Essay/Film & Television

Working on TV

The golden age of TV drama raises some big questions about work and the meaning of life

Bruce Robbins

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men ponders the meaning of work. Photo courtesy AMC

is the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in Humanities at Columbia University in New York. His latest book is Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (2012).

4,000 words

Edited by Sam Haselby

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‘This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life,’ says Peggy to Don toward the end of the US TV series Mad Men. Don has been gathering ideas for a speech to the McCann Erickson advertising agency that he says has to be visionary, like the Gettysburg Address. Peggy tries to bring him down to earth. Remember, she says, this is just a job.

There is a lot to be said for the ‘it’s just a job’ perspective. We all know people who seem to think that what they do every day is in the same league as conferring a new birth of freedom on a nation torn apart by slavery and Civil War. (From time to time, we might even be such people ourselves.) We also know that confusing your job with the meaning of life encourages you to forget how little freedom most people have for anything else, and how many socially valuable tasks (taking care of small children or elderly relatives, for example) don’t get the respect or remuneration they merit. The innocent moral imperative to stand on your own two feet helps sustain structures of inequality that have come to seem – no lesser word will do – barbaric. The work ethic has a lot to answer for.

Considering how often the nature and meaning of work comes under fresh and vital scrutiny – see for example Kathi Weeks’s The Problem With Work (2011) or James Livingston’s forthcoming Fuck Work – it seems plausible that we might one day actually try to come up with social arrangements that are more rational and equitable than the work-centered ones we now have. Or is this just a utopian daydream?

Evidence to the contrary comes from an unlikely source: television. Although associated with the freedom to mute, surf, and binge-watch, TV pays attention not only to what we do when we’re on the clock, it also asks philosophical questions about work and the meaning of life, urging us to demand more meaning (whatever that might be) from what we do for a living.

One might expect TV to say about work what The Office says: that what you are obliged to do all day is pointless. Even more awful than its pointlessness is the grandiloquent and opaque managerial psychobabble in which the pointlessness is draped. Television would thus be propagandising for itself, reminding us how much better off we are in our leisure time (which we are spending watching TV).

TV also plays a large role in teaching us our place in society – certainly a larger role than school. So one might also expect that it would propagate a work-centred worldview, helping us get out of bed in the morning by erasing from our minds the burdensome question of why we should. There are no doubt shows that do just this. But in our much-discussed era of high-quality TV, it’s worth discussing the shows that are not so simple, nor so predictable.

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Shows such as Mad Men, for example. As fans will recall, Don’s success in advertising has always come from his ability to talk like a visionary. There’s that scene with the Kodak slide projector that Don names the Carousel and sells by explaining what memory means to a family. It might not be the most nuanced answer ever proposed to the riddle of life’s meaning, but life’s meaning was definitely the topic Don was taking on. At the heart of Mad Men lies the question of whether work might be, or might become, something more than what you do to survive.

In this sense the series is more representative than not. Consider a quick selection of pilots. In the opening episode of Scandal, we see Olivia Pope’s crisis management operation in Washington, DC through the eyes of the ‘new girl in the office’, a ‘stray dog’ who has been ‘taken in’, and maybe (she thinks) in more than one sense. Caught crying in the ladies’ room, she is told that she’s there because she needs to feel there’s something more than a 9-to-5 job, that life can have more meaning than that, and that she doesn’t have to feel lost. Such concerns will, as the show’s producers have calculated, be widely shared.

In answer to those concerns, the recruiter feeds the new girl two lines. First: ‘I’m a gladiator in a suit.’ And second: ‘We’re the good guys.’ Are we supposed to be satisfied by these lines? A gladiator does not necessarily fight on behalf of truth and justice, whatever those terms might have meant in the Roman Empire. An imagefixer such as Olivia works outside the law and, it would appear, outside morality as well. Or does she? The pilot takes some time and trouble to establish, firstly, that intense work pressure need not mean the exclusion of a private life; and, secondly, that Olivia’s conscience is on full alert: the company she works for, though very profitable, is also, morally speaking, on the side of the angels. It’s the equivalent of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot: there are demons walking the earth, and in every generation there is a Chosen One born to slay them, even if the slaying takes time away from homework. But Scandal is arguably more successful in making us wonder whether, as society is presently arranged, we really can be the good guys while we’re at work.

What if being a slacker gets you nicer clothes and a better house than you’ll get by following the rules?

