Screenwriter Brendan Foley tracks an emerging trend in drama and comedy portraying the battles of ordinary working people in the post-pandemic economy
They say the world’s oldest profession is selling sex. But there is another less reputable one that would give it a run for its money – storytelling. Dating back some 200,000 years, some believe that cave paintings represent the world’s first ‘storyboards,’ drawn to accompany a verbal narrative.
Fiction has always been the last bastion of truth in tough times & audiences look for two opposite things – escapism and ‘ingenious realism’
Sadly, prehistory does not record if the first cave pitch for When Tharg Got Stomped By A Woolly Mammoth sold in the room, nor whether it was regarded as a comedy or a drama.
Storytelling, whether conjuring images from the flames of a neolithic campfire, or streaming on a lonesome laptop, clearly fulfils a primal human need. Stories help us make sense of a world several sizes too big for us, through shared experiences, real or imagined.
They show us other people’s actions, reactions and consequences without putting us in too much danger, and it is easy to see that humans remember events and people, the stock-in-trade of stories, much better than lists of facts.
In that sense, fiction has always been the last bastion of truth, particularly in tough times. If history is a guide, audiences look for two opposite things in hard times – escapism, and what I’ll call ‘ingenious realism.’
Ringing the white telephone
In the Great Depression and the Hungry 30s, many of our more recent ancestors, burdened by financial and political insecurities, flocked to movie theatres. The ‘Picture Palaces’ were regarded as wonders of comfort and affordable luxury – art deco elegance for the masses.
The audiences escaped their tough lives to see ‘white telephone’ movies, in which dazzling damsels in elegant gowns arranged glittering dinner dates with dapper dilettantes on sleek white telephones, a world away from what awaited the general audience at work or home. My Belfast granny was a dressmaker and was famous for being able to recreate the dresses of the starlets cheaply for her offspring before the following Saturday’s showing.
We do not have to look far on today’s reality TV for the modern equivalent of the white telephone. A glance at some of the most popular shows currently on the UK’s ITV for example would include Real Housewives, The Only Way Is Essex, Love Island – all ultra-successful sexy, escapist fare. But what of the other side of the equation – the ingenious realism in drama?
Just as all those white telephones and implausibly long cigarette holders prompted a backlash in the form of French New Wave, modern audiences cannot survive on eye candy and escapism alone. In the TV drama world, some of the recent break-out hits have focused on how ordinary working people somehow manage to look after themselves and their families, while the world tries to wash them down the plug-hole in a vortex of debt and contempt.
They do so by adapting and surviving, in short, by their ingenuity. Unlike the heroes of Marvel, they do not have unusual superpowers to set them apart. Their superpower is being smart, despite – or maybe because of – their precarious finances.
One of the first harbingers of this latest wave of ‘ingenious realism’ was Squid Game. While its original marketing seemed to herald something like Hunger Games meets Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, the vast Netflix audience stayed because they saw resourceful if desperate humans refusing to screw each other over for the amusement of their economic overlords.
The protagonists signed up to the games to get out of crushing, insurmountable debt. In some cases they sought to save their parents or children from economic or social ruin in a world that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.
The antagonists tormenting Squid Game’s unfortunate heroes are a handful of globalist ultra-rich shit-heels who use their wealth to pull the wings off flies rather than improve their planet. Any resemblance to real life is purely coincidental.
Previous successes, such as both the UK and US iterations of Paul Abbott’s Shameless or Korea’s Oscar-winning Parasite concentrated on more of an underclass than a working class. The lowest rung of the working class ladder has always merged with that underclass, dropping off the bottom rung into oblivion or crime.
It’s a choice that would be familiar to the young gang of self-made family in Hulu’s FX hit Reservation Dogs, filmed almost entirely in Oklahoma. Their world offers them little scope for economic survival or career progression, yet they constantly come up with gigs and hustles to fund their dream of moving from their dead-end reservation to a largely-imaginary California.
The new wave of ingenious proletarians in many of these shows tend to try to make ends meet, at first at least, by legit – or only slightly dodgy – means. In Christopher Storer’s The Bear, on Hulu, a talented aspiring chef has escaped the humble roots of his family’s working class southside Chicago sandwich restaurant for the glittering heights of New York’s Michelin-starred eateries.
