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'Office' plotlines reflect recession anxieties

By Jo Piazza, CNN
Dunder Mifflin has some real-life problems on "The Office" this season.
Dunder Mifflin has some real-life problems on "The Office" this season.
  • "The Office's" Dunder Mifflin paper company is facing financial problems this season
  • One of the "Real Housewives of Orange County," Jeana Keough, leaving show over finances
  • Recession comedy can be traced to Norman Lear's 1974-79 "Good Times"
  • Television
  • TV Stars

(CNN) -- Dunder Mifflin, the fictional paper company at the center of NBC's prime-time comedy "The Office," is facing bankruptcy. Staffers in the Scranton branch are anxious about their fate.

"The Office" is among a great many prime-time shows that have integrated recession-era themes into their plotlines this fall in an effort to reflect the changing American economic climate. Art imitating life on television can offer a sense of solidarity for the viewing public and a new type of coping mechanism for dealing with recession-related stress.

"Shows that deal with the recession help people to validate the full range of emotions they are feeling right now," explained Stephan J. Quentzel, psychiatrist, family physician and director of Beth Israel Hospital's Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine in New York.

"It doesn't trivialize the experience. It shows people they don't have to put on a good face and think positively. It helps them realize that they are angry, and that's OK, and that is why watching these shows is so therapeutic."

Without an entire show based specifically on the recession, financial uncertainty and economic realities have infiltrated the secondary plotlines of shows like CBS's "The Good Wife," where impending law firm layoffs on a recent episode led characters to throw furniture as they cleaned out their desks.

The anger that is apparent on the show is exactly what Quentzel means by fans being able to relate to a full range of emotions through viewing them on the small screen.

Additionally, he said, the shows give people a way to talk about the recession with others.

"Money is always a funny subject," Quentzel said. "But you can talk about money if it deals with something that happened on television. These shows open the doors of conversation with other people who have watched the show and may be going through the same thing. It creates a sense of community."

Economic plotlines have been the focus of shows on nearly every network.

ABC's comedy "The Middle," starring former "Everybody Loves Raymond" star Patricia Heaton, features a Midwestern mom trying to juggle her life and family at the town's last remaining car dealership. Next week's episode shows Heaton's character, Frankie, having to work at the dealership on Thanksgiving because sales are down.

On the FX series "Nip/Tuck," the chic Los Angeles plastic surgery office of McNamara/Troy is losing so much money -- now that folks can't afford their implants and tummy tucks -- it has to bring in a ferocious new partner in the form of a chiseled Mario Lopez.

The doctors of "Grey's Anatomy" on ABC face the fallout from a hospital merger at Seattle Grace.

"Art imitating life in these shows helps the American people realize they really aren't in any of this alone," Quentzel said.

Dilip Pidikiti, 27, was laid off from his finance job in Manhattan and has been unsuccessful finding a new job. He explained that watching the recession on television has helped him to organize his own feelings about being out of work and helped inspire him to keep plugging along.

"I like it when a show writes about the recession, because then it makes me feel that other people beside me are going through it and maybe the show might give ideas in terms of how to deal with downturn through its characters," Pidikiti said. "Like in 'Mad Men,' they decide to start their own company, and that is something I might consider later in my career."

Though AMC's 1960s-set series "Mad Men," which concluded its season November 8, doesn't deal directly with a recession, this past season reflected another time of uncertainty in America: the days following the assassination of President Kennedy.

"White Collar," which launched on USA Network last month with an impressive 5.4 million total viewers, turns the tables on the bad guys of the recession with a younger and television-handsome Bernie Madoff-in-training character, who as part of his recompense helps the feds catch other white-collar criminals.

Reality television, despite often reflecting a heavily edited version of "reality," has been front and center in documenting the economic realities facing its participants this season.

The recession has become a major issue on nearly all of reality empire Bravo's series, including "Flipping Out," "The Rachel Zoe Project," "Million Dollar Listing" and the entire "Real Housewives" franchise, according to the network's senior vice president of programming, Andy Cohen.

"We turn the cameras on and watch what happens. So this is our reflecting the culture at large, which is what we do through the prism of our characters," Cohen said. "People are engaged and invested in our characters' lives, so as long as we show what's happening, viewers seem to want more."

One of the "Real Housewives of Orange County," Jeana Keough, who in seasons past enjoyed $400 lunch dates, will leave the show after the third episode of the season (which airs next week) to focus more on earning money and less on being a reality television star. The real estate market dried up for Keough, and the first several episodes of this season focused on her belt-tightening.

Another of the housewives sees her own real estate business dry up this season, causing strife in her marriage, and yet another faces eviction from her house.

"We think this is important to tell the real stories of what is going on in these women's lives, because it is a microcosm of what is going on across America," said Douglass Ross of Evolution Media, the executive producer of "Real Housewives of Orange County." "We have been able to witness it and demonstrate the contrast of the earlier excess that the show started out with."

Television has been quick to respond to economic downturns in the past.

Recession comedy can be traced back to Norman Lear's "Good Times," which aired from 1974 to 1979, when the country was experiencing oil crises, rapid inflation and slow economic growth. The show featured an African-American family trying to get by in a Chicago housing project. The family patriarch, James Evans, was often featured working several jobs to pay the bills.

"Roseanne," which followed the belt-tightening, scrimping and saving of a blue-collar American family, debuted in 1988 on the brink of a recession that lasted into the first President Bush's presidency.

"It is important that television reflects the full range of Americans who are suffering to meet the differences in lifestyles of people across the country who have to tighten their belts in different ways, because the pain working-class people are experiencing right now is intense," Quentzel said.