In honor of Labor Day -- a nostalgic exercise for too many Americans in this age of zero jobs -- here's a list of some of my favorite TV depictions of work. Many of these shows are current; some were cancelled long ago. To greater or lesser degrees, they're all fascinated by the details of the workplace, and the crises and melodramas that take place there.
Please share you own favorite TV portraits of work in the Letters section.
In alphabetical order, then:
"Breaking Bad." (AMC) For all its meth cooking and gunplay, this is ultimately a show about work. All "Breaking Bad" subplots, no matter how extravagantly noir-ish, always come back to three core issues: (1) the impact of work on a person's home life; (2) the difficulty of starting a small business when you're working for someone else, and (3) the power relationships between co-workers, supervisors and top bosses. In this season, all three aspects have drifted into the foreground of the series, with main character Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) trying to make their ill-gotten gains appear legitimate to the IRS and the DEA, fast-food magnate and secret drug lord Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) trying to defend his turf against south-of-the-border rivals, and Gus and his right-hand-man Mike (Jonathan Banks) struggling to keep the brilliant pain-in-the-ass star employee, Walt, in check while simultaneously trying to turn Walt's one-time protege, Jesse (Aaron Paul) into a loyal company man.
"Deadliest Catch" (Discovery). As I wrote earlier this year in "A workplace drama on the high seas," this is a great series about the dirty details of earning a living. "The fishing trawlers compete to see which of them can make the biggest haul during a season, but while the show periodically tells us who's up and who's down, "Deadliest Catch" never makes too big a deal of the horse race aspect, and there are long stretches where you just don't think about it, because whatever's happening on the deck of an individual ship is more pressing. The boats are small businesses with bosses and employees and material costs. A crew's quest to turn a profit, or at least return home without a loss, is the true center of the series -- and that's usually bound up with the captain's strategy; he must decide where to fish and how long to stay there, then deal with wild card factors such as equipment failure, injured or incompetent crew, and murderous weather."
"ER" (NBC). This show was often described as a "hospital soap," and however dismissive it might have sounded, the label fit. A huge part of its appeal was that of typical network fare: problem solving and jeopardy, out-of-nowhere tragedies, who was sleeping with whom, etc. But the core of "ER" was more prosaic and real-world based. For all its ludicrous melodrama, it really did give you a sense of what it was like to work in a public hospital in a major city, where doctors, nurses and administrators tried to balance Hippocratic ideals against HMO stinginess, a declining tax base, poverty, drugs, violence and employees' disruptive personal problems. The more I think back on this show, the more I admire a character who was often positioned as the bad guy, Laura Innes' Dr. Kerry Weaver. She was often forced to choose between bad and worse, made a hard but rational decision, then was scapegoated as an uncaring bitch by pretty much everyone, viewers included.
"The Larry Sanders Show" (HBO). Actor-writer-producer Garry Shandling's greatest achievement, this HBO series about a late-night talk show was the best inside-showbiz sitcom ever aired in this country. The key to its excellence was the way it somehow universalized the foibles of people living an obscenely pampered Hollywood lifestyle. So many of the episodes revolved around workplace politics -- a boss or employee screwing up and putting the show's success at risk; an executive, consultant or guest looking at the broadcast from an outsider's perspective and judging its professionalism harshly; Larry (Garry Shandling) and his producer Artie (Rip Torn) fighting network suits for creative control of the program. The office was a minefield of pettiness, greed and neurotic silliness. Most of the major characters were so obsessed with their jobs -- and with public drama related to their jobs -- that their personal lives were either defective or nonexistent.
"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC). Like its big sister, the original "Law & Order," "SVU" is a meat-and-potatoes drama that never showed much interest in re-inventing the medium. But it's striking in at least one respect (beyond its still-startling level of sleaze and cruelty): its depiction of a workplace that, for the most part, functions very well even though most of the employees and supervisors dislike each other and amuse themselves by being bitter, sarcastic jerks. Anybody who's ever worked at an ego-saturated, unpleasant but very productive workplace can relate.
