Thursday, December 1, 2011

News flash: People on TV live better than we do

At left: Audrey Meadows and Jackie Gleason as Alice and Ralph in THE HONEYMOONERS.

I was looking at Ralph and Alice Kramden's tiny, dingy apartment last night, flipping channels and feeling some 50s nostalgia. And then, jarringly, I landed on some shiny new sitcom, and the same supposedly middle-class people are living in $350,000 homes.

Wait, what? How could they afford THAT? Alice and Ralph barely scraped by, and they didn't even have a car. They talked about not having a car, too. They talked about money. They talked about affording things and not affording things. I suddenly realized that modern TV characters do not talk about whether they can afford things now, unless it is something obviously expensive, like tuition to particularly-pricey colleges or spiffy sports cars or extended vacations to Paris. I also realized something else: Ralph and Alice didn't have credit cards. After all, they still bought ice for their actual ice box.

They didn't have much. No nice clothes, no nice furniture. People loved them because they identified with them.

When did that change? When did regular, just-folks TV characters turn into imitation-rich-people? Even though the characters are given simple occupations, they are clearly living way beyond their means and above their pay-grade.

I first became aware of this back in the 90s, when some wit (possibly in the Village Voice) wrote an article about the then-wildly-popular show "Friends"--suggesting that their respective apartments would cost ____ (something outlandish) that unemployed actors and waitresses (the "Friends" occupations) could never possibly afford.

This TV Trope became known as Friends Rent Control, which was the official excuse for this luxurious apartment-dwelling:

Besides appealing to audience fantasy, this is usually done because large sets are easier to film in. If Monica or Chandler's apartment on Friends had been realistic, the entire apartment would be the size of an average living room, rather than the entire first floor of a house. Doing a scene with all six main characters would have been a total nightmare for the cast and crew. It's for this very reason that Angel changed its primary set from a cramped basement office in Season 1 to a spacious hotel in Season 2. In some cases, though, the reason is that the writers and producers have either forgotten or never known how normal people live; born into prosperity with parents able to afford the best universities and pampered by the entertainment industry, they actually have no clue of how the majority of people live.
Ah, we get to the heart of it.

Jackie Gleason came from Brooklyn, and actually grew up at 328 Chauncey Street, the address he used in THE HONEYMOONERS. His parents were both from Ireland. He WAS Ralph Kramden, except he didn't drive a bus (but you could certainly imagine him driving one). Jackie Gleason was poor and never even graduated from high school. He hadn't forgotten how it was to live with an ice box that used real ice.

There is a similar TV trope called Living in a Furniture Store, the title of which sums up how these TV-homes are designed and arranged.

Speaking of furniture stores, does all of this STUFF in TV shows (which we are to believe is owned by regular people like you and me), cause viewers to crave more STUFF? I think it does. I was just admiring some of the bed linens and coverings in an EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND rerun, and thinking idly of my tacky, ancient quilts and how I fall short. I see no reason to have new quilts when I love my old ones, but... well... they ARE old, and I am suddenly conscious of it.

In fact, these thoughts started me thinking about this post, and got me wondering how other people feel about this phenomenon.

What do you think when you see dental-hygienists and waiters and other low-income people living like kings on TV? Do you laugh at it, or does it annoy you?

Have you ever craved something you saw on a TV show? And let me clarify: I do NOT refer to commercials and advertising; it is the JOB of a TV commercial to make you crave something, but it is simply a symptom of viewing that makes you crave something you saw on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. (It is also a by-product of wanting to be like the characters, as when millions of women cut their hair like Jennifer Aniston back in the 90s.)

Your thoughts?


sheila said...

First of all I hate Networked blogs. That damn thing NEVER lets me open a comment window, just blanks out with nothing. Ughhhh. So I came over the regular way, lol.

To your post... you know I've never seen something on tv that I wanted to buy or had to have. And I never really thought about the whole income / job / rent/ lifestyle thing much either. But that is true, and weird.

I like some of the new shows and they seem to be a little more in tune: New Girl, 2 Broke Girls those are 2 new ones I watch that seem realistically set. Then I think back to Roseanne and that show definitely was set in their lifestyle. Hmmmm, now I'll be thinking about this all damn night, thanks.

