Country Music Television (CMT) aired a new sitcom last Friday, January 28th, to voluminous pre-media coverage—most of it positive. It is called, surprisingly, Working Class, and it stars blonde amazon Melissa Peterman as Carli Mitchell, a twice-divorced mom with three children whose slacker (yet metrosexual) brother lives with her as well. She works at an upscale grocery store (a lá Whole Foods) with the incomparable Ed Asner — a long-time real-life Socialist and everyone’s favorite crusty boss from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Peterman had her last starring role was the “other woman” on the Reba McEntire’s single-mom sitcom Reba. She is definitely the best thing about the show. She has something almost Sarah-Palin-like in her way with words: she can deliver withering sarcasm with an apple-pie smile, and she can be, at once, blustery, confident, mildly desperate, and disarmingly appealing.
Carli works at the deli counter of a grocery store, so she probably earns about $10.00 an hour, which cashes out to about $21,000 year. Can she really support three kids and her younger brother in the suburbs of Chicago on $21,000 a year? Especially if her ex-husbands are as deadbeat as she suggests? $22,050 is the federal poverty threshold for a family of four. Perhaps this show should have been called Working Poor?
Of course, we don’t look for realism from our sitcoms, but we do hope for funny. There is a lot of economically driven humor in the first three episodes. In the opening scene, for example, Carli surreptitiously waters down a gallon of milk while leading her children in a bowed head “gratefulness visualization” exercise. When her son catches her he complains, “Hey, I’m a growing boy.” She retorts, “Well, stop, we can’t afford it.”
The most relevant series of economic jokes take place in the second episode, when Carli’s oldest son has to make an emergency trip to the dentist. At first she tries to talk him out of his pain: “My insurance doesn’t kick in at the store for another month. Is it really that bad?” Her son replies: “It hurts to blink.” She then tries to pay for the fillings with a check that she post dates for 2012. The deadpan African American dental assistant/office manager says: “I can’t accept this. Even though you wrote ‘please’ in the memo line.” Carli begs: “Do you have some kind of payment plan?” “Yes. The dentist performs the service. You pay. That’s the plan.”
The least funny jokes are those about sex and sexuality, like when Hank Greziak (Asner) leers at Carli while she towers over him, or when the dentist who makes unbearable puns tries to exchange his dental services for sex with Carli. These jokes suggest that Carli’s best chances at social mobility will probably come from how she uses her sexuality. In the first two episodes she turns down a marriage proposal from a financially stable high school chum as well as a less permanent arrangement offered by the goofy dentist. In the third episode her dead-beat ex-husband shows up loaded with gifts that he was able to buy with the bank account of his new bride: an oil magnate played by Reba McEntire. They even buy Carli a new bed. The suggestion is clear: in order to move up Carli is probably going to have to spend some time on her back.
Does the show have any genuine working class roots? The show’s creator, Jill Cargerman, argues that she created the show from the wellspring of class resentment that she harbored while growing up in a Chicago suburb. “‘My mother moved us to [Chicago’s] northern suburbs,’ she says. ‘Very much as Carli does in the show, to give us the advantages of the schools and the community and the community support that we hadn’t — that she hadn’t had growing up….It seemed like everyone else had more than we did, and only now do I realize that I was probably a little bit of a brat and that my mom was kind of a hero.”
At its worst, Working Class is a Reagan-era “couch and kitchen” sitcom. One preview quipped, “It’s kinda like ‘Roseanne,’ only more Republican.” And if that ragged couch in Carli’s living room looks familiar it may be because the pilot for the show was filmed using cast-offs of from Hollywood’s dumpsters. As New York Times reporter Joe Rhoades explains, “In an even more radical cost-cutting move [CMT Senior Vice President] Mr. Johnson did not order full pilots for the CMT sitcom scripts — all domestic comedies — he was considering, including ‘Working Class.’ After reading 350 scripts and deciding on the 4 he liked best, he ordered second scripts of each show and then, instead of pilots, shot what amounted to 15-minute screen tests with prospective casts, using leftover sets from failed pilots that other networks were about to throw out — interchangeable living rooms and kitchens — where actors from all four shows could shoot their scenes.” The show does feel a bit scrapped together. Only the quality of the show’s stars (especially Peterman and Asner) allow it to rise above the predictable treacle of the genre.
While most critics writing before the debut of Working Class last Friday found the show to be funny and timely, others, like TV critic Matt Roush, were decidedly negative: “Playing off the nostalgic vibe that worked for TV Land’s silly sleeper hit Hot in Cleveland, but working with a much emptier hand, Working Class is intended mainly for exhausted working stiffs willing to kick back on a Friday night with something that already feels like a rerun. They have my sympathy.”
CMT does have “working stiffs” in its sights. As CMT Senior Vice President Ben Johnson explained, CMT’s audience consists of mostly “C and D counties,” or, in advertising speak, rural areas with population concentrations of 40,000 or less. Johnson also called the CMT audience “working class” and “blue collar.”
Why is this interesting? If there is one place where the myth of a “classless” America is completely busted it is in the demographic mapping departments of Madison Avenue. When it comes to advertising and marketing the language about class is blunt; class divides are honestly discussed and minutely tracked. Of course, no one ever advertises to a working class demographic with the hope of making those viewers more class conscious, but isn’t it bizarre that if we want a frank picture of how much Americans make per year, what they buy, what kind of mobility they might have and how they see themselves—that Madison Avenue and Hollywood can provide us with some of our most reliable data sets?
I close with a plea to Working Class to use more of Ed Asner. When he gets to be biting and sarcastic (as opposed to lecherous and gnome-like) he is a joy to watch. He is an interesting choice for the show since he is certainly not beloved by the Tea Party wing of the CMT audience. Numerous right wing websites have attacked Asner for his outspokenness on Socialism and other progressive issues.
But if Working Class takes off, it may be because it can appeal to a broad spectrum of people who work for a living and who, like me, are stunned by how much food our kids can plow through in a week, who ask our dentists for payment plans (like I did last week), and who struggle to make ends meet on far more than $22,000 a year. The question of our current era may not be can we preserve the middle class, but can we prevent the working class from becoming the working poor? And, as we know, there is nothing funny about that.
Kathy M. Newman