Remember when fishing was television of last resort, revered by dedicated anglers but glimpsed only occasionally by others, perhaps as a joke or during a visit to Grandpa's? These days, fishing is officially hot: Discovery Channel recently announced that men ages 18 to 49 ranked "The Deadliest Catch" No. 3 among all prime-time television on Tuesday night, beating out "Dancing With the Stars" and "Shark" in the demographic. (How hilarious is it that a show called "Deadliest Catch" beat out a show called "Shark"?)
Those damp and colorful Alaskan fishermen are just part of the hyper-masculine subgenre emerging on reality television. Discovery also has "Dirty Jobs," which explores unsung laborers like the road-kill collector and the steel-mill worker. Over on the History Channel, "Ice Road Truckers" follows the fate of big rigs navigating short-lived ice roads in the Arctic, and "Ax Men" pays homage to modern-day lumberjacks, while the new "It's Tougher in Alaska" compiles a greatest-hits list: gold mining, salmon fishing, trucking, railroading, even waste management will each get their own episode.
The folks are mostly men, all rugged, real and capable, proof that Americans are still capable of living by their wits and the strength in their calloused, competent hands. Call it testicular television.
It would be easy to see this as simply an answer to the feminization of network television. From "Grey's Anatomy" to "Ugly Betty" to "The Sarah Connor Chronicles," female characters increasingly call the shots; the men are too busy realizing its time to "grow up" to do much more than help solve a medical mystery or murder case.
But these shows are more about work than they are about men. The real narrative is about what many people do to earn money -- fishing, trucking, lumber, waste management. Most of them may not do it in Alaska, but Alaska is not the point either.
The point is that some people actually work at real jobs, hard and every darn day, for their paychecks. Even if, as on "Deadliest Catch," those paychecks have the potential to be pretty big, these are not salaried employees, not over-educated quip-slinging professionals. They are members of the working and middle class, and they have been all but abandoned by the rest of the entertainment industry.
It's a sad state of affairs when reality television provides the most realistic portrayal of anything, but it certainly acknowledges class in a way no other genre does these days. Shows such as "Ax Men," "Nanny 911," "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom" or even "Wife Swap" are just about the only places you will see a person who loses a day's work because some bit of machinery goes missing, or a family of six living in a tiny aluminum-sided rancher on a treeless lot, or a person who has to downscale his or her life in a way that is not temporary or soul-enriching.
Evidence that life is hard
Class may not be the theme of these shows, but when you bring cameras into people's homes and lives, there's no ignoring the beat-up carpet that the family cannot afford to replace, the rickety computer station in the middle of the living room, the jobs that involve hours of monotonous hard work, the emotional toll of trying to balance work and family without affordable day care.
Certainly these are not issues the characters on "Gossip Girl" or "House" or even "Two and a Half Men" are going to be grappling with any time soon.
Americans love to think that everyone is, essentially, middle or upper-middle class. Never mind those pesky statics; bus drivers don't have to wear uniforms any more, and anyone can buy a frock designed by Sarah Jessica Parker because it only costs $6. Nowhere is this illusion more strongly conjured than on television. Think of your favorite fictional television show. Is anyone on it poor or working class? It's even rare to see a truly middle-class family in prime time.
One of the many charms of "Friday Night Lights" is its depiction of lives that are neither urban nor high-rolling, and look at how the show has struggled despite all the acclaim. (Perhaps if they abandoned Dillon, Texas, for Manhattan or Santa Barbara it would fare better.) The "King of Queens" was a parcel delivery man, but he's gone now; the folks on "The Office" would probably be middle class, if they ever left the office. We've got a few slackers-by-choice -- on "Reaper" and "Chuck" -- but their super-store aimlessness is more character flaw than economic issue. The Suarez family of "Ugly Betty" comes pretty close to occupying an actual social demographic -- they all live together in a slightly cramped but cozy row house and have immigration issues, but fortunately Betty's job allows her access to the luxe life, so we don't have to spend too much time idling in dreary "real" life.
For the most part, television characters remain upper-middle to upper-class (also white) doctors, lawyers, politicians, editors -- people with glamorous jobs and fabulous houses. Of course there are a lot of cops, but only a few shows -- "The Wire," "The Shield" -- have consistently dealt with the financial distress of life in public service, and most of them are on cable. Instead, last season, we were awash in rich people: "Dirty Sexy Money," "Big Shots," "Gossip Girl" and the double punch of "Cashmere Mafia" and "Lipstick Jungle" seemed determined to prove that the super-wealthy have even more problems than the rest of us working stiffs. "Big Shots" and "Cashmere" were recently canceled, but still, that's a lot of TV time representing a tiny percentage of American society.
Even the folks who aren't admittedly super rich live like they are. Every member of the Walker family of "Brothers and Sisters" has an unlimited wardrobe and a fabulous domicile (how is it so many people on TV live in Craftsman homes when almost no one I know can even afford one?); Samantha of "Samantha Who?" may not know who she is, but her parents are clearly doing all right; on "Desperate Housewives," Wisteria Lane is the Lakewood of TV's upper-middle-land; and even polygamy doesn't seem to limit the financial resources of "Big Love's" Henricksons -- forget Nikki's credit card habit, the gas bills from all those SUVs would sink many an actual family.
When was the last time you heard a character say, "Oh, but I can't afford it" and not in the context of a $300 pair of shoes? (We must thank "Sex and the City," on which the biggest mystery was not whether Big and Carrie would get together but how on earth Carrie could afford Manolo Blahniks on a columnist's salary.) Nancy Botwin became a drug dealer to support her upper-middleness on "Weeds" and yet remained lovable because who wouldn't turn to a life of crime rather than downgrade from granite countertops and high-end schools? At least Nancy cops to having money issues, which is more than most television characters do.
It wasn't always like this. Yes, lawyers and doctors and tycoons have long dominated the little screen, but we also had the Bunkers, the Sanfords and the Arnolds to balance things out. Even the Romano family on "Everyone Loves Raymond" had a definite middle-income vibe. Now the most accurate portrayals of the way the majority of Americans live are, arguably, "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy."
Financial insecurity is a downer, no way around it. Many jobs that once kept people comfortably middle class no longer exist, and television is not in a particularly socially conscious mood these days, gay weddings and mixed-race couples not withstanding. Despite the widening gap between economic classes in this country, despite the fear many Americans feel that they will be bankrupted by medical bills or downsized into under-employment or unemployment, your basic TV star stands a better chance of being a terrorist or a serial killer than someone struggling to pay the mortgage.
Unless, of course, they're willing to swap their wife or become an ice road trucker.