The Economist has an insightful article about why rich people don’t perceive themselves as rich. When asked if they are wealthy, they say no; when asked if they pay too much tax, they say yes; when asked if wealthy people should pay more tax, they also say yes. One of the reasons they don’t think they’re rich is because “average” people on TV are impossibly wealthy.
Think of Desperate Housewives. Where does the money come from to support those lifestyles in those enormous houses? We get vague ideas about what people do for a living. But there’s no consistency: when Susan married Mike and did encounter financial difficulties, they did eventually have to move out and rent the house (whereas as a single divorced mother earning her living as a children’s book illustrator, she encountered no such difficulties); when Carlos was in jail, however, Gabby didn’t have to move out of their “McMansion”.
In the soapy family drama Brothers and Sisters, again, Nora’s family home is huge and decorated luxuriously, this in spite of the fact that her husband died and left her a company in the red, her live-at-home drug addicted son was unemployed, and that she herself did nothing much except potter about.
Remember The OC? Always made me laugh that the fostered kid was living in the pool house because the main family home (which was about 6x bigger than the average British family home) apparently only had two bedrooms. But, still, they had a pool house. And a pool. Even though the father at least was doing a lot of pro bono legal work.
“Parenthood” seems in some ways to be trying to present the ethos and life space of young Northern California families in the same affirming, universally sympathetic fashion. And there are a lot of efforts to bring in a wide range of socioeconomic situations. We’ve got the divorced mother in her late 30s who moves back in with her parents, the slacker artist guy getting by on minimal income on a houseboat, a kid from the Oakland projects, and so on. But in terms of lived space, the show mostly falls prey to the familiar Hollywood syndrome of unrealistically gorgeous bourgeois set design. And that spills over into the economic underpinnings of plot lines. An interaction early in the first season drove the point home: when the central “everyman” family has to confront their child’s autism and is told about a highly sought-after special-needs school with high tuition, they respond: “We don’t care what it costs. We’ll pay whatever it takes.” The viewer thinks: how nice for you, that you can demonstrate your commitment to your child in that fashion! You must be part of the small percentage of American households that can afford to say things like that.