Allow me to propose an economic indicator that the pundits on financial networks should start tossing about indiscriminately (as they do with all others). This metric would have to do with the percentage of highly skilled workers who lose their jobs not through incompetence—or even a failure to be profitable—but just because the job market is brutal enough that anyone can be sacked, at any time. No, this isn’t about the Nonfarm Payroll Employment numbers: I’m talking about the characters we can see worrying about job security on our frothy summer TV programs. Whereas dark, dystopian shows are fond of crafting narrative hooks from labor worries—à la the newly returned Mad Men—it’s comparatively uncommon to see highly competent characters panicking about employment on our less august scripted programs. We could call it the Job-Related Freakout Rate for Nonserious Dramas.
Over the course of its six seasons, the professional skills of Tommy Gavin—the sometimes-drunk firefighter played by Denis Leary on Rescue Me—have never been in doubt. Nor have those of his cohorts inside 62 Truck. But this year, because of a badly out-of-balance city budget and their fame for extracurricular louche-ness, the boys’ firehouse is under threat of being shut down by the mayor—despite the fact that they frequently haul ass to infernos faster than their rival firefighters. As plenty of people have found out in the real job market, it’s not enough to just be good anymore. You have to guard against giving anyone, anywhere, a reason to dislike you.
Elsewhere, two reliable summer time-waster serials have taken a darker than usual look at labor unease. In its first season, the USA Network’s Royal Pains—a show about an unfailingly moral and unflappably innovative doctor named Hank Lawson—treated his loss of a big hospital job as a mere excuse to gambol about in the Hamptons, tending to the boo-boos of the well-heeled. This summer, though, Hank almost has to break a sweat: the wealthy gadabout who’s given Hank free use of a mansion has decamped to Cuba in search of risky miracle cures for his obscure degenerative disease. And, on the Hamptons front, a rival freelance doctor (and yes, she’s cute! cue romantic tension!) has started leeching from Hank Med’s customer base.
Meantime, the spy show Burn Notice (another USA offering) has added a character suffering from job-loss anger. Now, along with series protagonist Michael Weston, we get to enjoy the freelance antics of another hung-out-to-dry spy, named Jesse Porter. But unlike Weston—who has never seemed more than slightly annoyed at his loss of government sanction—Porter not only wants to be reinstated as a spook but also wants to put the people who burned him “six feet under.” (Too bad those people happen to be his newfound friends—unbeknownst to him.) And naturally, every week, this duo of ex-spies manages to outwit and outfight all the professional agents and criminals who’ve come to settle old scores or start new ones.
When “funemployment” turns to extending jobless benefits for people who’ve been out of work for almost two years, our macrocultural patience understandably curdles into something less amusing. But even as they reflect the country’s intensified agita over lackluster hiring figures, these normally breezy summer shows are also indirectly telling us something else that greases the ego, if not the bank account. That is to say: if you’re out of work, it’s not because you’re not excellent at what you do. It’s as if the producers of these shows have decided that, when you can’t distract viewers from their economic worries, you should at least suggest they’re in good company.