Perhaps the best definition is that working class means anyone who is one pay packet ahead of disaster, which means a lot of people and more by the month – not so much blue collar or white collar, but frayed collar
There, he learns from colossally entitled and mean-spirited pricks what it takes to be a great chef. When his brother commits suicide back home, he is forced to return to his roots, both to save the bankrupt but much-loved sandwich shop, and to come to terms with his place in his own fractured family.
His early attempts to impose his new-found culinary rigor are met by a rebellion from his family and customers, until both sides realise they have something useful to offer and something new to learn.
A similar restaurant kitchen hot-house is the crucible for British ‘one-shot’ feature Boiling Point, starring England’s one stop shop for grass roots brilliance, Stephen Graham. Graham has repeatedly brought ‘ordinary’ working men to extra-ordinary life onscreen, never more-so than this chef’s meltdown in real time.
Graham previously observed: “If I can find socially aware things that are saying something – well, that’s where I’m from. It’s what I know. So it’s where I’ve tried to keep my base.” The BBC now plans a series to pick up six months on from where the feature left off.
Finding the funny side
Despite all the grit, one of the most fascinating aspects of this new wave of ingenious realism is its refusal to be pigeon-holed as comedy or drama. Previous generations of kitchen sink drama, like the wonderful Angry Young Men of the British 1960s wave, or the books of John Steinbeck a generation earlier, tended to wear their outrage on their sleeve, or their comedy up-front like Tom Courtney in Billy Liar.
But our current wave, perhaps more in the tradition of Alan Bleasdale’s 1980s Boys From The Blackstuff, is quite happy hopping from black comedy to drama and back in the space of five minutes.
One such current comedy-drama hybrid, is the remarkably fresh Mo on Netflix, starring edgy yet ridiculously likeable stand-up talent Mo Amer.
The lead character in Mo, a first generation Palestinian American, tries to look after his mother who pines for her home country and murdered spouse as she cleaves to the old ways, while her goodhearted but gobby son has integrated utterly into the struggling, vibrant working class of present-day Houston.
Mo also tries to engage with his Latina auto mechanic girlfriend, as both aim to make ends meet through legitimate work. Mo is repeatedly stymied by his illegal immigrant status. He resorts to a wide range of ingenious schemes, gigs and side-hustles, that bring him to the borderlands of criminality as well as the borderlands of the United States.
The family dynamic motivating his drive to survive is shown through his most successful gig – trying to create and market his mother’s Palestinian olive oil on a grand scale in Texas. The venture brings him in touch with redneck shit-kicker olive ranchers, Mexican olive-rustlers and disgruntled gangsters on both sides of the border.
Unlike their wealthier hand-wringing counterparts in series that deal with more genteel types, the inhabitants of these new series have a more robust and honest attitude to race relations. Mo’s language is urban bro-speak, recognisable by the inhabitants of a hundred US cities, not the property of any one ethnicity.
This is not the wishful thinking world of a multi-ethnic Benetton advert or sociology lecture, but the rough reality that most working people have better things to do than just think purely in terms of race or sexuality – their own tribes and families often cross racial boundaries and their friendships are based on childhood street alliances, defending their diverse school-friend homies, family, or crew, and sharing their fierce attempts to survive and thrive.
This new generation of working class characters are often rooted in, and proud of, their own ethnicities, but like Mo, they are able to laugh at themselves and tease their friends about rival tribes. Why? Because they are defined and united by their shared economic struggle to stay afloat. These characters are not un-enlightened, but few of them are overly-worried about rarefied angst and issues that vex the well-heeled chattering classes.
These working-stiff protagonists are focused on a world where economic survival is a daily reality and the income clock is set to zero every morning, just as surely as it is during Squid Game. In other words, reality as opposed to reality TV.
Making ends meet
Another great comedy-drama on the struggle to not just make ends meet, but also to be respected along the way, is Craig Robinson’s security guard hero of Killing It, on Peacock. He is almost a poster-child for the American Dream, an African-American office security guard fizzing with ideas and optimism on how to make something of himself.
Yet when he dons his best suit to bring his energy and plans to the bosses at his own workplace for a small business loan, he is met with patronising rejection. He decides to go another way, where his ingenuity will be a plus and not a handicap – as a bounty hunter for giant escaped snakes, with a demented Australian Uber-driver accomplice.
More mainstream humour is brought to bear in Quinta Brunson’s much-awarded Abbott Elementary on ABC. At first the stressed staff and structures of Philadelphia’s crumbling public education system might not seem fertile territory for comedy, but the passion and quirks of the teachers have made the series a hit with both critics and audiences, who see some of the own experiences reflected and a sense that if we didn’t laugh we would cry.