"Mad Men" (AMC). This was a great workplace series in its early years, when the action was set at the established firm of Sterling Cooper; the show's keen eye for protocol, power relationships and the fine art of ass-kissing made it one of the subtler workplace series on American TV. But it became equally interesting, and far more desperate when a core group of ad guys broke off to start their own agency, forgoing a meticulous, clear-eyed plan in favor of blind faith in their own collective awesomeness -- and a big-money account (Lucky Strike) poached from the last agency which seemed like a sure thing. The characters dress elegantly and eat and drink like kings, but last season they were essentially bosses and employees at a small business, and they got their asses handed to them.
"The Office" (NBC). Jim: "Today, I am meeting a potential client on the golf course because Ryan put me on probation. You remember Ryan: he was the temp here. Yeah and, uh, it is not a good time for me to lose my job since I have some pretty big long-term plans in my personal life with Pam that I'd like her parents to be psyched about. So, I am about to do something very bold in this job that I've never done before: Try."
"Rescue Me" (FX). This raucous comedy-drama is having a strong final season that ends this week. The show has always been astute about work-vs.-home conflicts, the camaraderie and backstabbing that happens in the workplace, the uneasy relationship between management and labor, and the way that driven people immerse themselves in work to avoid dealing with personal problems. But"Rescue Me" has been unusually sharp this year, with firefighter Franco Rivera (Daniel Sunjata) challenging the authority of his commanding officer Kenny Shea (John Scurti) and veteran firefighter Tommy Gavin (Leary) growing distracted from his job and increasingly preoccupied with his overstuffed private life. Leary's last series before this one was a police drama called "The Job." That title would have fit just as well here.
"The Sopranos" (HBO). This pay-cable saga wasn't just about the mob, the suburbs, consumerism or the changing face of American life in the aughts; it was also about work. So many of the season-long arcs dealt with the Mafia version of inter- and intra-office politics, with beleaguered crew boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) trying to keep everybody happy without damaging organizational discipline or tarnishing his own authority. Whenever Tony's personal life and private demons laid him out, coworkers either stepped up to help or plotted to weaken or usurp him, just as they would have if the series had been set in a car showroom or a bread factory -- except that in those settings, when people get fired, they don't get chopped into bits and buried in the Meadowlands. Another fascinating recurring topic was the question of what to do about an employee or manager who was hated by all but made money for the organization. The episodes built around the horrible Ralphie Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) in seasons three and four were especially stark illustrations of this. Ralphie was the scum of the earth, but he was "a good earner," which meant that no matter how badly he infuriated Tony and the rest of the crew, nobody could touch him.
"The Wire" (HBO). Maybe the greatest workplace drama ever, "The Wire" covered workplace politics in every imaginable variation, from the inner workings of local drug crews to the macho hothouse environment of police squadrooms to (in later seasons) city hall, the public school system and the local media. "'The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces," creator David Simon told The Believer in 2007. "It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed."
"WKRP in Cincinnati" (CBS). Anybody who has ever worked at a laid-back, struggling business could find something to relate to in "WKRP," a sitcom about a small radio station that was just barely getting by, and that could never quite seem to get a handle on its identity and make a serious dent in the marketplace. The place seemed like it was mainly a tax write-off for its owner, Mrs. Carlson (Carol Bruce), but she became increasingly serious about making it profitable as the show wore on. In theory the station was run by her son Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), but he was a lovable but befuddled dope who seemed to spend most of the workday screwing around in his office. If it weren't for his second-in-command Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) and his supercompetent secretary Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson) the place would have imploded. Ego wars turned the station into a poisoned playpen; PR efforts went horribly wrong. "As god as my witness," Arthur Carlson muttered after a Thanksgiving turkey drop that became a bloodbath, "I thought turkeys could fly."