D. said...

The odd thing is that both the working class and the middle class get disappeared in that trope; it's as if everyone is the Drysdales.

JoJo said...

As a Friends-a-holic, Monica's apartment was explained away as having been under rent control when her grandmother lived there. Monica moved in when her grandmother moved to Florida but the landlord didn't know it had changed hands. Chandler made a lot of money at his job and supported he and Joey. Phoebe's grandmother willed her apartment to Phoebe.

Marshall Stacks said...

The Honeymooners was bleak and brilliant at the same time. It's contemporary shows The Adventures Of Ozzie & Harriet, and I Love Lucy had more upmarket homes, then later The Dick Van Dyke Show always used to intrigue me that they drank liquor when he got home from work. This little Aussie child thought that must be what sophisticated Americans did.
Sometimes, to enjoy a sitcom, we have to suspend disbelief, and I am happy to do this for some shows, but with The Honeymooners it was not required at all.
Reality TV pioneer!
Thanks Daisy D.

Dave Dubya said...

Corporate and media interests cultivate the consumer culture. They nurture consumption by consumers, who in turn, fuel the corporate and media consumer culture by their consumption.

Consume, consume, consume. It is the American way.

Anonymous said...

i think it's the backgrounds of contemporary tv writers and (significantly) producers.

you can actually watch this progression by following the simpsons from season 1 (a mostly broke family, it's established that homer makes $200/week), to seasons 10 and up (where the whole family takes one or two extravagant international voyages every year). fucking college grads ruin everything.

Marion said...

The people and their homes that are depicted in American tv shows had me thinking for years that all Americans had a lot of money. It wasn't until in later years when I did a lot of travelling in the states where I discovered it wasn't true. I have an American friend who laughs at my naivete, but that is all I saw of America in Canada...just cable sitcoms which showed people with awesome furniture etc., even if they were supposed to be not that well off.

At one point, I thought things must cost an awful lot less than they did in Canada, hahahaha!! Ah, well...xx

Danny said...

Like you say its about the fantasy.

People like seeing nice things and people that are well off. That's why a you don't see too many tv characters lose their jobs (unless its part of a story where they either get it back, get a better job, or "do what they've always wanted").

Marshall Stacks said...

Danny - that is so true. During the 1930's depression, the films of Fred Astaire (and some ofTthe Marx Bros) with glamorous gowns, nightclubs and interiors were wonderful 'escapist' entertainment - and they still work for me. X X

Becky said...

Cynically speaking, these are the future filers of bankruptcy or those who will lose their homes to foreclosure because they bought into something that they can't afford (the oft repeated image of the minimum wage earner crashing the system is misleading) but we'll never see that outcome on tv...too depressing.

Embedded advertising is another reason for all the nice stuff. Even if you can't see the label, the sponsor might grab your attention with ads it has also placed commercially "Ooo Target...quilts....go buy".

Also, selling a lifestyle...June Cleaver, Harriet Nelson, et al did not represent the moms in my neighborhood, but maybe those that emulated them sent their kids to a private school and we never knew them :)

pissedoffwoman said...

It's true about bodies too. Getting worse all the time. Compare movies and especially live-action kids' shows on TV from the 80's to those made today, it seems people on TV today are just more cookie cutter in their looks: better skin, subtle makeup rather than garish to none at all, barely anybody fat. It's really alienating, either way.

John B said...

I'm totally susceptible to the TV telling me to buy something. Exactly like Opus in the early Bloom County!

That's why when I leave home, I will not turn on the TV unless I see mushroom clouds.

I adore NCIS, but they make me wanna buy a SIG-245. A pistol of Swiss design, made in Germany, and with parts replacement issues!

I did point out that an average computer geek could duplicate the MTAC room in his basement for about 5 grand.

bryce said...

how'd i miss this post? luv it.

im a sucker for 'eatery locations' - resturants all look like "sets" & nobodys aprons ever get dirty, no solo cups or plastic forks anywhere, wait staff doesnt sweat. signs never have burnt out letters. & these are suposedly 'greasey spoons' - by my estimate ina big city? $30 per couple. doesnt include tip.