From the beginning, narrative fiction television tended to portray and reinforce the division between the private domestic sphere and the public workplace. Most fiction programming either deals with a specific workplace or occupation or deploys the workplace as the “other” space defining the limits of home and family. Television has thus had a significant influence on the understanding of the relationship between family and work in American culture.
Although there are antecedents, one of the trends in television programming during the early twenty-first century has been the proliferation of “reality” shows. Actually, they are highly competitive game shows with winners and losers. Before their broadcast, the shows are thoroughly edited, musically scored, and often have voiceover commentary by the participants after the fact. One of the most successful is
Domestic comedies such as Father Knows Best (1954-1963) and Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963) featured nuclear families in which the father had a steady job and the mother stayed at home. Rarely, if ever, did the father’s job have a connection with the story. One of those rarities was the episode of All in the Family (1971-1983) “The Insurance Is Canceled,” in which the father, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), worked as the foreman of a factory’s loading dock. In a cost-cutting move, Archie’s bosses ordered him to select one of his subordinates to be laid off. A bigot, Archie made his decision based on race rather than merit. He chose to lay off a highly productive Puerto Rican rather than a lazy white man.
Steve Carell (center), Jenna Fischer (left), and the rest of the cast of The Office celebrate their nomination for a Screen Actors Guild award in 2007.
Petrie’s wife, Laura, was portrayed by Mary Tyler Moore, who went on to star in her own show,
WKRP in Cincinnati
Two twenty-first century incarnations of the workplace theme are
In many crime dramas, businesspeople, especially men, appear as the villains. In addition to the usual murders, rapes, assaults, and robberies, they are often shown to be guilty of rent gouging, toxic waste dumping, union busting, and manufacturing shoddy or even dangerous products. In the Lou Grant (1977-1982) episode “Goop,” for instance, a reporter goes undercover to investigate a company suspected of the illegal dumping of chemicals. In The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985), the recurring villain was Jefferson Davis “Boss” Hogg, owner of the local bank.
The United States endured two energy crises during the 1970’s, so the
One of the most sympathetic portrayals of a fictional businessperson on television took place on
Events in business history have been dramatized in television movies and miniseries. The anthology series The Great Adventure (1963-1965), for instance, consisted entirely of docudramas from American history. The episodes “Six Wagons to the Sea” concerned a railroad and financial scandal in the nineteenth century and “The Colonel from Connecticut” was about the drilling of the first oil well in 1854.
Many docudramas feature people suffering disasters. In
One of the best docudramas about business was
The origin of the personal
Shows that realistically and fairly treat businesspeople have been few and far between, in part because a well-run business is probably not interesting enough to make good series television. Unlike a police station or hospital, mundane businesses rarely deal in life-and-death situations. Television writers spice up the story lines by inserting conflicts that rarely happen in a normal business.
Bauer, Douglas, ed. Prime Times: Writers on Their Favorite TV Shows. New York: Crown, 2004. This collection includes essays on The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Bianculli, David. Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Critical defense of television with comments on several shows portraying business themes. Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. Discusses the treatment of businesspeople in the chapter “The Temple Stands.” Medved, Michael. Hollywood vs. America. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. The subchapter “Evil Industrialists” argues that a disproportionate number of the villains on television are businesspeople. Siegel, Lee. Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television. Philadelphia: Perseus Books Group, 2007. This collection of essays includes a review of The Apprentice. Thompson, Robert L. Television’s Second Golden Age: From “Hill Street Blues” to “ER.” New York: Continuum, 1996. Discusses many of the major shows of the 1980’s and 1990’s that portray workplaces and business themes.
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