The next reality show: actual labor?

Allegedly, everybody likes workers - whether it's Labor Day or not. I've just spent the summer in Iowa tracking the Democratic presidential candidates all pledging in some form their advocacy for "working families."

Legislation promises its worthiness by being "pro-work" or "putting people back to work." And during 9/11 and the recent Northeast blackouts we supposedly rediscovered the courage, dedication, and sacrifice of blue-collar union men and women - from firefighters to subway technicians - just doing their jobs.

Yet, in prime-time television programs, actual labor is the only human activity never really explored or revealed.

I think I see the result of this "workless" world in the college classes I teach. Often my students want success and the toys and accolades of accomplishment but seem unaware of the long hours and stress that most professions demand. Or as Stephen King once put it, "I meet so many people who want to be authors, but few who want to be writers."

True, we often watch TV programs and go to movies to fantasize an escape from our own work world, but can't we find ways to honor its value and dignity as well?

Most entertainment media characters are situated as workers - but so often their work occurs largely off camera that there is little appreciation or recognition of labor's pull on bodies and minds.

Consider the popular sitcom "Friends," for example. On this show, young, ambitious urbanites, allegedly are all striving for professional careers. Yet, they spend little time at offices and when they do, it usually is devoted to yet more chit-chat and exploring personal relationships. As an academic, I'm especially amused by Ross, whose quest for prestige and tenure seems to involve hanging around a coffee shop and talking about his love life (or lack of it).

Then there's the absence of physical labor. Yes, there are "working class" folks on television and in movies. But their screen time is devoted to as little actual plumbing or package delivery as Kramer spent ditch digging - or any kind of hard work for that matter - on "Seinfeld." Are there no comedies or life lessons in labor- intensive situations? Even if TV characters occasionally sport a blue collar or a brown uniform, they never break into a sweat on the job.

Another worthwhile form of labor largely ignored by the entertainment media is the slog of parenting and household chores. On "Friends," Ross, father of two, appears to devote little time or thought to their care. Even on alleged family shows, such as "Everybody Loves Raymond," kids are just stage props, shuttled in for jokes, then off they go into the next room. I know goldfish that are more emotionally and physically needy than the average prime-time tyke. Only rarely, as in the series "Seventh Heaven," do we get an inkling that raising kids takes more than a few minutes and a few quips a day.

The only hard workers in entertainment media are, ironically, all involved in violence of some sort: doctors, lawyers, cops, and reality-show contestants. We see them chase crooks, swallow worms, grill suspects, scan a crime scene, argue in court, operate on patients, and shoot it out with bad guys. In most cases, of course, the hype is a cartoon of the reality.

I spent three years studying cops as part of a book I wrote on their own attitudes toward their movie and television counterparts. On-duty hours were mostly spent just patrolling the streets or looking through files - very dull stuff, but vital to our safety and security. What does it say about our society that the only prime-time television shows that extensively display intensive labor are about the investigation of murder scenes?

Again, I know that TV audiences would be hardly willing to sit through the 40 minutes of negotiating with a shrieking 3-year-old whose blankie went AWOL, or revel in watching a cop spend half a day poring through traffic citations. But Hollywood needs to find creative ways to show that these are the kinds of tasks to which most of us devote much of our lives.

This is not to say that the work world of others is always invisible, just that we have to look hard to uncover and appreciate it. A few years ago, I viewed a documentary on Alaska high-seas king-crab fishing. I dropped my jaw at the hypothermia-inducing, life-threatening ordinary workday they endured in the "World's Most Dangerous Profession."

In response, my family now says a special prayer for their safety each time we eat any seafood. I think it was good for us to get an inkling of how others sacrifice to provide our pleasures and necessities. And at some point, most people "get it" about work. Middle-class kids often don't until after college - that is, if the crunch is not delayed longer by parental oversupport. But it would help if we occasionally got some view - just a peek - at what awaits all nontrust-fund babies in this world.

Perhaps, like other holidays, we should have special programming devoted to the event. If we have Christmas specials, why not labor specials? Show us at work: Break the taboo!

David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University and a senior fellow at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs.

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