Television explores economic identities

Any talk relating to the politics of representation in the media generally focuses on a handful of characteristics that a person would have from birth. Race and sexual orientation in particular are the cause of the lion’s share of hand-wringing over representational issues: Are minorities underrepresented in How I Met Your Mother, for instance, or do shows on the Fox network feature an adequate number of LGBT-related plotlines?

Desperate times · Walter White (left, Brian Cranston), Gustavo Fring (center, Giancarlo Esposito) and Jesse Pinkman (right, Aaron Paul) scheme in AMC’s Breaking Bad. The drama captures the desperation of White as he resorts to creating a meth lab to cover health expenses when he is diagnosed with cancer. - Photo courtesy of Ben Leuner/AMC

The fairness of mandating the inclusion of certain types of characters or storylines in what could be considered someone else’s art is obviously up for discussion. Nonetheless, there are a number of watchdog organizations already in place, such as the Paley Center for Media and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, that vigilantly monitor the television landscape and are forever poised to call out any network that falls short of standards that networks are under no legal obligation to meet.

Socioeconomic status is obviously not a natural-born characteristic, but there’s no denying that the circumstances of a person’s birth and their parents’ financial situation directly influence the opportunities available to them and, in effect, their own future finances.

Even though socioeconomic status isn’t genetic, for many people, money figures very prominently into their fundamental self-image. In many cases, relative wealth surely trumps other components of a person’s identity, such as ethnicity: If you’re struggling to put food on the table, would you spend more time thinking about the country that your ancestors came from, or where your next meal is going to come from?

For that reason, it seems strange that representations of people with different financial situations on TV aren’t scrutinized nearly as fiercely as representations of other identities. On one end of the wealth spectrum — and you can probably guess which — GLAAD-style monitoring is hardly necessary; on the other end, representations are markedly fewer and farther between, but most are genuinely engaging and compelling.

Astronomical wealth is the common province  of TV. Teen soaps like Gossip Girl, The O.C. and 90210 have made names for themselves by trafficking in the glamorous lives of beautiful and fabulously wealthy young people for whom money is no object.

Setting aside their aims of intrigue and humor for a moment, Revenge and the late Entourage similarly rely on the fascination of the unfamiliar to lure in audiences. Offering small screen glimpses into worlds that most viewers would never otherwise be privy to — the high-society summer crowd of the Hamptons and the fast-paced and high-stakes world of the Hollywood elite, respectively — certainly accounts for at least part of their programs’ appeal.

But financial voyeurism only goes so far. TV viewers will probably always be interested in seeing how the other half lives at least to some extent, but the problems that the wealthy characters in these shows contend with are largely manufactured, ranging from inconsequential first-world problems to hyperbolic life-or-death scenarios that are too melodramatic to be engaging. This is not to say that the rich don’t have real problems; they’re just not being shown on TV.

To find higher stakes, look to the lower class. As any TV writer worth her salt knows, money is a great source of tension — making it all the more curious that economic hardship isn’t portrayed more often on television.

Shows that do address the financial struggles plaguing millions of Americans are as different in execution as they are similar in subject, but many of them are proven successes.

CBS heralds its 2 Broke Girls as America’s “#1 New Comedy,” but that might be more a testament to the power of the CBS machine than the quality of the program’s jokes or writing.

In 2 Broke Girls, the nods to financial hardship are timely — the formerly wealthy Caroline Channing (Beth Behrs) goes from trust fund princess to diner waitress in a matter of days with the revelation of her father’s involvement in Bernie Madoff-like skullduggery — and the show’s engagement with the concept of poverty is fairly superficial, simply enabling the show to move from one plot point to the next.

HBO recently let How To Make It In America die after two eight-episode seasons, but Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow’s highly anticipated Girls looks poised to cover a lot of overlapping territory — namely, struggling to make money and find place as a 20-something-year-old in New York City.

AMC’s Breaking Bad, widely regarded as the best show on television, confronts the real-world implications of our current hard times as they impact the White family in Albuquerque, N.M. Bryan Cranston’s Walter White begins the series as a high school chemistry teacher driven to the manufacture of illicit drugs by financial desperation — for Walter, cooking meth appears to be the only way he can cover the medical expenses incurred in the wake of his diagnosis with lung cancer in the pilot.

Breaking Bad is unflinching in its engagement with the realities of poverty in the U.S., something that Showtime’s boozed-up Shameless also successfully achieves, although with a decisively more light-hearted tone. Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum) does a lot of things to provide for her brood of younger siblings that she probably wouldn’t otherwise.

Audience interest in portrayals of wealth for reasons of pure spectacle are well understood, but networks seem to be catching on to the fact that audiences have problems of their own, and many of them are money-related.


Louis Lucero II is a senior majoring in environmental studies. His column “Small Screen, Big Picture” runs Tuesdays.