Even though we spent the eighties taking Loverboy’s advice and “Working for the Weekend,” now that the proverbial “weekend” has arrived, we are squandering our relaxation time by watching TV shows about… working.
The workplace has a storied history as a favorite setting in television programming. We observed comedy writers’ rooms through the decades (from Dick Van Dyke as head writer for the Alan Brady Show, to The Larry Sanders Show to 30 Rock), and we’ve never lost our fascination with newsrooms (from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Murphy Brown to current HBO drama The Newsroom). In fact, I’m sure that most Baby Boomers can name at least one TV show that features the work life of a bartender or a comedian, a hotel owner, a high school teacher, a psychologist… and the list goes on.
There are few better candidates for ready-made drama than the Big Three of protagonists: lawyers, doctors and emergency responders—so it’s no wonder that some of the most classic series have revolved around these rich characters and their storylines. L.A. Law paved the way for Law and Order; Medical Center and St. Elsewhere gave way to Scrubs and ER; and Hill Street Blues begat NYPD Blue and its latest descendent, Chicago Fire.
Let’s face it, from the sublime (The West Wing) to the surreal (The Office), the daily grind and the accompanying interactions between coworkers has always provided a healthy dose of entertainment. But spend a few minutes surfing non-network channels, and you’ll see something beyond broad workplace comedy and ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama; the latest trend in workplace television is real life—with all its frustrations, boredom and simple victories.
When I say “real life,” I’m not talking about reality competitions, makeovers or shows that teach us skills we can actually use, like cooking or home improvement shows. Instead, these series are simply chronicles of the daily lives of individuals with careers that can range from outrageous (Dirty Jobs, Airplane Repo) to hyper-specialized (Gold Rush, Jungle Gold), to downright dangerous (Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch).
But I’m particularly fascinated by “real work” shows that quietly glorify the ordinary. This concept isn’t new—in fact, many years ago when my children were young, one of our favorite television memories was a segment on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood called “How People Make Crayons.” We were transfixed by Rogers’ gentle explanation (accompanied by jaunty piano music) of the process whereby white powder is transformed into colorful liquid wax that is molded, wrapped and boxed for sale.
Now, over a decade later, these shows abound, and if you happen to catch one, be warned: it’s difficult to look away. They’re not glamorous—perhaps the broadcast equivalent of comfort food—but how can you resist a program simply called How It’s Made, which, in a single episode, explains the manufacture of both pitted prunes and spurs? Similar series such as Factory Made and Inside the Design explain the creation of such ubiquitous objects as gel caps, playground “spring” rides, frozen pancakes and paper flowers.
Sure, there are more exciting things to watch. The series-ending eight episodes of the wild ride known as Breaking Bad are finally airing, and the fall TV season will be here before we know it, ushering in quality Emmy contenders, new “hate-watching” opportunities, and more of SyFy Channel’s guilty pleasures.
So why do we spend our hard-earned free time watching other people work? Maybe it makes us feel better about our own jobs; or maybe it satisfies a voyeuristic appetite to spy on someone else’s life; or maybe, we just like to learn a little more about the world. I’ll probably never find myself in a situation where I have to escape from a zombie, survive a “Sharknado,” or, scariest of all, keep up with a Kardashian. But I am familiar with the inexplicably thrilling sight, feel and smell of opening up a brand-new box of crayons, and it’s kind of nice to imagine that someday I’m going to put a thick Crayola in a grandchild’s chubby hand—and know exactly how it was made.