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like it's your job
why tv gets the workplace wrong
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
4.5.10
television

The scene: a glamorous, gorgeous party. Nighttime. Along the waterfront in New York City. Strings of lights. Beautiful people. The center of it all, a man in sunglasses, is thronged by gorgeous young women in down-to-there-dresses. He commands attention from the crowd and begins to speak.

About his book.

It's the opening scene of the pilot of "Castle", about a novelist, and the least realistic depiction of a book party I have ever seen in my life, which is probably why the pilot is the only episode of "Castle" I've ever seen.

We writers don't make great TV. On occasion, TV can make a writer's job function as a solid central conceit even if the depiction of the work (and the type of apartment one might be able to afford from said work) isn't terribly realistic, as with Carrie in "Sex and the City." But much more often, television has to take things off in a completely unbelievable direction in order to make the profession and the person interesting, and to have a plot week after week.

Like a hunky crime novelist who partners up with a hot-but-buttoned-up lady cop to solve crimes, as in "Castle". And I have to admit although I don't watch it, I don't begrudge its existence, since it provides employment for the ever-excellent Nathan Fillion. And because it makes people think writers are interesting. And hot.

There's a certain amount of fudging we'll always accept in our TV, right? Sitcoms aren't documentaries. Michael Scott would have been fired, many times over, and Dwight Schrute possibly jailed. The teens of "Gossip Girl" are neither realistic teens nor realistic people. The only television show I can think of from the past 10 years that has shown people living in houses that look like real people's houses is "Friday Night Lights". TV isn't about reality. (Ironically, even reality TV isn't about reality, despite the name.)

But on some level, the inability of TV to accurately reflect people's jobs bothers me. Most of us work. Work is a huge part of life. If television were your only source for learning about other people's jobs, you'd think that doctors are more concerned about sex than surgery, all lawyers are trial lawyers, and cops run around with guns blazing every day. Not incidentally, you'd also think that most people are doctors, lawyers, and cops.

The problem with shows like -- oh, there are too many to name, but let's throw out "Grey's Anatomy", and any of David E. Kelley's 83 lawyer shows -- is that they are entirely built around the conceit that they are, in fact, educating you about the professions they depict. Whatever the characters do on "Desperate Housewives" -- owning a pizza parlor, or whatever -- is incidental. It's played as incidental. The show is about the relationships of the key women in the neighborhood. Whereas on "Grey's Anatomy", which is supposedly a show about doctors and therefore a show that should have solid medical knowledge behind it, writers are patting themselves on the back for showing a doctor character with Asperger's Syndrome, and not only getting it wrong, but playing it for laughs. Wacky music. Ha-ha misunderstandings. Now, in the context of a show that also is known for flinging its characters into sexual situations willy-nilly and partnering them up almost like a child would slam each of her various Barbies against her various Kens, maybe nothing they write is meant to be taken seriously. Maybe it's just a soap. But it's still an insult to doctors, and it still makes the dangerous mistake of taking a group of actions and labeling it "doctor behavior", in a way that non-workplace shows don't. You never worried about whether "Seinfeld" was stereotyping certain actions as "comedian behavior" or "Star Trek: The Next Generation" stereotyping Picard's actions as "starship captain behavior."

In the first season of "ER", the show was applauded for realistically showing an emergency room doctor's life, but that spiraled downward over the years. Eventually they ran out of plots and energy and enthusiasm, and they amped up the "drama" by, say, killing people with helicopters. And in the current landscape, the only show I can think of that actually teaches viewers something about a profession is, believe it or not, "Mad Men."

Maybe it's because it's historical and not set in the present. Maybe it's because, well, it's just a much better-written show. But when you watch "Mad Men", you're picking up lingo about art departments and pitches and copy and the Head of Accounts and all those realistic aspects of the job, without watching characters who are all-about-the-job boring. The admen of "Mad Men" do all the stupid things the doctors of "Gray's Anatomy" do -- drink and blab and sleep with the wrong people -- without making you label their actions as "ad man behavior."

Or maybe it's because most of us will never be called upon to contrast the imaginary "ad men" of television with people in our own lives. All of us will meet doctors. Many of us will meet lawyers. A whole lot of us, at one point or another, will meet cops. And some of us will think we know something about them, because we've seen them on TV.

Whatever the reasons, whatever the cause, it's a shame. Because it's not that much harder to write a show about the realistic aspects of a profession than it is to focus on the unrealistic ones. A little more research, a little more care. I'm convinced it's not that hard.

Unless you're trying to write a show about a writer.

Then you may as well kick things off with a very lively, very glamorous book party and call it good.


ABOUT JAEL MCHENRY

Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry

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COMMENTS

jeffrey walker
4.6.10 @ 10:35a

tv would have you think "all lawyers are trial lawyers" - yes!

Also, there isn't really a lot of honest depictions what it's like to play in a working rock band. All tv /movies show are parties, booze and women. As Rocko Dorsey drummer, DD Mancuso, says of touring, "it's anything but glamorous." I concur.



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