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New workplace sitcom channels America's economic woes

There's a new U.S. network sitcom starting tonight, a seemingly slight show about a couple of guys – real men's-men types – who dress up as women in order to land jobs.

The show is Work It (ABC, CITY-TV, 8:30 p.m.) and it is simultaneously hokey and crudely funny. It might last six weeks. It might last six years. But in the way that television shows will casually and lavishly illuminate the culture, this silly show arrives on the perfect day.

Tonight also begins the great American political drama that unfolds every four years. Chapter one of this edition of the drama begins with the Iowa caucuses.

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CNN is calling its coverage "American Choice 2012: Iowa Caucuses" and it runs from 7 p.m. to midnight, but really the coverage will last all day long. Fox News calls its special newscast "America's Election HQ: Iowa Caucuses" and airs it from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., but it too will be dwelling on Iowa all day.

An intriguing portion of the U.S. culture will come into focus by tonight. The Republican race, which has been going on for many months, thanks to countless TV debates, has seemed anarchic. Leading candidates and their positions have soared in popularity and then evaporated in a harum-scarum way. Far as I can tell, television is at the core of everything. It seems the key Iowa race has three main components for the candidates: meet-and-greets with voters, TV appearances and TV ads.

The TV ads – which are easily found online – are fascinating. Rick Santorum, who has suddenly emerged as a leading candidate, has been running TV spots that look like promos for the NBC series Parenthood. One has the impression the guy has about 14 kids and spends all his time throwing around a football with them when he's not busy gazing at the sky awaiting the word of God. And if you want a clue about the recent collapse in support for Newt Gingrich, check out a negative ad run by the campaign of Ron Paul, which roasts Gingrich for "serial hypocrisy." A recent report by CNN estimated that five anti-Gingrich ads from other candidates and their supporters have been running every day in the last few weeks in Iowa.

The context of the Iowa caucuses is mind-boggling. Look at the year just ended – the Occupy movement, the eurozone's near-collapse, the Arab Spring, the U.S. economy solidly stalled, the ranting about the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent. What meat there is for politicians and pundits who want Barack Obama defeated. What material for rocking TV coverage of the race for the Republican nomination and then the big battle in the fall.

And yet, watching the Republican race unfold, leading up to the Iowa vote today, it all seems bizarrely disconnected from reality. Arguments between candidates have focused on issues meant only to rally deeply conservative voters. The issues seem to be abortion, same-sex marriage, gun rights, immigration law, devotion to church and biblical interpretation of everything from health care to divorce.

Work It presents a rather different United States. Here's ABC's synopsis: "Looking for a job in today's economy can be a real drag. Take Lee Standish (Ben Koldyke), one-time breadwinner and current unemployment statistic. After being laid off, Lee will do anything it takes to support his family – even if it means putting on a skirt and heels."

At the moment, Work It is stirring some debate about whether it might be offensive to the transgender community. In the peculiar way that the U.S. media culture works, this point of view on a TV show is the dominant one. It's all about somebody being offended and the opportunity to attack the Hollywood entertainment industry for being insensitive.

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The issue is phony, utter nonsense and a distraction. Work It is a broad comedy, more in the British TV style than the American tradition. What matters is that it presents a contrarian narrative to what has emerged in the build-up to the Iowa caucuses. Two beefy guys who once had jobs at a Pontiac dealership dress as women to land jobs selling pharmaceuticals. It's jobs and work that matter. The characters are desperate to find work, any kind of work. Under the crude comedy, there's desperation.

"It's the economy, stupid" was the phrase that emerged from Bill Clinton's winning 1992 presidential campaign against George H. W. Bush. For all of Bush's perceived strengths, the Clinton campaign knew that it was the recession economy that really worried voters. And now, while the Republican candidates continue to natter about preposterous concerns and TV pundits engage in intense debate about evangelical voters, it looks like 1992 all over again.

Sometimes, seemingly silly TV shows say more than months of political coverage on the U.S. all-news channels. Biblical interpretations. Yeah, right. Jesus wept.

Check local listings.

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