“There certainly is an awful lot to mine there,” Norman Lear says on the telephone from Los Angeles. At 86, the legendary television producer is still cooking up shows (he’s got one in the works for HBO about a professional wrestling family), and he sounded sprightly.
The subject was the sudden surge of recession-themed comedies this pilot season. Among them is ABC’s Canned, starring Amanda Bynes, about young bankers after they all get, you know, canned. Kelsey Grammer stars in an unnamed ABC pilot as a laid-off Wall Streeter who must—quelle horreur!—spend time with his family. CBS is mulling a slacker comedy called Waiting to Die, and Fox has Two Dollar Beer, set in Detroit, and Brothers, starring Michael Strahan as a former NFL pro who returns home to help his wheelchair-bound sibling. Meanwhile, Roseanne Barr—who struck it rich in the blue-collar Roseanne—is mulling a return to series TV.
After years of blingy, bubbly, aspirational bliss—Sex and the City, The Hills, Gossip Girl, etc.—programmers are wondering if audience tastes are swerving down-market. After all, right now, even The Office’s Dunder-Mifflin seems like a pretty awesome place to work. “It’s definitely a conversation—‘What’s the appetite?’ ” says Fox exec Matt Cherniss.
Lear’s All in the Family premiered in 1971, just as America stumbled into recession, and though it would be celebrated for its courage in tackling subjects like race and women’s rights, it was principally a funny show about real people with worn furniture. The same went for later Lear works like Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, Good Times, and Maude. “I think everyday life is the best topic in the world to mine for comedy,” he says. Networks might crave diversions, but audiences can handle reality, he added. “I don’t think there’s a hazard in treating American viewers as grown-ups.”
But the truth is that the networks caught recession fever a long time ago. The days of everybody-watches-it hits like All in the Family are gone, mostly replaced by reality TV that’s cheap to produce and doesn’t need to understand the national mood. Freaks ate worms for money when the Dow was at 12,000, after all.