takes a potential customer on a test drive and brightly asks, "Did I tell you about our recession deals?"
References to that kind of reality are fleeting and light.
Even the lighter sitcoms have a gloomy undertone. "Brothers," on Fox, stars the former NFL player Michael Strahan as Michael, a former NFL player who goes home to his family in Texas. Michael's brother, Chill (Daryl Mitchell), is in a wheelchair, paralyzed in a car accident, and their father, Coach (Carl Weathers), is showing early signs of memory loss associated with Alzheimer's.
"I worry about you," the mother, played by CCH Pounder, says to Michael. "There's some hard times out there in the world."
She is right to worry, because both brothers are having financial difficulties, but they are not tied to the recession. Chill's restaurant isn't doing well because it lacks pizazz, not because people in their part of Texas have stopped eating out. And though the show's creator said the plight of Strahan's character was informed by the Madoff scandal, in the pilot the NFL star doesn't lose his money in a multibillion dollar Ponzi scheme. He loses it the old fashioned way: because his manager embezzled his money.
Hard times have brought forth a remarkably good season. It's a recession that dare not speak its name, but comes with a silver lining nonetheless.