To judge from decades of TV drama, we all love our jobs—or, rather, we all are our jobs. Existentially, at heart, beneath the skin, under our suits, we are prosecutors or surgeons or president of the universe (and on television, there are few other jobs: With the exception of The Office, TV provides the fantasy that our jobs always matter deeply). At home only among our workmates, we spend days in meaningful collaboration, which is to say, stylized bickering—strutting Sorkinishly down the hallway or making bad puns over a homicide victim, often with a quasi-erotic charge.
TV offers a dreamscape of a work life so intense, so embracing, that such sniping partnerships are deeper than any love affair, a fact sometimes lamented on these shows but inevitably accepted as transcendent truth. This is particularly true on series about the creative workplace—for a TV writer, the equivalent of an autobiography. This may mean the marriage of one neurotic (thirtysomething’s Michael Steadman, Sports Night’s Casey McCall) with one louche type (Elliot Weston, Dan Rydell). Often it’s one exasperated goody-goody (Mary Richards, Liz Lemon, Newsradio’s Dave Nelson) hitched to an ensemble as diverse as a platoon in a World War II movie. Perhaps there’s an opaque, magisterial, cranky boss (Lou Grant, thirtysomething’s Miles Drentell). Maybe there’s a stallionesque horndog (Suddenly Susan’s Luis Rivera, Newsradio’s Joe Garrelli). Always, there are explosive brainstorms, which function like sex scenes on an HBO series, providing catharsis and naughty verve.
Trust Me is a neat spin on this ancient tradition—and in fact, I shall grandly state that it is, in both its lovable and off-putting elements, a workplace drama for our time. Set in the world of advertising, the series has it both ways: It makes the development of catchphrases for cell phones feel as fraught as a Chicago hospital, all while maintaining an ironic distance from that very conceit. Like a certain type of hyperwitty ad, Trust Me can be a little glib. And yet beneath its screwball rhythms, it captures something very modern, the sickening rush of the glamorous workplace under financial threat: the terror of the blank page, the fear of being a hack, the reassuring monologue of grandiosity a “creative” delivers when she feels she’s being overlooked, and possibly made (in that poignant British word for fired) redundant. On Trust Me, creativity is fueled by the sense that the beautiful job is about to disappear.
There have been a few series about ad folk: thirtysomething, One Day at a Time, and Bewitched come to mind. And, of course, there’s Mad Men, that eerie slipstream of early sixties nostalgia, in which the production of a great slogan is the equivalent of a brilliant novel, so cynical are those who produce them. Trust Me is a lighter concoction, all smarty-pants rhythms and dinka-dinka-dink energy music. But it too has a convincing anxiety at its center, a sense that all the patter—these guys are funny, but they do tend to talk in catchphrase italics—is there to fend off something bad that’s on the way. A boss’s nail taps on a desk during a bad presentation. A man dies mid-brainstorm, his heart finally giving out from the competition.
The show stars Eric McCormack as, basically, Will from Will & Grace—handsome, conventional, and prickly. But rather than a straightish gay guy, here he’s a gayish straight guy, and his name is Mason. He’s paired with a louche partner, Ed’s Tom Cavanaugh as Conner, a lanky, goofball, chatterbox bachelor, cast in the Jack role.
The series thrives on the engine of these two charmers and their spitting, fizzing mutual charisma, but it also owes a debt to Josh Ferris’s group-narrated And Then We Came to the End—it even features a moment when, as in that novel, a character steals a fancy office chair from a dead colleague’s office. The show shares that book’s aura of jaunty doom, its debate about precisely what kind of personality it takes to stay employed in terrible times. After a rage-filled boss rants about the necessity of scaring clients into submission, Mason snaps at him, “I guess I just think it’s possible to do this job without being an asshole.” The boss explodes back: “Do you think you’re safe because everybody likes you? You’re not.”
People shout a lot on Trust Me. Things like, “This agency will collapse under the weight of its own mediocrity!” and “Anyone who is planning on spending time with their significant other this week, cancel it!” Anxiety music rushes in when new people are hired, and during the show’s many meetings, there’s an air of nauseous resentment: over who is getting a window, who is the favored “creative,” over the fear that even talented people feel that their inventiveness is sputtering like bad gasoline.