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The Lagging Economic Indicator of TV Shows

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Is the U.S. economy in a recovery? I am not the guy to ask. I’m not an economics or a business expert. I read the same jobs-report news that you do and I know we’ve had a couple good ones lately. But I don’t know if the jobs being created are very good, if anyone’s standard of living is increasing, or if it’s sustainable. I don’t know if rising gas prices will hold the country back (I own a car, but I take the subway). I don’t know about cyclical factors, the wealth effect or the potential fallout of trouble in the Middle East.

As a TV critic, I’m pretty sure about one thing, though: the economy as portrayed on primetime TV shows will probably be lousy for quite a while after the real economy starts getting better.

I’ve been noticing this lately, as the (at least somewhat) positive economic news I’ve been reading on the business page has been at odds with the references to the economy in current TV series, as well as the screeners of new shows landing on my desk. After the March jobs report, for instance, I read the accounts of workforce participation going up as people saw more job prospects, and of increasing cases of people leaving their jobs to find more satisfying ones, something you don’t generally do in a recession.

On Sunday’s The Good Wife, on the other hand, we saw Cary Agos get into a showdown with a coworker, who called his bluff when he suggested he would go to his boss, Peter Florrick, and admit an ethical lapse; it’s not a good economy to have principles in, she sneered at him. Among the midseason shows lined up to debut is ABC’s Don’t Trust the B____ in Apartment 23, in which a woman ends up moving in with a horrible roommate after losing her job in the Lehman-like collapse of her employer.

And April 8, Lifetime premieres the Jennifer Love Hewitt drama The Client List, based on its 2010 TV movie about an out-of-work mother, in tough straits because of the recession, who takes a job at a massage parlor that she discovers offers lucrative, um “extras” to male customers. (Fun trivia fact: it turns out that dudes who frequent happy-ending massage parlors are almost universally young hot guys with six-pack abs!) Whatever the business section says, the primetime bottom line is: times are tough, and you gotta do what you gotta do.

Does TV have some sort of agenda to talk down the economy? Do programmers realize that average Americans are hurting far more than the statistics and positive spin might make it show? The truth, if you follow the TV business, is neither so nefarious nor profound. Whenever TV chases social trends and zeitgeist plots, there’s a lag time. It takes months or even years to develop scripted shows, and often by the time TV jumps on a trend in the headlines, the headlines have changed. Just as it was quite a while before primetime shows addressed the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, you’d have to expect it to be a while before they reflected any recovery. (Just look at the recent Work It, thankfully no longer with us, in which two guys dressed in drag to get jobs to play off the already-dated “mancession” trend.)

Though I also suspect that any recovery and boom—if and when there is one—will have to be well along before primetime TV is willing to acknowledge it. TV networks want a great economy to sell ads in, but TV writers probably like working with the assumption that it’s tough out there—not for propaganda reasons but dramatic ones. Hard economic times create conflict. They provide stakes, and they supply motivation. TV thrives on characters with challenges in extreme situations, and a recession provides a perfect reason to have characters go to extremes to put food on the table.

Without the recession, after all, it would have been much harder for Work It to get two dude to go to work in drag. Yet one more reason that the recovery can’t come soon enough.

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