WORKPLACE PROGRAMS

U.S. television, from its earliest years, has developed prime-time programs which focus on the workplace. This trend is understandable enough, given TV's essential investment in the "American work ethic" and in consumer culture, although it also evinces TV's basic domestic impulse. By the 1970s and 1980s, in fact, TV's most successful workplace programs effectively merged the medium's work-related and domestic imperatives in sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, Taxi, and Cheers, and in hour-long dramas like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and LA Law. While conveying the working conditions and the professional ethos of the workplace, these programs also depicted co-workers as a loosely knit but crucially interdependent quasi-family within a "domesticated" workplace. This strategy was further refined in 1990s sitcoms like Murphy Brown and Frasier, and even more notably in hour-long dramas like ER, NYPD Blue, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, and Homicide: Life in the Streets. These latter series not only marked the unexpected resurgence of hour-long drama in prime time, but in the view of many critics evinced a new "golden age" of American television.

This integration of home and work was scarcely evident in 1950s TV, when the domestic arena and the workplace remained fairly distinct. The majority of workplace programs were male-dominant law-and-order series which generally focused less on the workplace itself than on the professional heroics of the cops, detectives, town marshals, bounty hunters, who dictated and dominated the action. Dragnet, TV's prototype cop show, did portray the workaday world of the L.A. police, albeit in uncomplicated and superficial terms. The rise of the hour-long series in the late 1950s brought a more sophisticated treatment of the workplace in courtroom dramas like Perry Mason, detective shows like 77 Sunset Strip, and cop shows like Naked City (which ran as a half-hour show in 1957-58 and then returned as an hour-long drama in 1960). More than simply a "home base" for the protagonists, the workplace in these programs was a familiar site of personal and professional interaction.

The year 1961 saw three new important hour-long workplace dramas: Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, and The Defenders. The latter was a legal drama whose principals spent far less time in the courtroom and more time in the office than did Perry Mason. And while Mason's cases invariably were murder mysteries, with Mason functioning as both lawyer and detective, The Defenders treated the workaday legal profession in more direct and realistic terms. Both Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare, meanwhile, were medical dramas set in hospitals, and they too brought a new degree of realism to the depiction of the workplace setting--and to the lives and labors of its occupants. As Time magazine noted in reviewing Ben Casey, the series "accurately captures the feeling of sleepless intensity of a metropolitan hospital."

Another important and highly influential series to debut in 1961 was a half-hour comedy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, which effectively merged the two dominant sitcom strains--the workplace comedy with its ensemble of disparate characters, and the domestic comedy centering on the typical (white, middle-class) American home and family. At the time, most workplace comedies fell into three basic categories: school-based sitcoms like Mr. Peepers and Our Miss Brooks; working-girl sitcoms like Private Secretary and Oh Suzanna; and military sitcoms like The Phil Silvers Show and McHale's Navy. The vast majority of half-hour comedies were domestic sitcoms extolling (or affectionately lampooning) the virtues of home and family. These occasionally raised work-related issues--via working-stiffs like Chester Riley (The Life of Riley) lamenting an American Dream just out of reach, for instance, or on an "unruly" housewife like Lucy Ricardo (I Love Lucy) comically resisting her domestic plight. And some series like Hazel centered on "domestic help" (maids, nannies, etc.), thus depicting the home itself as a workplace.

The Dick Van Dyke Show created a hybrid of sorts by casting Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, an affable suburban patriarch and head writer on the fictional Alan Brady Show. Setting the trend for workplace comedies of the next three decades, The Dick Van Dyke Show featured a protagonist who moved continually between home and work, thus creating a format amenable to both the domestic sitcom and the workplace comedy. The series' domestic dimension was quite conventional, but its treatment of the workplace was innovative and influential. The work itself involved television production (as would later workplace sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Buffalo Bill, and Murphy Brown), and thus the program carried a strong self-reflexive dimension. More importantly, The Dick Van Dyke Show developed the prototype for the domesticated workplace and the work-family ensemble--Rob and his staff writers Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally (Rose Marie); oddball autocrat Alan Brady (Carl Reiner, the creator and executive producer of The Dick Van Dyke Show); and Alan's producer and brother-in-law, the ever-flustered and vaguely maternal Mel (Richard Deacon). Significantly, Rob was the only member of the workplace ensemble with a stable and secure "home life," and thus he served as the stabilizing, nurturing, mediating force in the comic-chaotic and potentially dehumanizing workplace.

The influence of The Dick Van Dyke Show on TV's workplace programs was most obvious and direct in the sitcoms produced by MTM Enterprises in the early 1970s, particularly The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show. While these and other MTM sitcoms featured a central character moving between home and work, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the most successful in developing the workplace (the newsroom of a Minneapolis TV station, WJM) as a site not only of conflict and comedic chaos but of community and kinship as well. And although Moore, who had played Rob's wife on The Dick Van Dyke Show, was cast here as an independent single woman, her nurturing instincts remained as acute as ever in the WJM newsroom.

