On The Honeymooners in the 1950s, Jackie Gleason’s volatile Ralph Kramden drove a bus to pay the rent on his tiny Brooklyn apartment and (barely) support himself and his wife, Alice. If he wanted to hang out with his buddy, sewer worker Ed Norton, he did so only after a hard day of labor. That is the kind of socioeconomic reality almost entirely absent from the modern television landscape, according to a New York Times think piece by Wesley Morris entitled “TV’s Dwindling Middle Class.” The sight of people who actually work for a living has become so rare, Morris writes, that poor Laurie Metcalf is driven to fantasizing about her 84-year-old father-in-law on Horace And Pete, just because he knows how to use a tape measure. How did television come to this point? Morris’ article serves as a pocket history of how the medium has depicted work and the working class over the last 60-some years. In the 1950s and early ’60s, TV was largely “an advertisement for the middle class,” as typified by the cozy suburban homestead of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Kramden may have had “a job,” but writer Rob Petrie had “a career.”
Things got a little grittier in the ’70s, Morris says, with such race-conscious and class-conscious Norman Lear offerings as All In The Family and Good Times. On these shows, firmly focused on the middle class and working poor, “class was the perch from which to see who you were and were not, and from which members of the television audience could see who they were, too.” Money and work were always on the minds of the characters on Lear’s shows.
The ’80s brought two competing sitcoms that clashed in interesting ways: NBC’s The Cosby Show, with its upper-class, East Coast black family, and ABC’s Roseanne, with its working-class, Midwest white family. But that decade also marked the debut of a program Morris sees as a game-changer: Cheers. That was, in Morris’ view, was “the first great hangout show.” From that point onward, hanging out rather than working was the focus of dozens of shows, ranging from Seinfeld to Girls. Today, there are still programs about people with real jobs, particularly in the legal and medical fields, e.g., Chicago Fire. But Morris terms these “sexy-calendar” shows that fetishize labor. The attractive characters on these programs work for the drama, not for the money, and their lifestyles don’t typically reflect anything like economic reality. Morris concludes, “Television is losing what work is and knows it.”