Finally, TV Characters Are Financially Relatable

Photos: Courtesy Chris Haston/NBC, JSquared/The CW, Brian Bowen Smith/FOX, Comedy Central.
How many articles have you read that explain how unrealistic Carrie Bradshaw's apartment — and her Manolo collection — really were? TV shows have long been regarded as financial fantasies — even characters with high-paying jobs are often living beyond their means. But thanks to a new crop of TV shows, that might actually be changing.

For example, the idea of two primetime shows starring big-box store employees — FX's Baskets and NBC's Superstore — would have seemed ridiculous just a few years ago, but both shows have been renewed for second seasons. Low-paying jobs (and decidedly ordinary lives) aren't punchlines for the show's characters; they're facts, like they are for so many of the Americans watching them.

Baskets' main characters, Chip (Zach Galifianakis) and Martha (Martha Kelly) work as a rodeo clown and a Costco insurance rep, respectively. Though much of the show's comedic aspects are based on the joke that Chip is a failed professional clown, the fact that he and Martha aren't high earners isn't funny in itself. They aren't living lavishly in huge apartments; they're taking things one day at a time.

The same is true of Superstore's Amy (America Ferrera) and Jonah (Ben Feldman), employees at the Walmart-like Cloud 9. The sitcom's sharpest jokes are at the expense of Jonah, a business school dropout forced to confront his privilege at his new job. But being a big-box employee isn't the butt of the joke; it's Jonah's ridiculous statements and attitudes that drive the humor. Superstore's first season takes place almost exclusively within the store, so we don't see Jonah and Amy's apartments, but it's hard to imagine them having the sprawling living spaces that so many other TV characters live in.

Amid a sea of shows about cops and lawyers, characters like these seem even more out of place. But the surge in financially relatable characters isn't just because of their jobs, either. On the current season of New Girl, Cece (Hannah Simone) and Schmidt (Max Greenfield) are facing the reality of paying for their own wedding, settling for an inexpensive venue because they can't afford the reception they originally wanted. Cece is aging out of the modeling contracts she's used to get and is working as a bartender; Schmidt no longer works at the advertising agency where he was employed for years. The relatability isn't only in the fact that they're starting new careers; many viewers can relate to the struggle of paying for a wedding, and the plot has been a welcome storyline this season.

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Crazy Ex Girlfriend's Greg (Santino Fontana) is in a similar situation. Obviously, he's not the first bartender on TV. But the show's delicate portrayal of Greg's internal conflict between going to business school and paying his father's medical bills is refreshingly honest. While the titular ex-girlfriend, Rebecca (Rachel Bloom), is learning monetary lessons of her own for the first time — and for comedic effect — Greg's backstory is just as important, and it's a lot more realistic. Likewise, Jane the Virgin's Jane (Gina Rodriguez) faces a similar dilemma when her father, who's been paying for her graduate school classes, finds himself in financial trouble, and she returns to waitressing to pay for her education.

When Broad City first debuted its Comedy Central pilot, it was lauded for being a sort of opposite to shows like Girls and Sex and the City. Girls has been widely criticized for depicting a group of privileged white women (and men) who live in New York City without worrying too much about their financial situations. Three of the four girls have all had various non-jobs throughout Girls' history without the fear of not being able to pay their rent. Conversely, in Broad City's first episode, Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) take a day job cleaning someone's apartment to make money for concert tickets, only to find out it's a scam, and they don't make it to the concert in the end.

But for all of Broad City's greatness, Abbi and Ilana's lack of money also serves as a different sort of punchline. In the end, it’s difficult for viewers to relate to the pair too much, because the situations they find themselves in are so ridiculous. (Someone who's actually in a dire financial situation probably wouldn't be as flippant about their job as Ilana). In the same way, CBS' 2 Broke Girls also distances itself from this new set of shows — the idea of two millennials living illegally in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, also seems too absurd to believe.

In some ways, Broad City may have paved the way for this new crop of shows, and it's great to see financial standing depicted in so many different forms. But for characters like Chip, Martha, Amy, Jonah, Greg, and Cece, their financial status isn't the butt of a joke — it's just real life. It might not be as fun as a closet filled with Manolos or a day smuggling bags of lotion home from a fancy gym, but that's probably not a bad thing.

An earlier version of this article stated that the main characters of 2 Broke Girls live rent-free. While the girls are living in their apartment illegally, they do pay an unofficial rent to someone at their building, as of the fifth season.

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