TV and film finally recognize what we already knew: Late-stage capitalism blows

Hollywood output has become less aspirational as the truth of our stagnant economy becomes undeniable

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published July 15, 2017 4:30PM (EDT)

Hilary Duff and  Nico Tortorella in "Younger" (TV Land)
Hilary Duff and Nico Tortorella in "Younger" (TV Land)

In 2011, when the Occupy Wall Street movement was still budding, I was one of thousands holding protest signage down at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. Occupy Wall Street had become a bit of a tourist spectacle during the daylight hours, with hordes of camera- and smartphone-toting videographers documenting the occasion.

While there was plenty of activity within the park itself, the east side of the park, the sidewalk along Broadway, became a de facto spot for protesters to line up with their signs. An onlooker could walk along Broadway and gaze at hundreds of creative, inspiring, and occasionally weird placards. And they could also approach and engage in argument, if they felt so inclined — which was surprisingly common.

On this particularly chilly November afternoon, I was approached by an older woman in a fur coat, an Upper-East-Side type, who was toting a sheepish husband who looked uncomfortable at her engaging with us. “Young man,” she said, “What do you do for work?”

“I’m a graduate student,” I replied.

“Student!” she scoffed. “You students are so ungrateful.” She launched into a story about her daughter-in-law, explaining that her daughter-in-law and son, who were my age, could not buy a house because they didn’t pay their student loans on time, and thus had bad credit. “I paid my student loans,” she said, as if to rub in my face. “Why couldn’t she?”

Her husband looked embarrassed, and pulled her away before her rant finished.

What I didn’t have time to explain in that instance, and what some members of older generations perhaps don’t have a good understanding of, is that college just ain’t what it used to be. Tuition has risen 1,200 percent in the past 30 years, meaning if you graduated in the previous millennium, your financial relationship to a university is completely different.

Gone are the days when the state university was as cheap as a laptop and was considered a right, like secondary education,” writes Professor Jeffrey J. Williams in Dissent. “Now higher education is, like most social services, a largely privatized venture, and loans are the chief way that a majority of individuals pay for it.”

This speaks to a latent generational gap; the older generations -- boomers and seniors who were raised in an era of stronger unions, a strong middle class, cheap or free college and pensions being common -- have trouble fathoming that my generation did not grow up with any of these.

For Millennials, adulthood has been characterized by a dearth of middle-class jobs, more gig-economy-type contractor positions in lieu of “real” jobs with benefits and health plans, and debt-funded college degrees that push graduates into the equivalent of debt servitude. And until recently, cinema, that great cultural mirror for American society, did not do a very good job reflecting our economic reality.

In 2016, the New York Times Magazine published a feature-length article on “TV’s diminishing middle class,” by the Pulitzer-winning critic Wesley Morris. “In 2007, television underwent a great expansion — beyond the major broadcast networks, beyond televisions and into all kinds of genres — just at the moment the economy shrank, and a fantasy emerged,” wrote Morris. “As real people became poorer and lost their jobs, the ones on TV got richer, and their jobs seemed more beside the point. All that space to tell new stories ended up dedicated to a limited set of jobs and an increasingly homogeneous notion of what work even means.”

Morris draws a through-line from television of yore and their depiction of working- and middle-class families — including “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” “Roseanne,” and “Married with Children” — and contrasts this with television in the 1990s and the 21st century. “The factories and mills and laundries are now lofts and cafes where characters sit around and talk — where all they do is hang out.”

The creative shift from the 1960s to the 1990s — in which television went from depicting working- and middle-class families who think about work, to depicting upper-middle and upper-class families who seem to never work at all — happened at a time in which the country at large was stratifying. Deregulation of the financial sector happened in concert with globalization and free-trade pacts, which resulted in a vast de-unionization. The deregulation of the financial industry was what ultimately created the 2008 financial crisis — though up until that point the percentage of the GDP that came from financial services had quadrupled since the 1940s. This led to a situation in which a few at the top did increasingly well, while many, many at the bottom were slowly sinking.

“Income gains since the 1980s have been concentrated at the top,” writes Jonathan J.B. Mijs. “The top 10 percent today take home 30 percent of all income, and control over three-quarters of all wealth. We have returned to the level of income inequality that marked the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s.”

Just as the economy became defined by speculation, so did television; the late ’90s and early ’00s spate of celebrity reality shows, including “The Simple Life,” “The Osbournes,” “MTV Cribs” and “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” gave us a lusty glimpse into the lives of those at the top. It is no surprise that TMZ was founded in 2005, right at the peak of this boom; adoration of celebrities was good clean fun, and perhaps a vaccination against any feelings of class antagonism. Americans could admire the fantastic lives of the rich from the comfort of their living rooms and escape their own quotidian concerns about work and money.

