As someone who watches TV for a socially unacceptable amount of time, it’s frustrating see the issue of money so willingly ignored on the small screen. Instead of focusing on the intimate details of a show, my mind wonders to questions of finance. They include, but are not limited to: “Why are you spending what is clearly a work day wandering around New York?”, “How are you taking a cab from one side of New York to the other as an amateur comedian?” and “Is that a double bedroom located suspiciously near a tube stop with a southward facing window you’re living in there, mate?”
Too much of television refuses to deal with the reality of money. It’s a legacy of sitcoms produced and written by the privileged that money never comes into it, and it shows. In the real world, it’s within the interest of those with money not to talk about how much they have, which has in turn created a culture where to do so is uncomfortable, or not even worthy of conversation. When those are the people responsible for most of the art that gets made, no wonder money is so blatantly ignored in the narratives we watch. Sitcoms like Seinfeld, Sex and the City and Friends may as well have been named “Characters Live In Apartments Too Large For Their Current Economic Situation.”
HBO’s Girls is a prime example of this. A lot of the criticism aimed at the show – that it depicts privileged white girls, that it lacks any racial or social diversity – seems to boil down to the fact it ignores the pressures of money in its narrative, in the way that the privileged get to do so in their day-to-day life. The complicated and messy realism in Girls is what makes it such a brilliant show, but it can’t get around its fundamental flaw: where’s all the money come from? It’s all profound and touching to watch Hannah Horvath throw damning yet insightful shade towards Jessa in her apartment, yet all I can think of is “honestly though how do you afford to have a sofa that big when as far as the series is aware you were a teacher, a barista and then a marginally successful online writer?”
Over the last couple of years, we’re lucky enough to have television shows that represent minority stories, but even those shows struggle. I am thankful for being able to watch characters joke about UTIs, or get abortions, or discuss with their parents the experience of being an immigrant, but for the love of God will someone tell me where they get their income from. Master of None, a Netflix sitcom that successfully grapples with issues of sexism and race still seems to think it can just give its jobbing-actor character an expansive apartment with brushed iron kitchen tops, and no one will notice. Well, you can’t hide your exposed brick apartment from us.
It’s not all terrible, however. Like most things Donald Glover touches, his most recent series Atlanta is gold, and showed money for what it was – a constant concern for a large majority of the population. An entire episode revolves around working out how to pay a restaurant bill. The fictional rapper character at the centre of the show is called “Paper Boi.” It’s all about money – even in the music it uses – and rightly so.
British television often manages this better, what with our crushing obsession with class. Shows like Peep Show and Fleabag, whether being cuttingly dry about life or disarmingly tender, manage to confront issues of wealth (or lack thereof). In doing so, they access something more real, even in the context of comedy, because there isn’t an overwhelming sense that something is missing.
Not to get all old-school-socialist-who-hates-identity-politics on this topic, but it is willfully ignorant to act like money doesn’t play a large part in the power dynamics these shows attempt to expose. What is a discussion of race, if there is no discussion of money? Why bother talking about women struggling in the workplace, if not to talk about the wage gap? Willing suspension of disbelief is clearly a big part of escapist television, but a show that wants to confront real, untold stories needs to confront the cash problem. By ignoring it, it merely perpetuates the idea that money isn’t an issue. And unless you’re Lena Dunham, or a Tory, it probably is.