We watch... so you don't have to.

Working My Last Nerve

Watching television tires me out, and not just because watching bad shows is a soul-draining experience. No, I'm tired because I watch television after work. I come home from a hard day at the office, suffering the slings and arrows of office politics, only to turn on the idiot box and watch... other people in the office.

Whatever happened to watching television to escape reality? You can't even watch banal talk shows anymore -- The View is set in an office, for God's sake. And it's not even a fun office -- they fired the ditsy intern, and now it's a leaden collection of bitter typing-pool veterans. When I watch talk shows, I don't want to see an office with bleachers; if I did, I'd have watched the House shenanigans when they were busy impeaching the president.

But it's impossible to turn on the television without seeing an office. The last five years have hosted an explosion of workplace-based shows: NYPD Blue, E.R., Suddenly Susan, NewsRadio, Veronica's Closet, Just Shoot Me, JAG, The Practice, Spin City, Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope, Martial Law, Profiler, Sports Night ... and that's not counting the shows that debuted and sunk in one season, like Dweebs, Conrad Bloom, and Working.

And the worst offense? Dilbert. True, Scott Adams has built an empire tapping into the existential angst of any adult who thinks they're working for an idiot. True, the comic strips are cubicle shorthand for showing how above office banality you really are. But the show isn't the usual morsel of inquietude that a three-panel strip is: it's a half-hour in the company meeting from hell.

This isn't blasting Dilbert for being a bad show -- if I wanted to take cheap shots at bad shows, I'd aim at Providence. I'm blasting this trend of showing the office as emotional epicenter. It's reflecting the current societal trend of job-fetishism, and it needs to stop.

Most of the top critically-acclaimed dramas take place at work: NYPD Blue, The Practice, ER, Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order. What makes these shows compelling is that they show characters grappling not to let their jobs scar who they are in the off-hours. One of the best comedies on television, NewsRadio, keeps its comedic edge by playing off the tension between one's "private" personality and their "professional" one. The humor skates on the thin line that separates each character's ragingly weird personality from their tenuous grasp on what constitutes appropriate office behavior. Without this tension, Andy Dick's character Matthew wouldn't even exist.

Recognizing that line is the critical element that sets those shows above the rest of the office dramas and comedies. There are too many shows that take the easy way out, letting the characters develop only at work. This is poor planning, because it forces the show to develop emotional characterization in a place where it doesn't belong.

Working is supposed to build character; it's not supposed to substitute for character. It's understandable that there's a gradually fading line between personal and professional gratification: Work is one of the ways we add purpose to our lives, the Nineties' job market has been one long roller coaster, and that uncertainty affects people on a personal level. But one nasty side-effect of the "new" job market is a thriving job-fetish culture. An entire economy -- beepers, cell phones, ricochet modems and laptop computers -- is fueled by the idea that not being able to work at any time is a terrible fate. Have you ever wanted to be interrupted at your son's soccer game by your boss? You will.

And yet... the people in TV land seem a lot more emotionally fulfilled than those of us tethered to our office with electronic leashes. Why? Because nobody on them acts like an actual employee. Coworkers are endlessly witty and sexually available, bosses get cut off at the knees by their own visible folly, work conflicts are weighted with social symbolism.

Yeah, life must be sweet when you're a white-collar crusader. But back in the real world, chances are those people are too busy to watch television. So why not focus on the jobs many television watchers either had, or currently do?

Probably because those jobs are not exactly riveting. Who would watch a show about a fast food worker who courts a pink slip every time he refuses to serve french fries to fat people? Or who would thrill to the tense drama PO, where Postmaster Greene paws through piles of mis-sorted packages for a missing laptop?

Nobody would. Those shows all hit too close to home to make us feel good about what we do all day. But try telling any television producer that. The office is fun! Work makes you attractive and well-rounded! Your entire sense of purpose comes from your job!

Perhaps this is true in a planet where talking dogs are freelance consultants and every office comes staffed with a wise-cracking redhead secretary. But jobs on this planet are different, and the reality gap between the working world and the one on television is wearing me out.


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