Nowhere is the battle to make ends meet and the need for ingenuity to provide for a family sharper than in Molly Smith Metzler’s Maid, for Netflix. It is a breathtakingly fresh look at the struggles of a single mother fleeing a toxic relationship, trying to keep her minimum-wage cleaning gig as the only way to keep custody of her young daughter.
Society conspires at every turn to stop her – if she cannot afford to run her car she will lose her gig and if she loses her gig or misses a check-in with a social worker, her precarious existence will crumble. Yet at every turn she overcomes micro-disasters with courage and cleverness, not in some Pollyanna version of an imaginary plucky young woman, but because she knows her family is at stake and ingenuity born of desperation is the only survival option. She is the poster-girl for not letting the bastards grind you down.
There were those quite happy to reflect a wide diversity in ethnicity or sexuality while equally happy to ignore shamefully low representation of working class subjects or writers
A similar dynamic is at work in the hyper-successful The Cleaning Lady on Fox, long championed by EP Rose Marie Vega, in which an illegal immigrant former doctor, trying to get bone marrow treatment for her son, scratches a living as a cleaning lady until she witnesses a murder and is recruited by criminals to tidy up their crime scenes as a handy alternative to being killed.
The same links between economic survival, ingenuity, caring for family and the underworld never being far away, run through many of these series and seem to have struck a chord with audiences worldwide. We are starting to glimpse lives around the world that often share a sense of working class perspectives and values, albeit in utterly different places and backgrounds, yet always with a fierce love of family and street smarts directed at surviving and thriving rather than curling up and dying.
It was perhaps inevitable that our collective emergence from a pandemic and the arrival of a global economic slump would be reflected in our screen drama. The Covid experience, though shared, fell harder on ordinary working people than any other section of society. It was once described, admittedly rather cynically, as “upper class people staying at home while working class people delivered their stuff”.
And it is pretty undeniable that just as there was a howling need for diversity in the subjects and writers of new drama over the last decade, there were also those quite happy to reflect a wide diversity in ethnicity or sexuality while equally happy to ignore shamefully low representation of working class subjects or writers, despite their massive real-world numbers.
As one industry wit put it: “for some people, diversity seems to mean whether they went to Oxford or Cambridge”.
Much more positively, 2021 saw the publication of the first serious look at working class voices within the UK TV and film industries. Titled Screened Out, it showed that only about one in four people working in the UK screen industry is from a working class background, compared to a national average closer to 40%.
The numbers from a working class background are lower still among producers, funders and directors, with 61% of that cohort in the screen business coming from very privileged backgrounds compared to a national average of around 38%. Heather Carey, one of the report’s authors, commented at its launch: “The screen industries are a vital and vibrant part of the economy, but class-based exclusion is persistent and pronounced. Those from a working-class background face profound disadvantages relative to their privileged counterparts.”
Similar challenges and demand for both working class stories and storytellers exist worldwide, including the USA where most of the examples in this article originate. In the US, the subject is complicated by a different perception of what it means to be working class versus middle class. As Sherman Edwards had one of his characters say in the musical drama 1776: “Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor.”
These days, perhaps the best definition is that working class means anyone who is one pay packet ahead of disaster, which means a lot of people, and more by the month – not so much blue collar or white collar, but frayed collar.
This is most emphatically not a call for anyone fortunate enough to be from a privileged background to feel guilty rather than lucky, or worse still start brushing up on their Dick Van Dyke cockney accent.
The current trend for subdividing people into ever-smaller put-upon and competing sub-groups in some stock exchange of victimhood ends up with each of us in a minority of one. It is a rather sterile response to a real problem. A better one is for all of us, individuals, companies and screen bodies, to take any small real step we can to become more genuinely inclusive and expansive, like the stories waiting to be told.
They are stories of the ‘extraordinary ordinary’, told by writers who resonate with the working-life experiences of tens of millions of viewers. Such shows are more gripping, more real than any ‘white telephone’, even if it happens to be a next generation iPhone. It was still made by another worker.
Brendan Foley is a writer of series drama, feature films and books, working internationally. His recent work includes the series The Man Who Died, on Elisa-Viaplay, and Cold Courage, for Lionsgate, Viaplay AMC+ and Britbox.