What Happened to All the Good Middle-Class Sitcoms?
With Parks and Recreation’s swan song last night, another great family sitcom bites the dust. Though not related by blood, the clan in this sweet workplace comedy was as loving—and often sappy—as any in decades past. They also earned and spent in line with the typical American, which makes them part of a dying breed on TV.
The goofy crew who labored at Pawnee, Indiana’s city hall couldn’t quite be characterized as blue collar, but they hardly made significant bank in their low-level bureaucratic jobs. Except for swag-obsessed Tom Haverford and diamond-watch loving, Seattle condo-owning Donna Meagle, they all had fairly average lifestyles. In Pawnee, waffles at JJ’s Diner qualified as a splurge. From their clothing to their cars, Knope and company seemed pretty typical of Midwestern reserve and thrift.
Yet money was rarely explicitly discussed on the series. It wasn’t really the show’s style—idealistic Parks and Rec was always more about tackling issues with what Flavorwire aptly described as a “low-key radicalism” than aggressive sermonizing. For all it did differently in terms of quirkiness, its failure to acknowledge money made it par for the course as TV comedies go.
However, the waning visibility of the middle class on TV feels perennially discussed and never improved—much like the fate of the middle class itself. Today 51 percent of Americans live in middle-income households, according to the Pew Research Center, down 10 percent from 1970. (Middle income is often defined as $35,000 to $100,000 annually. Some organizations, like Pew, use a different calculus that makes it from $40,000 to $120,000.) Just because someone is solidly in the median doesn’t mean it’s easy to stay there. Another Pew study found that the majority of Americans who earn less than $75,000 say they are falling behind financially.
But it’s important to note that middle income isn’t the same as middle class. “To me, middle class is a vague term with too many meanings,” says Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director of the nonprofit organization Class Action. She notes that while politicians and unions use middle class and working families as synonyms, it’s not reality. Plenty of $100K+ earners in big cities feel nearly impoverished. Sitcoms primarily focus on the professional middle class—people who are college-educated and who are often in managerial positions. “You certainly could make a case that the working class is disproportionately underrepresented [on TV], given that it includes the majority of American families,” says Leondar-Wright.
But Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, doesn’t necessarily see the vanishing working-class sitcom tied to the shrinking of the middle class. “It’s more the disappearance of the way that we’ve seen the middle class portrayed for so long,” he says. “People ask what happens if we no longer have shows in which we can see ourselves. But when did we ever have that?”
He’s got a point. Since the advent of television, classic suburban fare like Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Ozzie and Harriet has masqueraded as the middle-class ideal. Yet the simple lack of economic worries among these families made them upper–middle class by default. “They looked like they were in houses that a lot of middle-class people lived in, but so much else was completely different,” notes Thompson.
Apart from The Honeymooners, TV really didn’t show lower-income families struggling to hang on to the middle class until the ’70s, with seminal television like All in the Family and Sanford and Son. By the ’80s and early ’90s, shows about working-class families had a bit of a heyday in Roseanne, Married…With Children and Grace Under Fire. At the same time, those shows were undermined by urban-focused Must-See TV (Friends, Seinfeld, Will and Grace), with upwardly mobile characters who live in big cities—and in even bigger apartments. Our cultural obsession with unsustainably large living was only stoked by Sex and the City and, more recently, on Girls.
Today, if you think about the solidly middle-class characters, you’ll find them less often in the ’burbs than in city apartments in various stages of singledom and arrested development (see The Big Bang Theory). The lone family-focused hit that deals with the reality of middle-class budgets—apart from nostalgia pieces like Everybody Hates Chris, Fresh off the Boat, and The Goldbergs—is ABC’s The Middle.
Like Roseanne (The Middle’s cocreator, Eileen Heisler, was a story editor on that show), The Middle has proven definitively that middle-class comedy doesn’t have to be depressing or overly broad. Centered on a quarry-managing dad and dental assistant mom whose ethos is “You do for family,” the show doesn’t shy away from discussing the family’s struggles to get a handle on their massive debt. Nor does it pretend that working hard and playing by the rules gets you ahead in America these days.
To illustrate just how distinct The Middle is from Modern Family, ABC’s other hit that parades as the latter-day depiction of the average American clan, simply look at how it treats characters’ mishaps with their cars. The Pritchetts and Dunphys on Modern Family seem to get into fender benders as often as the rest of us change pants. Gloria was involved in two accidents in one episode alone. On Modern Family, the aftermath of a wreck deals with getting suitable legal representation or tracking down the perpetrator of a hit-and-run. Either way, it’s always played for laughs. That couldn’t be further from reality for the Heck family on The Middle. They have zero fiscal cushion, so when their insurance company won’t deem a tree branch falling and breaking their windshield an act of God, the car sits in disrepair and leaves the family hamstrung. Which scenario do you think most Americans can relate to?
Realistic portrayals of working-class life are so crucial not because people with three jobs have so much time to binge-watch TV but because most Americans say they identify as part of the middle class, regardless of whether they live within its definitions. Mostly they subscribe to a certain set of values—honesty, hard work, family first—yet those values are often played out in upper-middle-class families on-screen, who are in a much better position to make it all work.
While middle- and lower-income families may “no longer buy into a television fiction that pretended to look like them,” says Thompson, they’re still forced to look to higher-earning fictional clans for truths about class and family life. Some of the best criticisms of class and its gradations now come from shows about wealthy families, often minorities, such as those on Blackish and Empire.
Creating more accurate portrayals of average Americans is a challenge, at least as long as TV and film source their talent from a specific milieu: those who can afford film school and MFA programs. Also, don’t forget this is an industry that auctions off unpaid internships for $25,000. (Yes, it was for charity, but still.) There may be hope though. As some of the 1-percenters in entertainment set their sights on prestige and streaming content, that leaves opportunity for something great to happen in free spaces, both online and on major networks.
A renaissance in middle-class programming just may not look like what we think. It won’t be nearly as white or suburban. It may feature older characters, as 65 and up is the fastest growing demographic among the middle class. The next great working-class series might not even be a sitcom at all.
Thompson notes that the AMC juggernaut Breaking Bad wasn’t just a character study of nefarious Walter White. It also examined how difficult it is for a man to provide for his middle-class family in an increasingly hostile financial climate. “It’s an economic crisis that sends him on the road to becoming Satan,” Thompson says.
Even soapier basic cable shows have made strides in showing the evolving family in the middle-income bracket. ABC Family’s The Fosters is groundbreaking because it centers on a lesbian, biracial couple, but it also has two parents who earn modest salaries as a police officer and vice principal and somehow manage to feed their growing brood of biological and foster children.
It’s shows like these that families may need to watch to comisserate about what it’s like to be one paycheck away from homelessness. The irony, of course, is that many families can’t even afford basic cable. So big networks, take note: American viewers might be aspirational strivers, but they’re not only looking for an escape into the small screen. They’re hungry for some small reflection of their lives. As with the money in their pockets, every little bit counts.