Don't mourn, organise! Politics and poverty have reached the US sitcom - and could change everything

Years and years went by when no one in a novel had a job, and almost no one in a mainstream American sitcom or dramedy had money worries. Roseanne wasn’t earning enough but ever since that show was canned in 1997, people have had cute scrapes where they lost their job or their credit card – but grinding, day-to-day poverty, unable to make ends meet or imagine a future in which you would ever be able to? That wasn’t what sitcoms were about.

Instead, we’d take an office (The Office), or a police precinct (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), or a family (Modern Family), or a dojo (Cobra Kai – and yes, before you ask, I do watch a lot of telly), and some people would be richer than others, and some would make bad choices, and others would get into hilarious pickles, but one convention was always observed: nobody was struggling, or if they were, it was because they were on drugs.

Then came Superstore, created by Justin Spitzer, one of the writers on the American Office. It’s an ensemble piece, about workers on the minimum wage vying to see who can avoid emptying the rat traps and cleaning the unaccountably ubiquitous aisle-vomit in a hangar-scale US supermarket, as hilarious chaos ensues. I didn’t think I could take it at first – too many primary colours, too heartwarming, too many unlikely romantic pairings. But obviously I could take it, because TV is the only way my kids will ever remain proximal to me for any length of time, because it is a context in which I won’t always be talking.

So I sat noncommittally through 10 episodes, to be completely caught off-guard by the season finale. What’s the big answer to the gnawing questions all these personal interactions have thrown up? Join a union.

The staff spontaneously unionise, and then the union is busted at the start of season two. It’s all pretty slapstick and reality has remained immutable, yet you can’t help but notice: this show just made a direct pitch for unionisation. And even while it failed, the message was emphatically not: “That was all a bit silly, wasn’t it, ladies and gentlemen?”

The show has now cycled through a number of pressing and impossible questions: how do you survive if you’re an undocumented migrant, it’s illegal to employ you, but you still need to eat? What happens if you drop out of college, owing $200,000, and every day you’re alive, you rack up more debt than you earn? If you injure yourself and can’t afford medical attention, and then you have a long-term suppurating wound the length of one leg, how does that smell? If you live in one of the few societies on earth with no maternity leave entitlement, and yet have the brass neck to have a baby, do you seriously have to turn up to work two days later? If you were ever wondering what it would look like if Ken Loach directed Friends, it’s this. But I never was wondering that, because why would you?

Meanwhile, in the mini-series Maid – an adaptation of a book subtitled Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive – the lead character’s wages and outgoings flash up on screen throughout the episode to create the constant dread of a mortal enemy, but the big bad is just poverty.

It’s not as though any of this is news – nobody needed Netflix to alert them to wage stagnation. It’s more that, once TV starts to confront reality, it’s hard to see subsequent shows returning to the prelapsarian state of culture where the hardest financial decision a character had to make was whether to buy shoes or go to Hawaii.

Pablo Iglesias, who founded the Spanish leftwing upstart party Podemos, once said the key to success for political movements was “to achieve a connection between the reality you have diagnosed and what the majority actually feels”. Podemos’s own success is a question for another time, but what happens when telly starts to achieve that connection? What will that success look like?

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