In terms of meaningful work, rescuing people from burning buildings would seem to rate high. If a firefighter is not on the side of the good guys, then who is? But in the pilot of Rescue Me, as in any number of police procedurals, the point seems to be that society’s rewards are distributed in inverse proportion to the social significance of the work done. The wife of the firefighter protagonist has left him because she wants a more upscale life: she can do better with a guy who works in finance. The allegory is rough but inevitable. The work ethic used to mean putting yourself on the line. Today, physical risk has been replaced by speculative risk. The hero is supposed to be traumatised by the loss of his fellow firefighters on 9/11, but it’s as if it were the performance of his occupation itself that has traumatised him. Maybe I am a fool to believe in the fundamental rightness of rescuing people or catching the bad guys.

The pilot of White Collar doesn’t quite say so, but it comes close. Like Rescue Me, it asks if we’re being conned when we agree to care so much about undercompensated jobs, when those around us see them as less meaningful than we do. The show sets up a buddy relationship between a cop and a robber. Since James Fenimore Cooper and Leslie Fiedler first speculated about Hawkeye and Chingachgook in the forest, and Huck and Jim on the raft, we in the US have learned to look at buddy relationships as the embodiment of contradictions (such as the racial divide) that our culture half-recognises and is trying to resolve. In TV shows such as White Collar, work has upstaged race.

The headline-grabbing contradiction is between the cop’s work ethic and the charming, slacker, ‘something-for-nothing’ ethos of the robber. What if being a slacker gets you nicer clothes and a better house than you’ll get by following, indeed enforcing, the rules? Look around you, says the crook to the cop: the financiers are making out like the bandits they are. Even if some of them do work extremely hard, their success is collective, and dependent on the incomes of both bad and good players being beyond the reach of the cop who protects their property.

Can doing something that’s incontrovertibly good make you a sucker? The question helps to account for the popularity of TV shows in which the audience roots for a murderer who kills only other killers (Dexter), or for criminals robbing other criminals (Leverage). You don’t have to worry about whether you’re working for the good guys when everyone out there is a criminal.

One would not have thought advertisers would pay for shows that present everyday work under capitalism as indistinguishable from criminality. Yet that proposition illuminates a surprising swath of contemporary TV. Mad Men occasionally reminds us that an agency such as Sterling Cooper is paid to enhance the image of Lucky Strike cigarettes, which are hard to dissociate from Betty’s terminal cancer, as well as Dow Chemical, the maker of napalm, indelibly associated with the photo of the burned, naked Vietnamese girl, running and screaming.

How different is the situation of big oil today? How much of what we call respectable work is something that nobody under any circumstances should be allowed to do? Such subversive questions are actively provoked by the long-running gangster shows The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad. These particular series are all about men, and all a man wants to do is provide for his family. But given the rules of the game, providing for your family might entail committing acts you can’t tell your family about, including murder. That’s just how it is. It’s not your fault. You’re just doing your job.

It’s strange to find the ‘just doing my job’ defence popping up in the 21st-century US, even as an implicit myth of our collective entrapment in a system we didn’t choose for ourselves. It’s a defence that didn’t work well for the Nazis at Nuremberg. Looking at the full run of these series rather than just the pilots, you’d say it works a bit better for these difficult men. Their situation is not quite tragic. On the one hand, you’re waiting to see when and how the guy’s misdeeds will catch up with the family for whom he performed them. On the other, there is the prospect that the show might throw up its hands and refuse to judge. Perhaps we’ve decided that work, like capitalism, is beyond good and evil.

a woman can be a doctor, a lawyer, a detective, a POTUS. But can she do so and have kids? Not according to Mad Men

This would seem to be the intended conclusion of shows where the protagonist is a woman who has been denied a chance to compete with men, or to compete at all. By the Cinderella principle, all viewers are thereby authorised to identify with and endorse her striving for professional success without any nagging afterthoughts about the nature or consequences of her success. Underdog status hands you an ethical get-out-of-jail-free card.

TV’s strong women pay a high price for the positions of responsibility and power they now increasingly occupy. In these shows, a woman can be a doctor, a lawyer, a detective, a POTUS. But can she do so and have kids? Not according to Mad Men. Don’s talent in advertising is part and parcel of his being good with children (children being inseparable from the meaning of life). Don’s great Carousel campaign, for example, is addressed to the feelings that link kids and parents. Peggy seems to have much the same advertising talent as Don. Why, then, is she portrayed as someone who doesn’t like kids and is awkward with them? Like Carrie in Homeland and Sarah Linden in The Killing, Peggy is punished for her extraordinary public competence with some degree of private unhappiness, or at least ineptitude.

But from the perspective of work, the punishment of women is not really the point. The New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley argued that Peggy’s love for her work redeems the whole series. But is she right to love it? Even viewers who have rooted whole-heartedly for Peggy through seven seasons would be hard-pressed to argue that her success in her work, with or without the final reward of a boyfriend, has much to say about the meaning of life. It doesn’t quite reassure us that advertising, or perhaps professional success at all, is worth the costs.

