The sitcom is among TV’s oldest and most venerable forms — and the ways in which they have attempted to reflect our “working class” economic realities are as interesting as the ways they’ve tried to obscure them.
These are broad generalisations, but the 1960s saw waves of escapist shows (think Bewitched) that veered into outright fantasy as a means of avoiding any talk of what was going on in the broader world; the 1970s ushered in an era of more approximately realist shows that were still sitcoms, but that dealt with real issues (Bea Arthur’s Maude, for example, had an abortion in 1972).
Then the pendulum swung again, and the ‘80s gave us Diff’rent Strokes and Alf, and other shows that ignored or papered over economic realities (this is all very different in Britain, where working-class sitcoms have been more consistently the norm).
Here are the shows that track what “working class” has looked like and meant to us from the 1950s through today.
The Honeymooners (1955–1956)
Appearing somewhere in the middle of the runs of I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best, the mid-1950s were something of a golden age for television in that there was a burgeoning level of sophistication in writing and production, but the rules and tropes hadn’t yet entirely crystallised — Jackie Gleason here plays Ralph Kramden, a New York City bus driver frequently trying to supplement his meagre income via get-rich-quick schemes — their modest apartment signifying the family’s modest means (the same Bensonhurst apartment today would probably place its owner or renter solidly in the middle class, but I digress).
There’s a bit of post-war tension in the air on the show, with Ralph and Alice each in traditional roles, but with a housewife who isn’t cowed in the least by Ralph’s bluster. The era’s other big working class sitcom, The Life of Riley, about a riveter and his family, is, though wildly popular in its day, tough to find.
Julia brought with it a number of innovations, not the least of which was in its portrayal of a Black woman who wasn’t a maid — very much a novelty in the late 1960s. Diahann Carroll’s Julia Baker was also a single widow raising a young child and taking on a traditional pink-collar role as a nurse, in this case in the doctor’s office of an aerospace manufacturer.
Though the series didn’t entirely shy away from discussions of race and racism, the suburban setting and friendly white neighbours didn’t entirely speak to the realities of life for many Black Americans at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement. Still, there were sitcom-appropriate money struggles for Julia, with the sense that things were secure, but without room for extras.
All in the Family (1971–1979)
The long reign of Norman Lear as TV’s most challenging and yet still wildly successful producers began here, with the story of the ignorant, narrow-minded, “loveable bigot” Archie Bunker, played with such finesse by Carroll O’Connor that he still manages to garner empathy — and even probably a bit of hero worship among viewers who no doubt missed the point.
Jean Stapleton’s deferential but observant Edith was a housewife in a deliberately traditional mould, while Archie worked as a dock foreman, picking up shifts as a cabbie by night for a bit extra. It being the ‘70s, those two jobs were more or less sufficient to support a family that included a daughter and son-in-law, but the family was also not living in anything like luxury.
Sanford and Son (1972–1977)
Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) straddles two worlds in his occupation as a junk dealer — though the occupation screams “working class,” Fred’s also the owner of the business, which definitely counts for something. Still, most episodes of the show (which was one of the highest rated shows on television for most of its six-season run) revolve around some get-rich-quick scheme of Fred’s, or the efforts of his cheapskate son (Demond Wilson) to save a few pennies, the Watts-neighbourhood junk business providing little more than the basics.
Good Times (1974–1979)
Though quickly hijacked by the popularity of Jimmie Walker and his “dy-no-mite!” catchphrase, Good Times, as conceived, was meant to be a social-commentary sitcom in the vein of All in the Family and Maude, the two earlier Norman Lear shows from which it spun off. Some of that survives in the series, which starred Esther Rolle as housewife (and former maid) Florida Evans, and John Amos as James Evans, who generally holds down at least two jobs, almost all of them short-term and involving some form of manual labour, keeping the family just one step above desperate poverty in the Chicago projects.
More of a workplace comedy than a traditional family sitcom, Alice (based on the movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), revolves around the title character (Linda Lavin), who takes a job at Mel’s diner in Phoenix to support her son following the death of her husband.
Though they lasted well into the 1980s, this show, along with the similarly popular One Day at a Time, were very much products of the mid-’70s, when sitcoms were willing to make slightly bolder choices: placing single mothers in the lead, for instance. Alice is both of its form and of its time: Though money is tight, there’s never the sense that her small family is on the verge of ruin. It’s a bit of a contrivance that a diner salary could support two people, even back then, but it’s not the wild fantasy that it might be today.
Married…with Children (1987–1997)
“Shoe salesman” is a job that doesn’t necessarily fall under the blue-collar category, but it’s impossible to see the beleaguered and low-paid Al Bundy as anything other than working class, supporting his less-than-appreciative family (including the flawless Katey Sagal) on a minimum-wage (he says) job at the mall.
Married…with Children was never intended as a realistic depiction of family or working life, but instead meant to parody the more traditional sitcom of the past before taking on a life of its own and running for a very impressive 11 seasons. That being said, I’m not sure that it’s any less realistic than the many shows about relentlessly happy dads with perfectly satisfying jobs that preceded it.
The Simpsons (1989–)
Perhaps in response to a decade of trying to will a solid middle class into existence by pretending that money given to the wealthiest would somehow trickle its way down, there was a brief golden age for working class sitcoms — even the cartoons portraying families with financial struggles.
What plays most as fantasy to modern viewers of the show is that house: Homer Simpson provides the family’s sole income despite having no higher education (and technically, we later learn, not even having finished high school) and can still afford a roomy suburban tract house in a decent neighbourhood. What seemed slightly unlikely circa 1990 plays like a wild fantasy in 2022, even given the house’s many flaws.
