Earl Hickey, Pam Beesly, Liz Lemon, and Jack Donaghy have next to nothing in common. They are, respectively, a small-time crook obsessed with heavy metal and karma, a receptionist with a flair for practical jokes, a TV writer unable to resist carbs, and a General Electric executive taken with the power of the market. But as the central characters in the three comedies that form the core of NBC's Thursday-night lineup, they have one thing in common: Their jobs are driving them crazy.
Since 1981, NBC has built a ratings juggernaut by wooing viewers on Thursday nights with the moral dilemmas of the cops on Hill Street Blues, the romantic misadventures of Fraiser Crane on Cheers and Fraiser, and the evolving hairstyles of Rachel Green on Friends. Especially in the 1990s, those so-called "must-see TV" shows were fantasies about hip (or in the case of Seinfeld, winningly eccentric) neighbors in New York or affluent life in Seattle. The characters' jobs hummed away steadily and reliably but solidly in the background: This was the middle of an economic boom, after all, and the characters could afford to focus on other things. The inevitable end of those super-shows forced the network to relinquish its "must see TV" crown in the ratings. But since 2006, NBC has re-emerged with a lineup of smaller -- but in some ways smarter -- shows: My Name Is Earl, The Office, both of which piloted in 2005, and 30 Rock, which started running in 2006 and begins its third season on Oct. 30.
These shows present a hilarious, depressing, and timely portrait of job dissatisfaction up and down the economic ladder. On each show, these main characters are trying to move up in the world: Earl seeks a return to respectability and steady work, Pam hopes to move into the creative class, Liz searches for financial security, and Jack aspires to the chairmanship of GE but dreams on occasion of escaping back to the working class. The shows all hint that if these upward moves are successful, the characters will be happier, and all of them take as a central assumption that the key to happiness is what you do from 9 to 5. But taken together, no matter where you work, "My Name Is Earl," "The Office," and "30 Rock" show you the alternatives to your job. And none of them are pretty.
Americans' love-hate relationship with their job isn't exactly a new subject for film or television. In Buster Keaton's classic 1927 silent movie, The General, the main character's job as a railroad engineer prevents him from enlisting in the Confederate Army, costing him his honor and his girl. More recently, 1990s comedies like Reality Bites (1994) and Office Space (1999) examine blue-collar, television, and software jobs, and find them not just wanting but soul-sucking.
Most of the time, though, escape is possible. You can redeem yourself by stealing a locomotive and sabotaging a Union Army advance if you're Johnny Gray (Keaton). You can break up with the guy who misrepresents your documentary and find true love and artistic integrity if you're Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder, Reality Bites). And if worse comes to worse, you can skip out, trash your fax machine, execute an embezzlement scheme, and finally, burn your office to the ground like the guys in Office Space. Even if work sucks, you're still the captain of your soul.
Not so for Earl Hickey (Jason Lee), the titular anti-hero of My Name Is Earl. An all-around bad citizen, Earl decides to mend his ways after he hits it big with a lottery scratch ticket and immediately loses the ticket in a car accident. Concluding that karma has it in for him, Earl makes a list of his misdeeds and sets out to correct them.
While he does get his scratch ticket back, Earl's quest for redemption meets with setbacks both small -- failing as a salesman -- and large -- Earl winds up in prison, after which it's difficult for him to readjust to civilian life.
My Name Is Earl is kind of funny, if white trash and heavy metal humor are your thing. But just as often, it's awkward. There's not a lot that's comfortable or entertaining about watching a grown man bomb a G.E.D. exam or make a titanic effort to close an appliance sale only to have a conniving salesman with a college degree steal it away from him. Earl's stint in jail might not exactly be Oz, but his post-prison problems are deadly serious both literally and figuratively (they land him in a coma), and they're a nod to 60 percent of ex-offenders who remain unemployed a year after their release from prison, and the 15 percent to 27 percent who end up in homeless shelters.
And while Earl's karma may weigh on him more heavily than our pasts do on us, the show has a point: It's hard to move up the class ladder and to escape the past of our work lives. The current season, which began on Sept. 25, returns Earl to his usual routine of reparations, but there are signs that he's moved up in the world, or at least is no longer crooked enough to be covered by the criminal code of ethics. "Nowadays, you fall more in the civilian/victim column of the ledger," declares a fellow criminal who steals Earl's car. It's in the show's interests to keep Earl from making it back respectability -- without his struggle, there are no episodes -- but he's not alone. With employment down in every sector of the economy except education and health services and government work, this is a bad time to try to move into a new industry, much less to move up in the world with a slim work and educational history.
Under these circumstances, it's not hard to understand why Earl might want to escape his past. But if the employees of the Scranton, Pennsylvania, branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company are any example, criminality might kill you fast, but boredom will take its time.
