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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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January 1998


New NBC Sitcom Venomously Caricatures Corporations
Working: Fred Savage Capitalism

Most sitcoms are obsessed with sex. NBCís Working is different; itís obsessed with business-bashing and sex. Given that the first-year series, which airs Wednesdays at 9:30 Eastern, recently was renewed for the rest of this season, it seems appropriate to examine its toxic, one-sided messages regarding free enterprise.

stars Fred Savage (Kevin on The Wonder Years) as Matt Peyser, who, fresh out of college, is hired at Upton/Webber, a multinational conglomerate that claims more than a million employees and gross earnings higher "than the GNP of all but nine countries on earth." Matt and his colleagues have their share of character flaws, but he, and they, are not the villains here. Those roles are reserved for 1) Mattís boss, Tim Deale, and 2) Upton/Webber itself.

Deale (Maurice Godin) is slimy, mean, and clueless. In the premiere alone, he boasts that he has "a golden retriever drawing a salary," praises an employee for his "complete disregard for ethics and fair play," and, right after telling Matt how knowledgeable he, Tim, is about Upton/Webber, looks at a newspaper and learns the company has bought General Electric.

Heís also a sexual harasser (one exceptionally talented woman is stuck in a clerical job because she wonít go to bed with him), an adulterer, and a merciless snob (he hosts a party at which he explains to Matt that the shrimp hors díoeuvres are reserved for management, adding that employees at Mattís level should partake of the "Triscuits piled up on a blanket").

Dealeís sleaziness didnít impede, but rather facilitated, his rise within the company. Old-fashioned virtues, on the other hand, are marginalized at Upton/Webber. After Matt asserts that he got through college by dint of hard work, Tim responds, "Yeah, well, that kind of crap wonít carry you here."

But Tim is middle management, which means that no matter how despicable he is, heís but a mere cog in the machine, only a pawn in the cruel game played by the men at the top of the company. How meanspirited is Upton/Webber? It fires an accountant because heís a month from being vested in the pension plan, doing so even though itís his birthday and his wife has just died, leaving him to raise three children.

It also makes shady contributions to politicians of both major parties and spies on its employees in their homes via satellite. (These two suggest that America is ruled not by elected leaders but rather by faceless, ruthless captains of industry accountable to no one. Move over, X-Files; Working could be turning into the first sitcom built on a conspiracy theory.)

That the show is meant less as a satire of one company than as a broad skewering of big business is indicated in several ways. Where Upton/Webber is headquartered and what it produces are barely hinted at, presumably so as to universalize the portrait. Even more illuminating are the bogus Upton/Webber ads that lead into the programís actual commercial breaks.

In one spot, a narrator intones, over footage, "A gentle zebra drinks from a watering hole on a windswept plateau. Do big companies care enough to support the natural order of things? Upton/Webber does." As the last few words are spoken, a tiger pounces on the zebra and begins to devour him Ė not exactly dog-eat-dog, but close enough that few viewers will miss the point.

In a second spot, as the voiceover says, "We believe the skills needed to succeed in business are formed at an early age," we see footage of one kid sitting on anotherís chest and punching him in the face.

Of course, there is no prime time television show that skewers teachers, lawyers, journalists, government officials, or even small business owners the way Working trashes the corporate world. Apparently, working is only suspect in the eyes of Hollywood if it is being done in the executive suite.

To learn more about entertainment televisionís portrayal of business, see Businessmen Behaving Badly: Prime Timeís World of Commerce on the MRCís web site (www.mrc.org).


ó Rich Noyes


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