Television keeps asking such delicate questions. Six Feet Under is about a family that runs a funeral home. It makes the profession of undertaker seem socially valuable not by reminding us that it’s necessary but by entering into an argument with advertising about which profession is more meaningful. In the pilot episode, advertising is shown as farce: dancers in a TV spot for funeral home products sing: ‘We put the fun back in funeral.’ Meanwhile, the slacker older brother, drawn back into the business by his father’s death, literally gets his hands dirty flinging fistfuls of earth onto his father’s coffin. The suggestion is that, if he were to take over this company, his work might offer a more meaningful relationship with the truths of life and death – truths that (the show suggests) advertising induces us to forget.

Real-work-is-dirty-work is the signature formula of the documentary Dirty Jobs, whose pilot sends the TV personality Mike Rowe to accompany a bat biologist as he trudges through deep bat guano and flesh-eating beetles in order to make sure the bats are all right. Like preparing corpses for burial, this form of work involves putting up with extreme physical disgust. The show looks like a valiant rearguard defence of manual labour, and to some extent it is. But it’s not what the bat caretakers have to put up with – for example, blending mealworms into a fish milkshake to feed injured bats – that really makes the case. The biologist’s work is mental as much as manual labour; the same could be said about the host. The key here is the aim, which is not maximising profit. Though bats eat a lot of insects, we can imagine a world without bat biologists, as we can imagine a world without literature professors like me. The work is meaningful not because of the dirt and disgust, but because its point is care for the animals.

The pilot of Grey’s Anatomy tells the interns beginning their seven-year residency ordeal that not all of them will make it

Care for others, human or non-human: this too seems like a truth capable of making work, and life, meaningful. Of course, it’s a tough standard to apply to work as it is currently structured. Many of those who do it – home health attendants for example – are the lowest compensated members of the workforce, or not considered part of the workforce at all. They are not stage-centre in the prime-time narrative. At prime-time, work is more often portrayed as cut-throat competition, usually within an organisational structure as likely to punish or thwart as to reward merit.

While competition has no place on Dirty Jobs, it’s everywhere else in mainstream representations of work, often as an immovable fact of human nature rather than the provisional result of how work is organised. The pilot of NCIS devotes a great deal of its time to a turf war between various criminal-investigative agencies. The pilot of CSI: Las Vegas foregrounds the (friendly) competition of two agents trying to be the first to solve 100 cases. The pilot of Grey’s Anatomy informs the interns beginning their seven-year residency ordeal that not all of them will make it and that (Survivor-like) they are in competition with each other.

At the same time, these are not game shows – or at least they demand that competition be balanced by, even transformed into, cooperation. Cooperation sets a moral standard for work that’s higher than winning. It’s not for nothing that so many of these workplaces are firehouses, laboratories, hospitals. Work here is in the unquestionable service of public good. The pilot of CSI: Miami starts with an attempt to rescue the victims of a plane crash, and ends with the realisation that the crash was caused by a crooked capitalist trying to murder a whistleblowing accountant. The pilot of Grey’s Anatomy ends with the line: ‘It’s a beautiful night to save lives. Let’s have some fun.’

There is a utopian aspect to the presumption that competition and cooperation can be reconciled, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. Remember utopia when you see a post-apocalyptic show such as The Walking Dead or, for that matter, Survivor. Zombie apocalypses eliminate the advanced division of labour. And one outcome might have been intended all along: a vacation from the office. The end of the world as you knew it also means realising why you do whatever work you now do for nothing. Simple tasks are no longer drudgery when the alternative is to be devoured by the undead. Abolishing specialised labour brings a regression to the always ideological ideal of self-reliance. But it turns out that the zombie apocalypse also involves a need for impassioned conversation (often on screen) about what we collectively think meaningful work might be. And when was the last time that happened at your job?

TV does get goggle-eyed about the division of labour. CSI-style teams of specialists, each with magical gadgets and equally magical expertise, seem engineered to make specialisation look like a social ideal where everyone has a vital skill and an indispensable niche. Inequality seems inconceivable, and certainly invisible. This is one way in which TV makes us want to go to work in the morning. John Rogers, the co-creator of Leverage, has coined the term ‘competence porn’ to describe the way audiences adore briefing scenes in which ‘competent people banter and plan’. The term certainly applies to the Sherlock Holmes-style knowledge of the material world, from door hinges to the price of expensive shoes, which offers much of the pleasure on these crime shows.

