One of the most amusing spectacles this election season has been watching highly paid TV hosts embrace their inner Woody Guthrie and rediscover the workin' man. What do blue-collar Americans want? Can they save Hillary? Is Obama out of touch with them?
The irony is that TV networks have been out of touch with the working class for years. Blue-collar TV characters used to be routine: Ralph Kramden, Fred Sanford, Laverne and Shirley. TV was the people's medium, after all. But now network dramas and sitcoms have been gentrified. The better to woo upscale viewers, TV has evicted its mechanics and dockworkers to collect higher rents from yuppies in coffeehouses. Even cop shows have been taken away from beat cops and given to the eggheads on CSI and Numb3rs. Goodbye, Roseanne. Hello, Liz Lemon!
On cable, however, there's a growing alternate universe of hit reality series about workers no one puts in sitcoms anymore. The highest-rated show on the Discovery Channel, Deadliest Catch, follows crews of Alaskan crab fishermen fighting storms, monster waves and other boats to haul wriggling paydays from the cruel, icy deep. The show's producer, Thom Beers, has followed up with the History Channel's Ice Road Truckers (about long-haul drivers in the Arctic), Ax Men (loggers in Oregon) and truTV's Black Gold (oil riggers in Texas), debuting in June. Dirty Jobs profiles salvage workers, plumbers and cattle inseminators, while Tougher in Alaska lionizes linemen, miners and other Last Frontiersmen who probably make your job look like cutting out paper dolls.
On one level, the appeal of working-class TV is simple. Like such extreme-adventure shows as Man vs. Wild, the programs attract young males better than two-for-one pitchers. They're about men, almost exclusively: men sweating and swearing, men powered by coffee and doughnuts, men revving heavy equipment to heavy-metal sound tracks. But they're also a kind of riposte to the smirkiness and high-class problems of TV's upscale hits. You want an existential crisis? How about getting clocked across your freaking head with a steel oil-drill chain? And whereas big-network TV offers a fantasy of perfection, working-class TV offers a fantasy of authenticity. On NBC, an American Gladiator is a beefcake model in a unitard swinging his padded quarterstaff. (Read into "padded quarterstaff" whatever symbolism you like.) Cable's gladiators are paunchy guys with beards hauling ass to fell a tree or outrace a squall.
These shows don't address class directly, at least not by the American dollars-and-cents definition. The jobs pay well--$75,000 a year for a rookie rigger on Black Gold. The class difference lies in the attitude toward money. TV doctors and lawyers don't talk salary--they, like many upper-middle-class professionals, can take comfort and stability relatively for granted. But here, everything is denominated in dollar terms. You hear the price tag whenever a saw gets lost ($1,000) or a pipe gets jammed ($50,000) or a worker calls in sick ($1,000 an hour in company revenue). Economic risk is as ever present as the physical danger, and--by pushing workers to go faster and harder--one feeds the other. The workers know precisely how much everything costs, not just the crab and the crude but also their family time, their rest, even their safety.
There's a show-biz reason for the money focus: Deadliest Catch and its offspring have competition elements, with work crews keeping score by dollars earned, loads hauled, etc. Like Survivor, they have overdramatic narratives and editing. (Guess what? Most doctors don't look like McDreamy either.)
But isn't work a competition, especially in tough times? Underneath all the Hollywood packaging, there's something universal in these shows. Beyond the grit, the series tell ordinary stories about working and living under stress. How do you get your lazy son or brother to shape up and contribute to the family business? What's it like to have to fire a buddy? What do you do when your wife is expecting a baby any day but you can't pass up a job?
Working-class TV may draw in viewers with the sensational promise of danger. (In Ax Men, computer animation shows what would happen if a logger got speared by a falling branch.) But underneath that is the scary reality, not unique to drillers and fishermen, of surviving boom-and-bust capitalism with no safety net. Deadliest Catch and its ilk celebrate rather than pity their heroes. But for all the big paydays the characters' work can bring, the shows never forget that hard times are one slipup or bad break away. That's the catch, and it's a deadly one.