New Shows' Recession Themes: Risky Business

The recession has already taken its toll on the media industry's bottom line, depressing advertising revenue and curtailing production budgets. Now the economic reality is beginning to show up in the creative, with shows hung on the broken backs of victims of the downturn.

But while addressing the elephant in the room may be judicious at the financial planner's office, is it something that can be successfully played for laughs?

“Television is about escapism,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “Viewers want to be entertained and escape their economic situation. To be reminded of that may not be something that a lot of them want to see.”

ABC's Hank and The Middle, Fox's Brothers, HBO's Hung and reality series Someone's Gotta Go on Fox are among those with recessionary themes. Hank stars Kelsey Grammer as a pompous corporate titan whose life is upended when he's pink-slipped. The Middle recalls classic blue-collar comedy Roseanne, which is the subject of a June 5 TV Land recession-themed marathon; Roseanne mined the timeless American leitmotif of middle-class struggle that The Middle is clearly attempting to emulate. But there is also a risk that when the country begins to climb out of the recession, a show like Hank with a premise that so clearly cleaves to the current downturn could become dated.

Tone is also critical. Grammer's Hank may find redemption in his new lower status when a smaller house and long hours at home force him to get reacquainted with his family, but viewers reeling from job losses may miss the payoff. “They're not living out of his car,” says Shari Anne Brill, senior VP and director of programming at Carat. “They're still living pretty nicely. This guy falls from his pedestal and has to do middle-class housing, but what about the people who can't make their next house payments?”

The reaction to Someone's Gotta Go underscores the sensitivity to the swelling ranks of the unemployed. Few have seen a single frame of the show, which is still in development at Fox. But the concept—employees choose who among them will get laid off—sparked immediate outrage.

HBO's Hung, which premieres June 28, uses the economy as a catalyst to explore shifting social constructs. Thomas Jane plays a former high school jock who becomes a gigolo after he loses his job as the high school basketball coach.

“We really wanted to explore what it's like for a guy who was at the center of his world, who was the ultimate insider, and then the world shifted. And he's waking up to the idea that he's now an outsider,” explains Dmitry Lipkin, who co-created the show with his wife, Colette Burson.

They set the show in Detroit, where the blue-collar dream of a middle-class life is dying with the American auto industry. “People had these middle-class lives, and things didn't cost a lot and you were guaranteed a good job,” Burson says. “And then the economy began deteriorating, and suddenly hanging on to that middle-class piece of the pie became very difficult.”