While the MTM series maintained the dual focus on home and work, another crucial workplace comedy from the early 1970s, M*A*S*H, focused exclusively on the workplace--in this case a military surgical unit in war-torn Korea of the early 1950s (with obvious pertinence to the then-current Vietnam War). Alan Alda's Hawkeye Pierce was in many ways the series' central character and governing sensibility, especially in his caustic disregard for military protocol and his fierce commitment to medicine. Yet M*A*S*H was remarkably "democratic" in its treatment of the eight principal characters, developing each member of the ensemble as well as the collective itself into a functioning work-family. While ostensibly a sitcom, the series often veered into heavy drama in its treatment of both the medical profession and the war; in fact, the laugh track was never used during the scenes set in the operating room. And more than any previous workplace program, whether comedy or drama, M*A*S*H was focused closely on the professional "code" of its ensemble, on the shared sense of duty and commitment which both defined their medical work and created a nagging sense of moral ambiguity about the military function of the unit--that is, patching up the wounded so that they might return to battle.

A domestic sitcom hit from the early 1970s, All in the Family, also is pertinent here for several reasons. First, in Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) the series created the most endearing and comic-pathetic working stiff since Chester Riley. Second, parenting on the series involved two grown "children," with the generation-gap squabbling between Archie and son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner) frequently raising issues of social class and work. Moreover, their comic antagonism was recast in other generation-gap sitcoms set in the workplace, notably Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man. And third, All in the Family itself evolved by the late 1970s into a workplace sitcom, Archie Bunker's Place, with the traditional family replaced by a work-family ensemble.

The trend toward workplace comedies in the early 1970s was related to several factors both inside and outside the industry. One factor, of course, was the sheer popularity of the early-1970s workplace comedies, and their obvious flexibility in terms of plot and character development. These series also signaled TV's increasing concern with demographics and its pursuit of "quality numbers"--i.e., the upscale urban viewers coveted by sponsors. Because these series often dealt with topical and significant social issues, they were widely praised by critics, thus creating an equation of sorts between quality demographics and "quality programming." And in a larger social context, this programming trend signaled the massive changes in American lifestyles which accompanied a declining economy and runaway inflation, the sexual revolution and women's movement, the growing ranks of working wives and mothers, rising divorce rates, the aging of the baby-boom generation, and so on.

 

Thus the domestic sitcom with its emphasis on traditional home and family all but disappeared from network schedules in the late 1970s and early 1980s, replaced by workplace comedies like Alice, Welcome Back Kotter, WKRP in Cincinnati, Taxi, Cheers, Newhart, and Night Court. The domestic sitcom did rebound in the mid-1980s with The Cosby Show and Family Ties, and by the 1990s the domestic and workplace sitcoms had formed a comfortable alliance--with series like Murphy Brown, Coach, and Frazier sustaining the MTM tradition of a central, pivotal character moving between home and the workplace.

TV's hour-long workplace dramas underwent a transformation as well in the 1970s, which was a direct outgrowth, in fact, of MTM's workplace sitcoms. In 1977, MTM Enterprises retired The Mary Tyler Moore Show and created a third and final spin-off of that series, Lou Grant, which followed Mary's irascible boss (Ed Asner) from WJM-TV in Minneapolis to the Los Angeles Tribune, where he took a job as editor. Lou Grant was created by two of MTM's top comedy writer-producers, James Brooks and Allan Burns, along with Gene Reynolds, the executive producer of M*A*S*H. It marked a crucial new direction for MTM not only as an hour-long drama, but also because of its primary focus on the workplace (a la M*A*S*H) and its aggressive treatment of "serious" social and work-related issues. In that era of Vietnam, Watergate, and All the President's Men, Lou Grant courted controversy week after week, with Lou and his work-family of investigative journalists not only pursuing the "Truth" but agonizing over their personal lives and professional responsibilities as well.

MTM's hour-long workplace dramas hit their stride in the 1980s with Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, which effectively revitalized two of television's oldest genres, cop show and doc show. Each shifted the dramatic focus from the all-too-familiar heroics of a series star to an ensemble of co-workers and to the workplace itself--and not simply as a backdrop but as a social-service institution located in an urban-industrial war zone with its own distinctive ethos and sense of place. Each also utilized serial story structure and documentary-style realism, drawing viewers into the heavily populated and densely plotted programs through a heady, seemingly paradoxical blend of soap opera and cinema verite. Documentary techniques--location shooting, hand-held camera, long takes and reframing instead of cutting, composition in depth, and multiple-track sound recording--gave these series (and the workplace itself) a "look" and "feel" that was utterly unique among police and medical dramas.

Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere also emerged alongside prime-time soap operas like Dallas and Falcon Crest, and shared with those series a penchant for "continuing drama." While this serial dimension enhanced both the Hill Street precinct and St. Eligius hospital as a "domesticated workplace," the genre requirements of each series (solving crimes, healing the sick) demanded action, pathos, jeopardy, and a dramatic payoff within individual episodes. Thus a crucial component of MTM's workplace dramas was their merging of episodic and serial forms. The episodic dimension usually focused on short-term, work-related conflicts (crime, illness), while the serial dimension involved the more "domestic" aspects of the characters' lives--and not only their personal lives, since most of the principals were "married to their work," but also the ongoing interpersonal relationships among the co-workers.

Hill Street co-creator Steven Bochco left MTM in the mid-1980s and developed LA Law, which took the ensemble workplace drama "upscale" into a successful big-city legal firm. While a solid success, this focus on upscale professionals marked a significant departure from Hill Street and St. Elsewhere--and from most workplace dramas in the 1990s as well. Indeed, prime-time network TV saw a remarkable run of MTM-style ensemble dramas in the 1990s, notably ER, Homicide, Law and Order, Chicago Hope, and another Bochco series, NYPD Blue. Most of these were set, like Hill Street and St. Elsewhere, in decaying inner cities, and they centered on co-workers whose commitment to their profession and to one another was far more important than social status or income. Indeed, a central paradox in these programs is that their principal characters, all intelligent, well-educated professionals, eschew material rewards to work in under-funded social institutions where commitment outweighs income, where the work is never finished nor the conflicts satisfactorily resolved, and where the work itself, finally, is its own reward.

Despite these similarities to Hill Street and St. Elsewhere, the 1990s workplace dramas differed in their emphasis on workaday cops and docs. Those earlier MTM series carried a strong male-management focus, privileging the veritable "patriarch" of the work-family--Capt. Frank Furillo and Dr. Paul Westphall, respectively--whose role (like Lou Grant before them) was to uphold the professional code and the familial bond of their charges. The 1990s dramas, conversely, concentrated mainly on the workers in the trenches, whose shared commitment to one another and to their work defines the ethos of the workplace and the sense of kinship it engendered.

More conventional hour-long workplace programs have been developed alongside these MTM-style dramas, of course, from 1970s series like Medical Center, Ironside, and Baretta to more recent cop, doc, and lawyer shows like Matlock, T.J. Hooker, and Quincy. In the tradition of Dragnet and Marcus Welby, the lead characters in these series are little more than heroic plot functions, with the plots themselves satisfying the generic requirements in formulaic doses and the workplace setting as mere backdrop. Two recent hour-long dramas more closely akin to the MTM-style workplace programs are Northern Exposure and Picket Fences. Both are successful ensemble dramas created by MTM alumni who took the workplace form into more upbeat and off-beat directions--the former a duck-out-of-water doc show set in small-town Alaska which veered into magical realism, the latter a hybrid cop-doc-legal-domestic drama set in small-town Wisconsin. But while both are effective ensemble dramas with an acute "sense of place," they are crucially at odds with urban-based medical dramas like ER and Chicago Hope, and police dramas like Homicide and NYPD Blue, whose dramatic focus is crucially wed to the single-minded professional commitment of the ensemble and is deeply rooted in the workplace itself.

Indeed, ER and Homicide and the other MTM-style ensemble dramas posit the workplace as home and work itself as the basis for any real sense of kinship we are likely to find in the contemporary urban-industrial world. As Charles McGrath writes in the New York Times Magazine, "The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel," such shows appeal to viewers because "they've remembered that for a lot of us work is where we live more of the time; that, like it or not, our job relationships are often as intimate as our family relationships, and that work is often where we invest most of our emotional energy." McGrath is one of several critics who view these workplace dramas as ushering in a renaissance of network TV programming, due to their Dickensian density of plot and complexity of character, their social realism and moral ambiguity, their portrayal of workers whose heroics are simply a function of their everyday lives and labors.

The workplace in these series ultimately emerges as a character unto itself, and one which is both harrowing and oddly inspiring to those who work there. For the characters in ER and NYPD Blue and the other ensemble workplace dramas, soul-searching comes with the territory, and they know the territory all too well. They are acutely aware not only of their own limitations and failings but of the inadequacies of their own professions to cure the ills of the modern world. Still they maintain their commitment to one another and to a professional code which is the very life-blood of the workplace they share.

-Thomas Schatz

FURTHER READING

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows. New York: Ballantine, 1979; 5th edition 1992.

Feuer, Jane, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, editors. MTM: 'Quality Television.' London: BFI Publishing, 1984.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

McGrath, Charles. "The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel." New York Times Magazine, 22 October 1995.

Schatz, Thomas. "St. Elsewhere and the Evolution of the Ensemble Series." In, Newcomb, Horace, editor. Television: The Critical View. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976; 4th edition, 1987.

Williams, Betsy. "'North to the Future': Northern Exposure and Quality Television." In, Newcomb, Horace, editor. Television: The Critical View. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976; 5th edition, 1994.

 

See also Comedy, Workplace Settings; Detective Programs; Police Programs