The Office, which debuted in the U.S. in 2005 and is modeled on a highly successful and acerbic British original, is the Bermuda Triangle of workplaces. It is a slightly enlarged but less-well lit version of the hotel rooms that make up hell in Sartre's No Exit. Work is sometimes, but mostly not, done, office romances form and break up, people crack their pelvises, get pregnant, and get busted for cocaine addiction and fraud, and yet no one ever leaves. Well, that's not entirely true, but the HR representative who quits to start life over again in Costa Rica breaks his neck on a malfunctioning zip line just days after arriving, so he doesn't get far.
The humiliations at Dunder Mifflin, mostly inflicted by clueless assistant manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell) are myriad, and they take their toll.
"Yes, I am super-cool," accountant Oscar Martinez (Oscar Nuñez) declares, resigned, when a co-worker tells him she has underestimated him by assuming he was heterosexual. "I am an accountant at a failing paper supply company. In Scranton. Much like Sir Ian McKellan."
Such is the pull of The Office's gravity that it was both surprising and immensely gratifying at the end of season four when put-upon receptionist Pam Beesley, who has taken tentative steps toward improving her talent as an illustrator throughout the series, achieved escape velocity and headed off to New York to enroll in graphic design classes at the Pratt Institute.
Whether Pam actually claws her way into the creative class remains an open question, and one of the subjects of season five, which began on Sept. 25. Higher education and life in New York aren't cheap, and Pam, like grads with heavy debt who tell themselves they're just going into consulting/corporate law/investment banking until that debt is paid off, is back in the Dunder Mifflin family, working at headquarters when she’s not in classes to pay for her studies -- and still on call to Michael Scott. Sure, it's risky. Pam's giving up a steady job, albeit one that boasted boredom and border-line sexual harassment as its main benefits, to try her luck in the most expensive and competitive open market in the world. It's a decision lots of young Americans, accustomed to moving from job to job in search of satisfaction, may find increasingly difficult as the economy sours. But if she does find work in the arts, Pam will have arrived in the same universe, if not on the same planet, as 30 Rock 's Elizabeth Lemon (Tina Fey).
Liz is the harried creator and head writer of an NBC comedy show and proof that even if you can escape the buffoonery of a Michael Scott, someone like Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) will still be calling the shots. Liz's world is disrupted when Jack, who sees the show-within-a-show's success as simply one more step toward his eventual goal of running General Electric, saddles her with a wildly erratic movie star, Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and demands she start writing sketches about GE products and making the show more palatable to advertisers.
"This is my show, and once a week I rent it out to the good people of the erectile dysfunction companies," he informs her.
In some respects, Liz's writers' room looks a lot like the Scranton branch. Her employees are lazy and disrespectful, though at least they are creative about it, whether faking illiteracy to get out of rehearsal ("I can't read! I sign my name with an X! I once tried to make mashed potatoes with laundry detergent! I think I voted for Nader! NADER!") or "[calling] in sick with March Madness."
But Liz isn't even rewarded for her troubles with financial security. She is, viewers learn in the second season, one of the 40 percent of Americans who don't have a 401(k), and she has some of the $500 billion in student-loan debt Americans have accumulated. "It is outstanding!" she chirps nervously, when asked about her debt in a condo board interview.
"I have to do that thing that rich people do where they turn money into more money," Liz declares in a panic, after an encounter with her role model, 1970s comedy writer Rosemary Howard (Carrie Fisher), now living in a New York slum nicknamed Little Chechnya. It is that realization of her own insecurity, topped with a healthy dollop of resignation that drives Liz into an uneasy alliance and friendship with Jack, even temporarily accepting his offer to make her his successor.
But as Jack makes his way up the corporate ladder, it becomes clear that he envies Liz and the actors. "I'm not a creative type like you, with your work sneakers and left-handedness," he laments after an NBC special he designs goes disastrously wrong. The corporate struggle claims Jack's competitors ("The head of the stress ball division hanged himself!"), and he takes to meeting his girlfriend, a Democratic congresswoman (Edie Falco) in an off-track betting parlor in Pennsylvania coal country to fantasize about running a farm stand. When they break up, he commiserates over a beer with a preteen miner. And when his rival cheats him out of the GE chairmanship, Jack heads off for the grimmest workplace of them all: the Department of Homeland Security.
In the new season, Jack returns to GE to work his way back up from the mail room to the executive suite, and Liz's struggles with her job expand as she tries to prove she can balance work and parenting so she'll be approved as an adoptive parent. Despite all their jobs have put them through -- whether Liz is convincing Tracy to share the royalties from his porn video game, or Jack is slow-dancing with the CEO's unicorn-obsessed daughter to win a promotion -- they never give up on the belief that all roads to happiness run through 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Individually, My Name Is Earl, The Office, and 30 Rock are entertaining, and sometimes transcendently funny. Taken together, they're often uproarious, even though their overall prognosis for future happiness at work is grim. But at a time when jobs at every level of the economy are at risk, and when leaving a secure job in search of greater fulfillment has the potential to be a fool's errand, it's good to know that whether crook or C.E.O., receptionist or writer, on Thursday nights on NBC, we all thank God it's Friday.