Though sadly short-lived, Roc represented a return to a ‘70s style of sitcoms that were funny without being afraid to turn to drama. Beginning life as a slightly more traditional sitcom involving Roc, a Baltimore garbage collector; his wife Eleanor, a registered nurse, and their extended family.
It was quickly clear that the theatrically trained main cast (Charles S. Dutton, Ella Joyce, and Rocky Carroll) were capable of more than standard sitcom shenanigans, and the show went deeper into the problems faced by a low-income Black family in Baltimore. Work for both Roc and Eleanor was mostly steady, but there wasn’t much extra money, and, while there was a sense of community, the neighbourhood definitely had problems.
Malcolm in the Middle (2000–2006)
Malcolm in the Middle, besides introducing the world to the man who would come to portray America’s most beloved meth kingpin, Bryan Cranston, also represented onscreen the economic reality that had firmly taken hold in the real world — the fact that while office jobs might be more comfortable than manual labour, they don’t necessarily provide any more economic security.
Office work, as with Hal’s job here, used to be seen as a step up…but now doesn’t provide any more income or stability than the type of manual labour jobs that used to signify “working class.” Here, Hal’s office job and Lois’ job at a drugstore still leave the family struggling to pay the bills and stay in their cramped house.
The Middle (2009–2018)
Though never particularly buzzy, The Middle ran for an impressive nine seasons without relying on any particular storytelling gimmick or high concept: just the story of the Heck family, a family living in the fictional Orson, Indiana. Frankie (Patricia Heaton) begins the show as a salesperson at a used-car dealership before becoming a dental assistant, while husband Mike manages a quarry. The show blends a bit of Malcolm in the Middle-style portrait of a white family (barely) balancing work and kids, with a bit more straightforward style.
Raising Hope (2010 — 2014)
Raising Hope won critical praise during its relatively brief four seasons by walking a tightrope: The show is consistently over the top in style, as well as in substance; but still manages to paint a picture of an American working class that can no longer reliably seen as the middle of anything.
The show’s title child is the product of a one-night stand involving Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff) and a serial killer; Jimmy’e extended family come together (sort of) to help him raise the baby, but the closest to success that any of them have come is with grandfather Burt’s lawn service.
The dementia of Cloris Leachman’s Maw-Maw is frequently played for laughs, but it’s also clear that elder care is just one more factor keeping the family on the precipice of disaster from one minute to the next. It’s all very surreal, but very relatable.
Workplace comedies tend to revolve around white-collar office environments (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, etc.). Superstore, instead, revolves around the staff of Cloud 9, a big box retailer that sits somewhere between Wal-Mart and Target in terms of reputation. The show’s deep bench and diverse cast are largely, and appropriately, focused on the jokes, but much of that comedy revolves around the relatable situation of working a job that demands both commitment and a happy, smiley attitude in the face of both entitled customers and obnoxious bosses.
About mid-way through the series, America Ferrera’s Amy sets out to climb that corporate hierarchy to become store manager, an astute arc which sees her face racism, sexism, and nepotism before being expected to place herself above her old friends, both in terms of power and salary. She’s got it good in the world of Superstore (and in real-life): Unionisation efforts are consistently thwarted, and greeter Myrtle is considered so expendable that she’s replaced by a hologram. There’s no bottom in retail.
As with many politicians, when sitcoms deal with the “working class,” they mean “white working class,” and have been slow to catch up with modern economic realities. I’m not sure what “working class” even refers to anymore, when even highly skilled labour and many white collar jobs carry with them the same level of economic insecurity that we used to associate with manual labour.
Donald Glover’s Atlanta reflects all of those new realities in the character of Earn Marks, a Princeton dropout who becomes a talent manager for his rapper cousin, but is usually broke and often experiences homelessness. The show (which does an awful lot of impressive things) makes clear that the economy of 2022 is very different than it was in decades past, particularly for millennials and especially for Black Americans.
One Day at a Time (2017–2020)
Reinventing Norman Lear’s popular, and also very working class, sitcom from the ‘70s and early ‘80s, this more recent One Day at a Time depicts a Cuban-American, single-parent family lead by Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), a veteran and nurse coping with PTSD in the wake of both military service and an abusive spouse.
The family struggles with that single income, as Penelope also goes back to school to become a nurse practitioner — giving up more time and money with the hope of a return later on. A storyline in the third season involves the Alvarez’s building potentially going condo, threatening the family’s ability to stay in an affordable apartment.
The Upshaws (2021–)
There’s a throwback quality to The Upshaws in the ways that its rhythms mirror those of traditional family sitcoms. What’s different here is, first, the level of talent on both sides of the camera, and, second, the tangled family situation that doesn’t look like much else on television. Creators Regina Y. Hicks and Wanda Sykes are TV veterans of the first order, while Kim Fields (Regina Upshaw) and Mike Epps (Bernie Upshaw) lead an impressive cast (that includes Sykes).
That family includes not just Regina and Mike’s kids, but Mike’s daughter with another woman, conceived after he was married to Regina. Families are always more complicated than TV sitcoms might suggest, and it’s nice to see a bit of that complexity.
As for the family’s finances, Bernie runs a struggling garage, while Regina is a hospital administrator with decades of experience but who can’t get a promotion for lack of an MBA. Things aren’t dire (the house is pretty nice, actually), but it’s early days; the show’s been renewed for a second season, and it remains to be seen whether the family’s circumstances will change one way or the other.