Lights, Camera, Recession: Reality TV Gets a Pink Slip
Policy + Politics

Lights, Camera, Recession: Reality TV Gets a Pink Slip

Hey there, recession. You look so good under camera lights, with your makeup done, and your melodramatic sound editing.
Alfonso Serrano/The Fiscal Times

For millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet, reality TV is here to help. Instead of the usual larger-than-life Paris Hiltons and dysfunctional rock star families, a handful of reality show producers are trying to capitalize on America’s woes, casting The Great Recession as the star.

Pop culture in general tends to reflect the zeitgeist, but reality shows depict the signs of the times — or, at least, a carefully-edited interpretation of it. Americans are unemployed, fed up, and spending less (if only temporary), and what better way to tap into this than a slapped-together, low-budget reality show?

Three shows have captured the country’s mood this season in the most literal way: Lifetime’s The Fairy Jobmother about unemployed jobseekers, WE TV’s Downsized debuts tonight, about a family in foreclosure, and The Apprentice’s cast of 16 recently laid-off contestants, who will battle it out for Donald Trump’s approval and a six-figure salary. Prepare to be entertained.

Pixie Dust for the Unemployed
“It’s time to get America back to work,” says the chipper Hayley Taylor in a thick British accent, on the new Lifetime reality series The Fairy Jobmother. The 43-year-old career coach is the host and star of the show, and proclaims herself a job search master, following a career as a hairdresser and stay-at-home mom. She began counseling the unemployed when her husband was laid off, which led to a full-time job and three years later, her own TV show.

The pilot episode features an unemployed couple in their mid-twenties, Shawn and Michelle Aughe, who tell a sob story about struggling to pay their bills, but haven’t exactly been hitting the streets to find work. Shawn hasn’t applied for a job in three weeks, and stay-unemployed-mom Michelle hasn’t in years. They instead survive on welfare checks and food stamps, and sit around watching TV most of the day — a scenario the unemployed who are truly looking for work must find infuriating.

But the Aughes must be lazy, because as the cameras show us, they have a messy house! And Shawn has father issues, which the producers make sure to spend a solid 10 minutes on. After lots of tears and yelling (because what reality show would be complete without both?), they finally get to the job search portion of the show – oh, only 30 minutes in. Taylor gives them tips, like, “firm handshake!” and “Eye contact!” and “Bring copies of your resume!” — such unheard-of pearls of wisdom that all jobseekers must study immediately. And shockingly, after the couple actually pass out their resumes, and make follow-up phone calls, they get interviews! And the interviewers must call them back at a designated time because the show producers asked them to. After an initial no for Michelle, complete with tears, there’s a yes! And more tears (but happy ones!). And in the end, they both get jobs! The pixie dust worked.

As a viewer, it’s hard not to feel like the producers have some influence on the happy ending to the show, though the best part is watching Shawn and Michelle squirm when the cameras follow them into the interviews. You realize how awkward and rehearsed we can all sound. “I’m organized and prompt,” Shawn says. Sure you are, buddy.

The Rating:  Don’t waste your time. Unless you’re an able-bodied 20-something couple on welfare who likes watching reality TV on job searching instead of actually job searching.

Thursdays at 9 pm ET/PT on Lifetime

Rich Family Gets Less Rich
Do you know what’s really depressing about this economy? It’s when a wealthy family netting $1.5 million a year suddenly can’t afford their $50,000 SUVs and McMansions. Heartbreaking, really. That’s the concept of WE TV’s new series Downsized. “They were living the fabulous life and then like many Americans, they were forced to downsize!” write the producers on the show’s website.

The show features Laura and Todd Bruce, who after both going through divorces, fell in love, married, and combined their two families – his five children with her two, for a total of seven – six of them teenagers. As they tell us in the preview, things were good before the economy crashed: Todd had a booming contracting business and there were $350 dinners most nights, swimming pools, a summer home, and lavish vacations. But good times can’t last forever. What will the youngest – poor little 10-year-old Danielle – do when she can’t afford her cheerleading, swim and gymnastics? She can only choose one! Or 15-year-old Whitney, who can’t take her private voice lessons anymore and has to do the unthinkable: join the public school choir. Like, oh my God.

The family faces foreclosure on their giant house, and Laura has to ask her parents for money, and start cleaning houses for extra cash. They go on food stamps, and the kids go dumpster diving in one episode to find bottles to trade for cash, but it seems to be more a stunt for the cameras. The family dynamic is interesting most of the time, and they do seem like genuinely nice people, but in one scene where Laura and Todd discuss being $300 short on rent, the cameras zoom in onto their wedding rings, apparently to show their “strong marital bond,” but it’s hard to feel sorry for them when she’s wearing a two-carat solitaire.

The Rating:     The show has a somewhat satisfying Real Housewives-voyeurism-meets-Extreme-Makeover-feel-goodness to it that works for the first episode. But an entire season on this family? Unless there’s going to be some smack-talkin’ or hair-pulling, it could be a yawn. 

Saturdays at 9 pm ET/PT on WE TV

You’re Laid Off and Now ‘You’re Fired’
“Two years ago it began,” yells Donald Trump from the back seat of his black town car. “An economic crisis that swept the world, and almost brought our country into another Great Depression …” [dramatic pause.] “You may think the worst is over, but talented, smart people are still unemployed and looking for work. I hate what I’m seeing and I’m going to do something about it.” Oh good, and we get to watch.

Trump’s once-hit show, The Apprentice, decided to find 16 laid-off contestants this season. An ex-financial advisor who’s living off his retirement savings; a tech engineer who’s driving a tow truck to get by; a Duke grad and lawyer who’s been out of work for over a year and a half; and a recent Stanford grad who can’t find her first job.

They share their laid-off stories in the first episode and Trump tells them that life is tough, but it’s time to work hard and win. The first challenge is designing a modern workspace and the prize is meeting with a powerful CEO: Donald Trump himself! As in, the guy they meet with every day on the show. Trump must also be feeling the pinch, because the producers admit to cutting back on the show’s website. “Times have changed since The Apprentice first premiered in 2004,” they write. “Instead of the high-flying rewards enjoyed by winning teams in previous seasons, Trump has redirected the focus to more meaningful rewards … winning Project Managers will be rewarded with one-on-one meetings with some of America's best-known business leaders and CEOs.”

The Rating:     The catty throw-your-teammate-under-the-bus boardroom, team sabotaging, and alpha personalities keep the show mildly entertaining, but feel a little tired. And this season doesn’t have an evil-but-captivating Omarosa character. The Apprentice is going to have to do something else besides chase news trends to spice things up. Even Trump seems a little bored and his “you’re fired” doesn’t have the same intensity it once did.

Thursdays at 10 pm ET/PT on NBC