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Saturday, January 11, 2014

January 11-12, 2014: Ben Mangrum’s Guest Post: The Post-Recession Comedy

[Ben Mangrum is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He’s the editor of Ethos: A Digital Review of Arts, Humanities, and Public Ethics, where a version of this post was original published on January 10, 2014.]

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that since the 2008 economic crisis, television comedies have often been as interested in the economic ups and downs of its characters as their romantic vicissitudes.  One of the most vivid examples of this shift is 2 Broke Girls (2011) now in its third season, which, for all its predictable humor, signals an attempt by networks to dramatize a search for happiness in the midst of diminished economic opportunity. Max Black (Kat Dennings) and Caroline Channing (Beth Behrs) wait tables at a Brooklyn restaurant while aspiring to open a cupcake shop.  When these budding entrepreneurs finally start their small business in the second season, it quickly fails.  This hapless odd couple, it seems, is caught within the uncertain limbo of economic crisis.  In fact, the first season begins with Caroline newly penniless after her father, Martin, is arrested for operating a Ponzi scheme in a thinly veiled allusion to the Bernie Madoff scandal.  In a way that’s not unlike the show’s viewers, Caroline is a child of the Great Recession.

Other post-Recession comedies abound.  Netflix’s updated version of Arrested Development (2013) converts the post-9/11 Bluth family and their “treason” with Saddam Hussein (so brilliantly executed in seasons 1-3, 2003-2006) into a narrative of economic collapse.  In the post-Recession Arrested Development, the oldest son of the Bluth family, Michael (Jason Bateman), is forced to move into the college dorm of his son, George Michael (Michael Cera).  Michael Bluth finally completes the Sudden Valley housing development that featured prominently in seasons 1-3, but these plans go belly-up when the 2007 housing bubble bursts.  Or, transporting this delayed socio-economic maturity into the halls of American higher education, Community (first airing 2009) follows a group of students at fictional Greendale Community College in Colorado.  Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a lawyer suspended for falsely claiming to have a degree from Columbia University, is as reluctant to complete his course work (or to learn Spanish), as he is to exit his now-adopted community of underachievers.  Many other contemporary comedies similarly feature protagonists trying to navigate an otherwise harsh and uncaring world (Raising Hope) or are career underachievers who retreat into an economically restricted domestic space (Ben and Kate).

My favorite post-Recession comedy, New Girl, follows Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel) after she moves into a Los Angeles loft with three strangers. Jess is a middle school teacher, who is at one point fired and piddles around until she finds another low-paying position teaching something vaguely like an English or Art class.  While Jess has a difficult time paying her bills in LA, her roommate Nick Miller (Jake Johnson) is a curmudgeonly bartender who dropped out of law school and is the exemplar of the post-Recession flaneur. The only exception to the economic morass of New Girl is Schmidt (Max Greenfield), a sort of Claudio figure who really steals the show in his pursuit of Cece (Hannah Simone).  Yet even Schmidt, a Junior Associate at a marketing corporation, is as much stuck within the loft as the rest of his friends.  It’s hard to imagine anyone of them permanently leaving this space of economic limbo.

Those who have been around the TV block might protest that the post-Recession comedy, with its dramatization of frustrated adult life under limited finances, doesn’t really seem all that new.  In an earlier generation of comedies, such as Friends (1994-2004), characters live together and struggle to survive in pricey Manhattan.  Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) holds down her first job as a waitress early in the opening episodes, and she’s astounded to find that she’s being nickel-and-dimed.  But the difference between Rachel Green and Jessica Day is that Friends imagines a world with economic mobility.  If Rachel’s a waitress and moves into an apartment with Monica at the beginning of the series, by the end of season 8 she’s a buyer for Ralph Lauren.  Even Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry), who quits an executive position with a multi-national corporation, rejoins the corporate world at an advertising agency in season 9.  The economic ladder is not only accessible but also easily ascendable, and such mobility is entwined with the ideas about happiness underlying the pre-Recession comedy. 

In contrast, for all its wit, even New Girl can’t seem to imagine its characters outside an arrested economic space.  The loft is the horizon of their world, and the viewers are invited to see how they find happiness under such meager circumstances.  Maybe that’s the best we can hope for, the post-Recession comedy seems to suggest.  In fact, what’s so troubling is not that the post-Recession comedy accurately depicts the growing income inequality in America, especially after the 2008 crisis.  Rather, what’s unsettling is that, in its imagination of a happy but financially unequal world, this generation of comedy may show us our horizons. Satisfaction is available, it seems to say, but you’ll have to find it despite dwindling wages and sparse resources.

[Next series starts Monday! In the meantime, check out Ethos for more great posts, including a recent one on Grapes of Wrath at 75 from friend of the blog Heidi Kim!
PS. What do you think?]

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