Today is Labour Day. It’s a good day to think about work, and how work and labour are represented on television.
I’ll be working today, as will a lot of people at this newspaper. That fact would probably please Globe founder George Brown. In 1872, his anti-labour position led to the staging of the first Labour Day parade in Toronto. The Toronto Typographical Union was on strike, asking for a 58-hour work week. Brown thundered against the labour “conspiracy,” the police arrested many union figures and that first Labour Day parade was held to support the Typographical Union.
Public anger and fuss led then Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to change anti-union laws. By the way, you can see a splendid drama about the battles between Brown and Macdonald later this month. That’s CBC’s excellent John A: Birth of a Country, coming Sept. 19.
Of course, some people would not consider what I do to be “work.” And there is public skepticism about those who work in television and film. Right now, especially with the Toronto International Film Festival about to open, there is a widespread belief that “working” in the entertainment industry involves showing up at a red-carpet event and a swank party afterward.
There is some truth to this. One reason that working life is rarely presented with any accuracy in film or on TV is that those who make the productions are vastly removed from the working world.
Verisimilitude is also an issue here. While few people want to see some dreary-realist version of the workplace in their evening's entertainment on TV, I’d guess that people do want to see their working lives as worthy of serious drama and good comedy.
Yes, the workplace sitcom was long a staple genre of TV, but it went into decline. For years, U.S. network TV featured half-hour comedies situated in places where people were supposed to work for a living. Cheers, Night Court, NewsRadio and Just Shoot Me!, to give just a few instances, were shows about shenanigans in a workplace. Of course, few people actually seemed to work on these shows. The material didn’t really have much to do with deadlines, paycheques, layoffs and actual labouring.
A few years ago, writing on Labour Day, I speculated that the success of The Office, both the original British series and the NBC version, might change that trend. The premise was so simple – a faux-documentary about life in a fabulously boring office-supply company. No laugh track and much of the comedy designed to make you cringe. The original was very, very funny, but at times The Office became a deeply sad, corrosive show, a heartbreaking comedy.
The NBC version has been built more on offbeat charm and lacks the corrosive quality of the original. (Season 8 of The Office premieres on Sept. 22, with James Spader appearing as the strange company CEO on a mission to hire a new office manager.) And the popularity of both versions failed to result in a spate of TV shows that more closely reflected actual office life.
Instead, we’ve seen sitcoms and dramas about cops, lawyers and doctors who are closer to being superheroes than authentic labouring people. There have been some flashes of reality. Sometimes the teachers on Glee actually talk about financial problems. Mad Men is, of course, set in a working environment that closely resembles a real advertising agency, but it’s set in the past.
The overall situation, though, is that there is almost no labour portrayed on TV and unions are almost never referenced. What’s odd about the situation is that almost everyone who works in the TV industry belongs to a trade union and has benefited from advances made by the labour movement. Everyone, from the technicians to the actors and performers have better working conditions thanks to the union movement. Not everyone who works in film and TV is a wealthy celebrity and many from entertainment-industry guilds and unions will march in Labour Day parades today.
My point, and it shouldn’t be belaboured on Labour Day, is that too few TV shows deal in any realistic way with the workplace. People want fantasy and escape when they watch TV, but there are now so many channels and so many choices that there should be room for productions that say something – anything – about the truth of work.
So You Think You Can Dance Canada (CTV, 8 p.m.) reaches its final performance show in advance of next weekend’s season finale. (Hope it’s not a series finale!) The Top 6 dancers – yes it’s six going into the final – have one last chance to prove they have what it takes to become Canada’s Favourite Dancer. And yes, dancing is labour too. It’s joyful, but it’s hard work.
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