Yet within the last decade, especially within the last year, a certain shift took place on the screen. If television from its birth to the 1980s was characterized by working- and middle-class nuclear families, and then moved its focus to the upper-middle class and upper class in the 1990s and 2000s, we are entering a new phase entirely. This generation of small-screen and big-screen content is beginning to reflect the economy as it is for many of us, Millennials, Gen-Xers and Boomers: hollowed-out, precarious, with many seeking out jobs below their dignity and experience level. Televised nuclear families are becoming rarer, as are stable jobs, income and relationships. Television is defined by the precariat.

You can even break this phenomenon into subcategories based on generation. There are films and shows about older generations suffering under the weight of a stagnant economy, who have to take jobs they feel are below them (and compete with more tech-savvy Millennials). These would include comedies such as 2013’s “The Internship,” where Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play laid-off salesmen who compete for internships at Google. There's also the sitcom “Younger,” starring Sutton Foster as 40-year-old divorcee who struggles to find a job after motherhood and decides to pose as a 26-year-old in order to obtain entry-level work. These films play on renewed anxieties akin to Gen-Xers and older generations, who are fearful for their ability to “keep up” with economic shifts in the kinds of skills that make one an adept worker.

Similarly, there are shows and movies about the lengths that the older generations must go to be able to afford what were once the normal trappings of a middle-class life. You see this in the just-released, critically panned comedy “The House,” in which parents played by Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell must turn their home into a casino in order to afford their daughter’s college tuition. Though an ostensible comedy, New York Times critic A.O. Scott called it “a dark, startlingly bloody journey into the bitter, empty, broken heart of the American middle class, a blend of farce and satire built on a foundation of social despair.” Also in this subcategory is “Breaking Bad,” in which a chemistry teacher turns to cooking meth to pay his medical bills.

Then there are films and shows by and about Millennials struggling to get by, which depict (and sometimes parody) the kinds of sub-par living situations and jobs that characterize that generation’s economic experience. A prime example of this is the newly-released “The Big Sick,” in which our economic reality hovers in the background like a secondary character. Kumail Nanjiani’s eponymous character, though in his 30s, sleeps on an air mattress in a decrepit Chicago apartment littered with red Solo cups; his friend, a fellow stand-up comic, sleeps on the couch. The walls are so thin that his girlfriend Emily, played by Zoe Kazan, is afraid to go to the bathroom. Success as a comedian is scarce to Nanjiani and his friends; to get by, he must work as an Uber driver.

If this is what contemporary cinema tells us your early 30s are like, consider how much things have changed since the days of “Friends.” “Friends,” which ran from 1994 to 2004, hardly ever showed its characters working or even thinking about money — despite living in vast Manhattan lofts full of the signifiers of an upper-middle-class life. The friends bounce in and out of jobs and gigs, but at the end of the day, they can always afford another Central Perk latte.  

Like many other similar sitcoms of the 1990s and early ’00s, including “Will and Grace” and “Seinfeld,” “Friends” was not about economic anxiety, but social anxiety. Many of the jokes are about what constitutes impropriety among the white petit-bourgeois.

In contrast, films like “Don’t Think Twice” depict people in their twenties, thirties and forties without full-time work who still live in New York apartments a fraction of the size of Chandler and Joey’s spacious two-bedroom. The characters in “Don’t Think Twice” have social anxiety too, but it is mediated and affected by their economic situations. The chief conceit of the film is that one character’s sudden success as a comedy writer is a catalyst for the rest of his sketch comedy’s crew to rethink their career decisions. 

Examples such as these are everywhere on television. "Silicon Valley," "Crashing," "Broad City," "Outsiders," "Queen Sugar," "Insecure," "This Is Us," "Casual," "The Handmaid's Tale," "Fargo," "The OA," "High Maintenance," "Stranger Things," "Kevin Can Wait," "Power," the recently completed "Girls" and "Workaholics," "Better Call Saul," "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," "Shameless," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "F Is for Family," the forthcoming return of "Roseanne," Netflix's upcoming "Ozark" and more all touch on the increasing divide between the haves and have-nots, the fallout from the 2009 financial crisis and the experience of living with economic anxiety in one way or another.

What accounts for this television shift? Like the explanation for economic inequality, the answer is not simple. But certainly there is a new generation of TV writers who suffered through an anemic economy on the route to success, including comics like Kumail Nanjiani. Meanwhile, the cultural moment, post-Occupy and post-Bernie Sanders, has certainly shifted: It is more common to revile, rather than admire, the rich. Nothing makes for good TV or good film better than assailing those who would purport to be your moral betters solely based on their bank account.

This new era of cinema may yet be a good thing. If we no longer recognize ourselves when we look at the rich, we may stop feeling solidarity with a class that is fundamentally at odds with us.

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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Capitalism Economics Economy Entertainment Film Hollywood Movies Television The Big Sick The House Tv Younger