Think of the good-natured discomfort of the host of Dirty Jobs as he is instructed in the yucky, nether side of labour. What’s crucial is not merely that he participates as well as observes, but that he banters all the way through it. The jokes in the bat cave are all about this being a kind of date. You really know how to show a guy a good time, he tells the biologist, and then: ‘I bet you say that to all the guys.’ Serial buddydom with the people who do the dirtiest jobs is about the forging of emotional bonds that are in some sense comparable to erotic ones. What would you call such bonds? Collegiality doesn’t seem like an adequate name. It’s closer to how the 18th century used the word ‘condescend’ as a compliment; a man who could talk with ease to those of lower social stations was said to ‘condescend well’. It’s the ability to create a kind of comfortable, working relationship without transgressing into familiarity or intimacy.

The Dirty Jobs host is an unlikely avatar of the Durkheimian intellectual but, here he is, showing us why what they do matters

The pioneering French sociologist Émile Durkheim argued that specialisation within an advanced division of labour did not necessarily tear society apart, as those who were nostalgic for homogeneous community (Gemeinschaft) feared. But the less that society is held together by common occupations and beliefs, the more it needs the help of what he called corps intermédiaire: intellectuals dedicated to explaining to others that all these different jobs do belong to a common enterprise. That’s how you avoid what Durkheim baptised anomie – literally, the absence of norms or moral guidance, but, as he used it, a depression-inducing mismatch between the individual’s aspirations and the needs of others, or the job market. The Dirty Jobs host, who has since been involved in similar work-themed TV ventures, might be thought of as an unlikely avatar of the Durkheimian intellectual, but here he is, showing us other people’s jobs, bonding with them, and telling us why what they do matters.

Telling others why their work matters is not quite what Don Draper had in mind when he imagined making a Gettysburg Address-style speech to the firm’s new owners, and thus determining whether his labours would perish from the earth. But it’s moving in that direction. In order to believe that specialisations belong to a common enterprise and not just to free enterprise, you’d have to take the step from banter to politics. Television is not comfortable with politics. Consider the workplace comedy Parks and Recreation, which takes The Office’s reality-TV format and its slightly hysterical satire, and applies them to municipal government. The opening scene of the opening episode shows our puffed-up, clipboard-carrying heroine-to-be trying to interview a small child in a sandbox about how good a time she is having, on a scale of 1 to 10. Bureaucracy could not look more asinine. And yet this is not just a joke on the protagonist’s self-importance. Whatever their personal motives, she and her co-workers are taking an abandoned building site and making a park out of it. The project might not be gargantuan, but it promises to do something for the wellbeing of their neighbours.

On a nobler scale, Lincolnesque concern for the fate of the republic finds its paradigmatic expression in The West Wing. In retrospect, it seems clear that the show was always about the ideal of work. ‘This is a great job,’ President Bartlet announces charmingly. And it is, although the series also presents work as all-consuming enough that, for most of the characters most of the time, private life simply disappears. Bartlet is an ideal boss and, not coincidentally, a champion banterer. Even with perhaps the most high‑pressure, impossible job in the world, he never stops stopping to make small talk with the staff, important and less important, picking up on how life looks to them, and sustaining his interest in what they have to say.

It has often been noted that television warms the lives of the lonely by offering them an artificial family. What is not usually added is how often the artificial family inhabits a workplace and is populated by co-workers. Thus work is asked to give back, emotionally speaking, much of the meaningfulness that long hours away from home have sacrificed.

You probably shouldn’t start thinking of your 9-to-5 job as if you were President Bartlet, let alone Abraham Lincoln. Don Draper’s Gettysburg fantasy leads only to the Coca-Cola I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing commercial – a tawdry vision of unity (this time global rather than national) and a much less savory version of US patriotism, though a triumphant professional accomplishment. Still, in the interest of getting to better social arrangements, something like the fate of the republic, or the public good, ought to be allowed to hover above what we presently do for a living. The economy is strong enough to invite that kind of scrutiny. I would feel better about delivering refrigerators, or designing software, or teaching English, or whatever, if I knew that the staff in the real West Wing were giving their full devotion to ensuring that, say, the care of the very young and the very old does not fall on people who are underpaid or not paid at all.

‘Get a job!’ is usually shorthand for a multi-step exhortation: toughen up, take responsibility for yourself, get out in the world, and start by picking yourself up from the sofa and turning off the television. But in addition to being routinised, deadening and alienating, many of the jobs on offer also fail to build character, at least if character includes the courage to ask hard questions about what is, or isn’t, worth doing. Yet television very often does ask those questions. So in the interest of character-building, we might advise the hesitant to stay on that sofa.

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