Tuned In

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Reality Television

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David Giesbrecht /Bravo

I’m not sure I have ever watched two reality shows, the subjects of which I wish could meet one another as much as I wish it for Gallery Girls and Get to Work, both of which debuted last night. In Gallery Girls, on Bravo, a group of fresh college students or recent grads, mostly from well-connected, upscale backgrounds, work unpaid internships at New York art galleries. (Think Girls, minus the literary aspiration and unpixellated nudity.) In Sundance’s Get to Work, a class of long-term unemployed job seekers, some hindered by criminal records or substance abuse problems, try to get job skills through a tough-love training program.

Imagine the crossover episode! Get to Work deals with the problems of adults, some with families, for whom a job serving customers or working with tools is all that stands between them and poverty or even prison. Gallery Girls chronicles the high-class frustrations and rivalries of young women who can afford–some, granted, much better than others–to volunteer their service in hope of getting a step closer to a career in the art world. Yet each has something to say about opportunity and the economy, and the way personal circumstance and personal initiative conspire to create a person’s future.

Get to Work, in the high-minded reality spirit of Push Girls or Brick City, combines a progressive idea with a no-excuses attitude about individual responsibility. At the Strive job boot camp in San Diego, we meet a string of applicants ready to be molded into potential employees. And, we soon see, it’s a tall order for some of them: the young woman with anger issues, the older dad with flagging confidence, the habitual drug pusher who sees life as a series of cons to trick your way through and so on.

The show is conscious of the idea that many of its hard cases have been handicapped by tough backgrounds, developing defensive, belligerent postures that might serve in a harsh family or a street or a prison, but don’t get you past hello at a job interview. The things that so many workers take for granted–balancing humility and confidence, accepting criticism, even how to shake a hand–are all learned skills, ones that the Strive students have somehow not picked up.

But Get to Work, like the Strive program, takes the attitude that sympathy will only get these students so far. The instructors–one of whom, Chase Campbell, says he has a drug-dealing history himself–teach class with a one-strike philosophy. Lie to them, you’re “fired” (i.e., kicked out). Fail a drug test–it happens, in the first episode–you’re fired. Show up late, you have to “pay” to get readmitted to class (the teacher will accept a few bucks, even a pair of shoes, as long as it’s of value to the student). And they lay out in stark terms how applicants should look at the hiring process: when one student talks about how he “feels” in a session, Chase cuts him off, “Does this look like a situation where I care about how you feel?”

It’s harsh, but the message is not just teaching the students that the work world is harsh (they already have some experience with that). It’s also to send the message not to sabotage themselves by taking the process personally. Not all can learn that: one curses and storms out of the room when Chase scolds him. Another, a repeat drug dealer named Adam, is having a hard time seeing life as anything but a hustle–keeping a job, he explains at one point, is all about smiling and pretending to like your boss, a philosophy that may hit home with some viewers but doesn’t keep him from washing out of class.

But while it’s a rough, sometimes grim, process, it feels that much more well-earned when, at the end of the first episode, one student, Bobby–who struggled to speak for himself in mock interviews–visits a future class to report that he’s held a carpentry job for a month. “Man–got a job, you know what I mean?” he says, proud but shyly. It may not be a grand speech, but he says it like he means it.

Gallery Girls, on the other hand, is the newest of a subgenre of Bravo reality shows about life in extremely rarefied white-collar or service professions–cooking, real estate, design, dating-column writing, &c–the soft-fingered antitheses of cable blue-collar shows like Deadliest Catch or Dirty Jobs. Its milieu is esoteric even by Bravo standards: unpaid work facilitating the sale of aesthetic goods for staggering sums of money. Carpentry, it is not.

Still, even if the various girls–as in the HBO Lena Dunham show, “girls” is the subjects’ own term, not mine–probably had far more options from birth than Get to Work’s job seekers, privilege is relative. There are the middle class interns, holding down full-time jobs and paying their own rent, and there’s Liz, a School of Visual Arts student who got her job at a gallery because her father has spent zillions of dollars on Warhols, Picassos and Pollacks.

This makes for an interesting inversion in the intern-boss relationship, giving her the confidence, say, to pass on spackling the walls in preparation for a big gallery show. She has a nice outfit and, also, she doesn’t want to. Her boss, Liz says, “knows that my dad’s a well-known collector. If he’s bossing me around, I’m going to get pissed off and I’m going to tell my dad. So I will do anything that involves me sitting down in a chair or making a phone call or walking across the street.” Then she smiles like a cat who just ate a delicious and endangered bird.

The conflicts on the show are likewise more specific and rarefied: the class distinctions between the posh Upper East Side and the hipster Brooklyn “girls,” who are sort of the Sharks and Jets of Gallery Girls’ internecine squabbles. Call it Team Sex and the City vs. Team Girls. (More than one of the subjects, indeed, says she was inspired to go into her job by Charlotte on SATC. In a few years, I’m guessing, their interns will be saying the same about Marnie.) The interstitial graphics are illustrated by a map of NYC labeled entirely with arty/moneyed ‘hoods; representing the entirety of non-Manhattan boroughs are Greenpoint, Williamsburg and DUMBO.

And yet while it’s easy to knock the gallery girls for their first-world problems,* in its own way, they’re up against the same dynamic as the laborers of Get to Work: they’re trying to succeed in a market that needs them far less than they need it, and it sets its terms ruthlessly. Hours, long; labor, menial; pay, maybe never.

*(Noted irony: I am not one to talk. Someone pays me money to write about goddamn TV shows.)

And a running theme, here as in Get to Work, is that some people are simply born with head starts–which may make them no less talented, but can let those talents carry them farther. “I’m very lucky,” one says matter-of-factly, “because I have a father who takes care of me. And that allows me to go out, party, meet new people, network.”

It sounds superficial–OK, it is–but that partying is work in this world; and the difference between doing it and working a job to pay the rent might be the difference between someday having a real career in the art or auction world and hanging it all up. Like Girls–where Dunham is conscious of how financial support facilitates creative careers like her own–Get to Work has a consciousness of privilege and its practical effects baked right into it.

That said, the contrast between the two shows’ starting on the same night shows that there is struggle and there is struggle. Being the daughter of two Orange County doctors, supporting yourself through (artistically!) nude modeling because they cut you off, is not exactly being the daughter of a big family trying to land a job despite aggression issues that come from being neglected.

And either way, there’s something about people pushing against obstacles and willing themselves from behind to get something they ache for. Yeah, there are some jobs you pursue because of a calling and others because you’ve gotta pay the damn electric bill. But both of these very different shows are, at heart, about the universal pull of wanting–and the universal discovery that, sometimes, just wanting is not good enough.