Would a good TV drama about the work of ordinary people be possible?

I was reading George Orwell’s famous essay on Charles Dickens (well worth a read, BTW, if you have even the slightest interest in either writer) and came across this passage:

Well, 19th Century Britain is one thing and 21st Century America quite another. We’re very interested in work as a subject. We have had many popular evening TV dramas about the work of doctors, laywers, police officers, firefighters, soldiers, high-level business executives, public school teachers, even politicians and bureaucrats (The West Wing.) In all these, the work drives the story and the characters’ personal lives are mostly background noise. But these are all about certain kinds of professionals and semi-professionals, whose work by its nature is interesting even to outside observers. Would it be possible to do such a drama about the lives of ordinary working-class people – and make the show about their work rather than their off-hours lives? Would even be possible to make a show about the work of professionals whose work is mostly too abstruse to entertain the layman, such as engineers and scientists and accountants and middle-management MBAs?

It might be a mistake even to try. Melville included detailed descriptions of the mechanics of the whaling industry in Moby Dick, and nearly everybody regards that as a serious failure of literary judgment; some editions omit those chapters entirely. It may be that that kind of thing really works only in historical fiction, where education about the daily life of the period is part of the enjoyment; and hard science fiction, where imagining the details of new technology is one of the challenges the author is expected to meet; and military fiction, whose readers just can’t seem to get enough of descriptions of weapons, technology, jargon and tactics.

But I’d like to know what you think.

Just want to point out that I am a lawyer, and shows about my profession bear little relation to what I do.
I’ve heard the same from cops, teachers, doctors, and just about every other profession portrayed in popular culture.
If the have to tart up the “exciting” professions, where does that leave the other wage slaves?
The other alternative is to have specific characters be flamboyant, rich, brilliant, or spectacular in ways few of us mere mortals can match.
I’m afraid the type of “excitment” most of us experience in work would translate poorly to the screen.

I don’t recall any, but there have been a great many comedies about the work lives of ordinary people…

Maybe not impossible, but it would be damn hard to make it interesting.

Most people’s jobs are pretty boring, even to them. If you stay true to what really happens, there isn’t much in the way of drama.

I’d be interested in any books that dealt with ordinary people though. I’m sick of novels about novelists.

…or writers who can’t survive purley as writers but write novels about literature professors going through divorces.

OTOH, Harold Robbins (?) wrote bestsellers chock full of how to run a hotel or an airport.

Would you accept dramas about, say, scientists, that are also part of another genre? For example, Quincy and Crossing Jordan are about medical examiners (and CJ when I was watching it included some level of material about the various characters’ personal lives) but they’re also crime dramas/police procedurals. A show like Las Vegas (which i’ve never wtahced) is about the operations of a hotel/casino, so I assume that at least some of the characters have jobs like security guard and cocktail waitress, but the setting is very glam so that might queer it as an example.

Alternatively there’ve been many family dramas (The Waltons, Little House, Family, etc.) where the lead charcters don’t have terribly interesting jobs but their jobs aren’t the main focus.

The reason TV focuses on doctors, lawyers and police is because lives hang in the balance and a wrong decision can be fatal. School dramas almost invariably focus on the potential for someone’s future to be saved or destroyed.

Try to make a drama about, for example, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer rather than a defense attorney, and people would fall asleep in front of the TV. Hell, you’d fall asleep just writing the script.

I have often heard that police officers thought the only TV show that ever actually got police work right was Barney Miller – and it was a comedy that never left the precinct room.

I think it might possibly work only in the case of jobs that primarily involve dealing with people. I could possibly envision a drama about social workers or waiters or day care workers or store cashiers—perhaps something along the lines of a more serious Clerks or Night Court or… well, all the examples I can think of are themselves comedies. Seinfeld showed that you can make a comedy “about nothing,” but can you do it with a drama?

People whose jobs don’t involve working with people—I can’t see how that would work. I would imagine it would be deadly dull, to all but a tiny percentage of viewers, to watch someone work on car engines or plumbing or tax audits all day, and how would you make a story out of it?

Lots of sitcoms deal with the work of ordinary people: Alice, Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, Barney Miller**, Cheers, The King of Queens, Are You Being Served, Susie: Privte Secretary,* etc. The best of these are a heartbeat away from dispensing with a laugh track. Boston Public focused on a not-very-sexy profession (and then sexed it up to a surprising degree), but not many people consider teaching in an urban school to be much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Quincy made pathology interesting years before CSI fetishized it, but at heart, was still a cop show.

*Mary was an associate producer, not an anchor or journalist per se. The only glamourous aspects of her job put her in jail one episode and involved an extremely bad Bad Hair Day in another.

**A cop show, but not a particularly romantic one.

If you’d like to go back about 150 years, a good portion of In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent takes place on a Vermont farm. After reading it, I was pretty sure I could take care of chickens, plant a kitchen garden, handle livestock, and build roads. Another portion of the book happens in a resort, where I learned about ordering supplies and keeping customers happy. :slight_smile:

Mundane stuff, done by ordinary people, who turned out to be not so ordinary.

I thought the recent Soderbergh movie Bubble did a good job depicting factory work, including running a plastic injection molding machine. I was all “Hey, I’ve seen that done!”

The early years of Roseanne and Jackie (and George Clooney) in the plastics factory were never believable. Sitting around trimming plastic forks, one at a time, and having time to chat and flirt, and never working up a sweat. Not likely. Hell, the work wasn’t even believable when Roseanne had the loose meat sandwich place.

I think a show set in a factory could work. Base it on something like the book Rivethead, with part of it happening on the shop floor and part of it with management. Plenty of opportunities for comedy and drama, and enough people work in factories who’d watch just to nitpick. “Ha! Did you see what those idiots did with that air gun?”

We’ve joked about this sort of thing at work a lot. The major drama in the lab lately has been trying to figure out who filled the benchtop cleaning bottles with 96% ethanol instead of 70%. Oooooh!!!

I guess we could do a sweeping season-long story arc about troubleshooting some old stock primers for an assay we don’t do very often… Is it the freezer? Is it a bad batch of TE buffer? Or was the spectrophotometer out of whack? Dun dun duuuuun!

People don’t watch tv to see their own lives. They watch to see their own lives exaggerated.

Not really “never”…I remember several scenes in early seasons taking place at Barbara Barrie’s apartment.

I think Six Feet Under could qualify.

I think it is funny that many people’s lives are wound tightly into their work, but there are very few shows that center on work in a realistic way. Barney Miller is a good exception, because it’s main focus was the side chatter that goes along with any job. I actually wish there weren’t any shows about teaching. Teachers do affect their students lives profoundly, but not in any way depicted on TV. My cousin’s take on Geri Ryan: “Wow. If we had teachers like her, I’dve stayed in school.”

That’s what I mean. Nobody, it seems, wants to watch a farmer farming.

If Taxi had been realistic, the characters would have spent nearly all their time out driving, not hanging around the dispatch office.

James Bond, in the movies and novels, is constantly on the job (so to speak) and I always find those stories to be quite exciting.

There are plenty of dramas showing ordinary people (or, at least, ordinary middle to upper class people) going about their daily lives. Admittedly, very little of the action takes place in the workplace – usually they deal with domestic issues – but they do have some intricate story lines about families and relationship.

They are all shown in the daytime.

In Taxi’s defense, though, they only spent 22 minutes hanging out. Most shows had a little bit taking place in the cab, so actually 18-20 minutes, which sometimes covers multiple days. That’s not unrealistic.

Any kind of drama compresses time irregularly to fit the narrative. I wouldn’t want to see a family drama where 1/4 of the show is people sleeping.